I welcome the Minister and his officials, Catherine Hazlett, Heber McMahon, Brendan Walker and John McDermot. A couple of the faces are familiar. I do not know how long Committee Stage will take. I suggest we proceed until 4.15 p.m. and resume at 5 p.m. for approximately two hours when we can review matters. Are we likely to conclude today?
Family Support Agency Bill, 2001: Committee Stage.
We cannot say.
The Deputy means, Minister, that if you accept some of the amendments from the Opposition members they will co-operate.
It depends on the co-operation of the Minister.
Is it agreed that we proceed until 4.15 p.m. and resume at 5 p.m. until 7 p.m.? Agreed.
I move amendmentNo. 1:
In page 3, subsection (1), line 31, to delete "educational" and substitute "education".
This is a technical amendment. It arises because of a slight error on our part.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 4, subsection (1), to delete lines 3 and 4.
Again, this is a technical amendment. We are required to delete "superannuation scheme". The correct term is "superannuation benefits". This term is defined in the section.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 4, subsection (1), line 27, to delete "day" and substitute "day,".
This is a technical amendment.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 5, subsection (1), between lines 10 and 11, to insert the following:
"(e) to advocate family friendly work practices and, in particular, to liaise with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment in that regard,”.
I welcome the Minister, Ms Hazlett and the other officials on what is an important day for the Irish family. On Second Stage, I commended the Minister and his officials for the creation of the agency and the broad principle involved. I also commended the Minister for rightly emphasising the importance of the family, even before he took up office. Much of our lives revolve around our personal relationships with our families. It is right, therefore, to put the family centre stage and this is reflected in the name of the Department. On behalf of the Labour Party, I welcome the stage we have reached today.
Over the past six weeks, family and community resource centres have criticised aspects of the legislation. We in the Labour Party have received approximately 70 submissions many of which make the point that the Minister did not address a number of issues in formulating the Bill. He failed to address these concerns on Second Stage and has not introduced amendments on Committee Stage to deal with them. I hope the amendment in my name and in the name of my Fine Gael colleague, Deputy Fitzgerald, will begin to address them.
The central criticism made in all the submissions we received and in meetings we have had with resource centre groups is that the Minister did not consult adequately before preparing the legislation. There is a feeling that the recommendations of the Commission on the Family on formulating the agency were not adhered to. On Second Stage, the Minister said he held fora all over the country, some of which I attended - I certainly attended one in Dublin. The groups which work on the ground feel the Minister did not listen sufficiently before drafting the Bill and that he is still not listening to their wishes. There is also a deep-seated feeling among all the resource centres and advocates we have met that, to some extent, the Minister has confused the family mediation function with the social inclusion function.
Last week I again met a group which felt the social inclusion role in its family resource centre, which is funded through the Department's community development programme and which has a number of striking successes, may not be fitted for the mediation role which it sees itself as now having to undertake. Family resource centres which developed out of the community wonder how this can be reconciled. They feel that if they specialise in professional mediation, the social inclusion side will be lost. This is the basis for a number of the amendments which have been tabled. I welcome the Bill in broad terms with those major caveats and one or two other smaller reservations.
The Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, is not sure if he is a Minister according to last week's Sunday Independent. He is complaining about many things that are happening in his own remit.
Tell him that. This is not the place to debate that matter.
I will tell him that.
He is ubiquitous - he turns up everywhere.
I commend the family unit for some of its past advocacy in relation to work friendly practices. It is critical that the family support agency takes a very proactive role from the outset in promoting work friendly practices. I refer to statutory entitlements, maternity, adoptive, force majeure, carers' and parental leave. At first glance, these issues concern the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, but it would be very useful if this agency had a responsibility to promote work practices which are good for families. On Second Stage, I said those in our profession tend to work seven days a week and 16 or 18 hour days, and things are generally bad in terms of our own families. Hopefully, the reform of the Dáil might result in normal working hours which would accommodate our family needs. In a broader sense, people should not be placed in hopeless situations in terms of long hours and working at night or part-time, which is very hostile to family life.
The amendment is simple. There have been examples, such as carers' leave and some other measures, where the Departments of Social, Community and Family Affairs and Enterprise, Trade and Employment worked together, and I think the subsection I am proposing could be inserted. It asks the family support agency to campaign actively for better work practices for men and women to enable them discharge their family responsibilities.
The Minister said that last year the mediation service helped 1,300 families, which is tremendous, and the service must be congratulated. If we adopted the amendment, we would include work in terms of prevention. It would enable parents to discharge their responsibilities by virtue of not being placed in work situations which make family life next to impossible.
I take the opportunity of welcoming the Bill. It is another stage in the development of support services for families and can potentially offer great aid to families in need due to their social and economic status and personal problems. All the agencies are being brought together under the Bill - the family mediation service, resource centres and those who provide counselling. These groups are now coming together under an umbrella group outside the Department, which is a step in the right direction. It remains to be seen how well the structure being proposed by the Minister will work. I hope it does work as these are very important services for families at a time when we know families are under strain for a variety of reasons.
I will not rehearse the concerns of people who are working in this area in relation to the Bill. There are major concerns and I hope the Minister responds to them in his response to the amendments. There are concerns about how the different strands of work - family resource centres, community development, social inclusion - will come together in terms of style and ethos with the family mediation service and the counselling service. There has been much lobbying on this by the family resource centres which say they are very concerned. I hope the Minister will provide some reassurance to those groups in his response to the amendments to ensure the groups feel they can continue their very worthwhile work. There are also concerns about representation on the board to ensure the different strands within the family support agency and the different points of view are reflected. These are the key areas of concern. We have also tabled a number of amendments in other areas.
I ask the Minister to take this opportunity to respond to an issue which has received much coverage recently, namely, the increasing number of child deaths. We heard a call on the radio on Sunday for a child death review strategy to be put in place. The family support agency exists to give support to families in crisis, particularly families which are separating and require mediation services. There is also an opportunity for the agency to carry out research. There have been many comments saying that at policy level we have not examined this area and this may well be the agency to examine the patterns and the supports which need to be put in place.
The amendment refers to the advocacy of family friendly work practices. One of the key pressures for many families is the challenge to combine work and family life. It seems that whether the Minister accepts the amendment - I hope he does - bringing forward proposals addressing this issue should be a key task of the family support agency. There is no doubt that trying to combine work and family life is a major pressure point for families. Improved child care makes a difference but it is not the full story. An agency such as the family support agency should have a remit to look at the pressures and make recommendations to Government on how to ease them. From the experience of the family resource agencies, there will be much information on the pressures on families in relation to combining work and family life. That information should be gathered as a basis for recommendations from the agency to the Minister, who still has a role in relation to support for families despite the establishment of this agency. I support this important amendment. It would be good to have it written into the terms of reference of the agency.
I thank Deputies for their kind words in relation to the family affairs unit and the fact that this Bill has been brought forward so quickly. We discussed earlier how quickly progress could be made and this depended on some of the amendments and whether I could accept them. Perhaps we can make a good start in relation to this particular amendment.
Deputy Broughan raised the issue of reconciling family life and work commitments. That is particularly relevant in the context of our profession as public representatives and I have always been conscious of it from a personal point of view. The amendment proposes that the agency should advocate family friendly work practices and Deputy Broughan has identified correctly the relevant areas of responsibility, including that of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment in the first instance. My Department also has some responsibility in that regard. A national framework committee has been established in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, under the PPF, to focus on supporting and facilitating family friendly policies through the development of a package of practical measures that can be applied at the level of enterprise. This committee comprises the social partners, the Equality Authority and a number of Government Departments, including my own.
Under my Department's family research programme, I authorised research in this area. A report entitled Balancing Work and Family Life was completed by the Institute of Public Administration and this informed the work being undertaken by the national framework committee. The suggestion in the amendment is a valuable one but, as I mentioned earlier, this area is primarily under the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. However, the family support agency should have a role in promoting information on balancing work and family life directly to families. If the Deputy will withdraw his amendment, I will undertake to explore the matter further with a view to bringing forward a more appropriate provision in the context of the agency's function at Report Stage, mainly in the area of providing and promoting information on the issue and working in tandem with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and, to a certain extent, the social partners.
Deputy Fitzgerald raised an issue concerning families in crisis. I will comment on that after Deputy Broughan has spoken on his amendment.
I welcome the positive attitude the Minister has taken in relation to this area. As a former Labour Party spokesperson on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, I attended meetings of the Oireachtas committee under Deputy Callely's chairmanship. The impact of work practices on workers' families was often the last item for consideration among the issues for discussion. I acknowledge that the Government has brought forward a number of Bills in the last four and a half years to improve working conditions in some respects. In relation to Sunday working and various other matters, I urged the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, and the Minister of State at the Department, Deputy Tom Kitt, to bring forward those issues, bearing in mind that issues affecting the family life of workers have tended to be towards the end of the list of matters for consideration. Currently, the interest of our colleagues in that other area is in relation to the incredible job losses now occurring and the resulting additional stresses in that regard.
I agree broadly with the Minister's comments and I welcome the publication Family Friendly News, which is issued through the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The family support agency should also have a responsibility in that area, perhaps to promote it jointly with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. On that basis, I will withdraw the amendment and I thank the Minister for his comments.
I welcome the Minister's response and I hope it augurs well for the rest of the amendments we have tabled. Perhaps the Minister would look at the very far reaching judgment in England yesterday in relation shift work and working parents. The court decided that, where parents are trying to combine work and family life, employers cannot put pressure on them to do shift work. That is a very far reaching decision and it probably will be challenged. I welcome the idea of bringing within the terms of reference this whole area of combining work and family life. I believe we will see some dramatic changes in that area and while the judgment in England may seem very far reaching, particularly to employers, it may well be indicative of the future in this regard. The family support agency should take an active interest in that area and, at the very least, getting information to people will be a great help.
At the beginning of the Minister's comments, I thought he was about to reject this amendment and I felt we were wasting our time if the words "to advocate family friendly work practices" could not be accepted. I am delighted the Minister has agreed that any Bill can readily include a provision to advocate anything, even Aran Banner potatoes. I am glad my initial impression of the Minister's intention was mistaken.
To reinforce what I said, we will look at the issue of the promotion of information directly to families by the agency on the issue of balancing work and family life. The support agency will obviously have a role in working with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in that regard and perhaps we can link that in the amendment also.
Today's newspapers report a case taken, I think against Ryanair, by a young pilot who was being asked to fly for, possibly, five out of six days. Where an employer operates schedules which are very hostile family life, there seems to be a need for a strong advocacy role.
I understand what the Deputy is saying but I would not want the agency, having regard to the fact that it has a number of streams of activity, to be diverted into an area where, perhaps, much its resources would be involved in chasing such issues. It will be possible for the agency to carry out research on a more general basis in areas of difficulty for families and perhaps that will meet some of the Deputy's queries in that regard.
Does the Minister wish to comment on the issue raised by Deputy Fitzgerald?
The issue Deputy Fitzgerald raised in relation to families in crisis and the awful events of the recent past have been the subject of some discussion in my Department and the family affairs unit in my Department has a role in this matter. It is an issue which, like most things nowadays, would have implications for other agencies and Government Departments. In view of the fact that we have a role, it is necessary to put forward both my view and the view of the Department on this aspect.
The importance of access to non-adversarial remedies such as family mediation in disputes involving children is becoming increasingly evident. We have all been shocked and greatly saddened by the recent upsurge of deaths involving children, many of whom appear to have been at the centre of huge family turmoil. What is evident is that some families are in crisis and the depth of their distress is unknown to relatives, neighbours and the support agency services. As parents, as members of the community and as policy makers we must develop the appropriate responses. This is an issue which demands a response from society. It is one where State services have a critical role to play in strengthening and supporting families.
As legislators, we must make the best possible information available to develop the appropriate responses to assist families and to prevent the tragic outcomes we have witnessed in the recent past. There is an important role for focusing research on this vein. We need to know more about what is happening in family relationships, how parents, both fathers and mothers, are coping with upheaval in their parenting relations with their children and what sort of supports are needed to help family members get on with their lives after separation as individuals and in their ever more important parenting roles.
There is a need to bring a greater focus in our support services on the needs of children and on children's rights to security and stability in their lives and loving relationships with their parents, grandparents and other relatives. Above all, we must identify the best and most appropriate approaches to resolving family issues in ways that prevent acrimony and that empower children's mothers and fathers in their ongoing roles as parents. We must develop the supports to help individual family members make successful transitions to new lives after separation. The response must be comprehensive. That means the agencies must get together to identify how each of them can contribute to finding solutions for families in need.
In view of this, we should take immediate action. I propose that the family support agency would have some role in the initial stages and that one of its tasks should be to take the lead in exploring this issue in its research function. It should bring forward recommendations on how the services can better respond to families in crisis and what measures can be put in place to prevent families falling into the extreme distress which we have witnessed on too many occasions. I accept the agency might not be up and running in the near future even though we might pass this legislation quickly, so I propose to ask the family affairs unit in the Department to prioritise research on this theme for funding under the family research programme in the interim period. As the agency comes into being, its main and first task in the area of research will be to continue the initial research we might carry out under the family research programme.
When we were going through the Bill I suggested to my officials that this is an area we need to examine. We need to liaise with other agencies and Departments, particularly the Department of Health and Children and perhaps the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. There is a need for research in this area to find out why this tragic phenomenon is occurring. I recommend to the committee that it agree with the direction we will give in this respect to the support agency when it is up and running.
I welcome the Minister's response. It is important that this type of tragedy is prioritised in the way outlined. The recent death of a young child was the sixteenth death in 20 months of young children in Ireland in traumatic and difficult family circumstances. We need to look at the patterns, understand them and find out why these families felt so isolated or why the situations deteriorated in the dramatic way they did which resulted in the death of children.
The family mediation service is an agency which could respond to this issue. One of my concerns is, and the Minister made this point when introducing the Bill, that its work is probably not well enough known throughout the country and to the people who desperately need its services. The Department has a huge job to do in trying to open the door to families who are in crisis and need this type of help and to ensure they do not feel so isolated. Many families are dealing with custody disputes and trying to resolve separation issues. It seems that some of them begin to feel desperately isolated and that they do not have the access to the mental health professionals, the family support workers and the counselling that might make a difference, although it will not make a difference in every case.
It has been a new issue for people in Ireland over the last 20 years. It is one of great distress and is most upsetting for everybody. It is particularly tragic for the people involved. The development of this agency, the type of research programme which the Minister outlined and the priority action in the Department to research this area and understand it a little better should lead to some policy conclusions and extra services that might make a difference to the families concerned. I welcome the Minister's decision and the opportunity for the committee to discuss it and to give its support in the context of this Bill.
I warmly welcome the Minister's comments on this matter. We have seen a virtual slaughter of children, which is unparalleled in our history, over the last number of years during the term of this Government. It is comparable to some of the worst instances of this most terrible form of child abuse in other jurisdictions. Like other Deputies, I attended one of these horrifically sad and tragic funerals after a child died with her father in these circumstances.
It would be good if the agency took responsibility at an early stage for the area as the Minister suggested. However, another two areas come to mind. The lack of huge tracts of community care through the Department of Health and Children seems to be a fundamental problem in this regard. Situations which should be known to the health boards or to local health staff are not known to them because they are overburdened or for other reasons. In addition, I mentioned on Second Stage the various groups with which I hope the agency will liaise. One of them, Parental Equality, originated in my constituency. Members also received a submission on the Bill from the unmarried fathers association. There are many such bodies. In the past there was a ferocious imbalance against women but society has become more egalitarian, although there is still much work to do in that regard. However, these bodies believe that in the legal system fathers are not adequately given a chance to state their case for access and custody. That is the constant refrain one hears from them.
That issue needs to be explored. Perhaps in the research the Minister mentioned it would be useful to engage with those organisations and see if there might be matters which the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, or his successor could address. Perhaps we could look at reforms of the courts service, which seems to lead to a situation where a number of unhappy fathers feel they are isolated from their children.
I agree with Deputy Broughan. It is difficult to make a judgment on what tragedy is behind any door. Many of the terrible tragedies that have occurred have involved separated families or those in the process of separating. The view is that men have been unfairly treated in courts. Access for two hours a week on a Saturday afternoon is not the answer. There should be a move towards joint custody. Too often a separation seems to be a victory for one party, usually the woman, and huge resentment can build up as a result. I am delighted to hear the Minister's comments and they are supported by the committee.
As a solicitor I was involved with family law and I empathise with the Deputy's remarks. I am also conscious as a public representative that one of the organisations that promotes the issue of men's rights had its inception in my own area. I empathise also with the sentiments expressed by the Chairman and other members in relation to men's interaction with courts and what they see as the injustices meted out to them. Some research has been done in relation to marginalised men. That research is in its early stages and will look at the problems of vulnerable men.
The family mediation service undertakes training and mediation in the areas of child protection and conflict over children. In January 2002 all the mediators will be involved in an information session in this area. Our policy is to support the family research programme and we will endeavour to promote research with the funding available. The family support agency will take up that role when established.
Deputy Broughan raised the issue of social inclusion. Under section 4(2)(c) the agency will have to have regard to Government policy in relation to social inclusion and that is enshrined in the legislation. There are separate streams of activity in the new agency. It is not envisaged that the family resource centres will provide the mediation service in a particular area. That is a separate service and the centres would not have the resources or the capability to provide it. It is not what they were set up to do. Counselling will be done through the voluntary agencies such as Accord and MRCS and the other 450 agencies. The role of the resource centres will be to work in communities assisting families in difficulty, particularly lone parents. Their function is separate and we do not envisage any change to that in the new agency.
I do not accept the criticisms made in this respect or the suspicion that seems to surround the issue. I met with the family resource centre forum when I launched its report recently and was struck by the support it gave to what has been done. It seems reassured that its future is secure as part of the family support agency so I do not accept the criticism.
Amendments Nos. 5, 6 and 9 are related and will be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 5, subsection (1), lines 11 to 13, to delete paragraph (e) and substitute the following:
"(e) to support, promote and develop those projects in the Family and Community Services Resource Centres programme which elect to transfer to the Agency,”.
This is the issue the Minister referred to in the area of consultation. The Labour Party experienced some development when our president, Prionsias de Rossa, was Minister and he put emphasis on and expanded the community development programme. In my constituency we have two or three parishes where resource centres were developed with their chief remit as the promotion of social inclusion. Numerous projects were started, some of which came close to the type of work being proposed for the family support agency, but the centres had a broader remit.
Last year I introduced a Bill aimed at putting an end to joyriding and that arose from work I was doing with one of the centres which did research on joyriding. It developed a project with the Garda to promote research on the issue of car theft and crime. It is interesting that the resource centre, myself and the Garda have worked together to research the causes of the joyriding plague. That is just one example of the typical type of project in which a resource centre would be involved. Joyriding led to a large number of fatalities in my part of the city so this type of project is central in terms of the need for resources because often the main perpetrators of car theft and joyriding suffer as a result of social problems.
My point is that this was one project under social inclusion which tried to do something about the causes and process of car crime and what it did to our vulnerable areas. It was promoted by a typical resource centre under the community development programme. It is only right that workers in that project, and other workers around the country involved in similar projects, should allow social inclusion to be the focus of their work. When some of the workers met me and my colleagues in this building, they conveyed the fear that their absorption into the new agency would mean that their neighbours might perceive them as being involved in counselling and mediation and suspect that they had knowledge of their private lives. They feared losing the broad support which resource centres, like those in my constituency, enjoy.
That is not envisaged and it would not be tolerated.
I am reporting what was said to me. This professional function is being fulfilled in some centres, but others are concerned with social inclusion, in which the Minister is interested. For example, some of them came up with proposals concerning school breakfasts and meals which we developed in the north side and in the Minister's constituency. Parish centres, with the core parish group and resource centres beside them, do good work on social inclusion with malnourished children. They may give children in a large school breakfast before they start a day's work and they cope with the logistics of that themselves. Such centres want to work directly under the Department and not come under this agency. They prefer to stay under the community development programme while other centres, with professional mediation staff, fulfil the mediation remit.
Amendment No. 9 is similar and states that existing family and community services resource centres may elect either to participate in the work of the agency or in the work of the community development programme under the community development support project programme. We received dozens of complaints in this area. Many of these workers are volunteers, which has added significance in this year - Dublin City Council recently honoured the city's volunteers. Their primary remit is social inclusion and not working in a detailed way with the type of problems we discussed under the previous amendment, about which I welcome the Minister's suggestion.
In a recent interview, when asked if FRCs would have the option of staying in community development, the Minister said that they would not because some could not be in while others remained out. He said that some of the family resource centres followed the CDP model and they could continue to do so under the family agency, which still will be answerable to the Minister meaning that the FRCs will be equably answerable. Many of the resource centres see themselves operating primarily on community development principles and they want to continue doing so. It is said that the Minister has an agenda to put them all into one box, whether they want it or not, and leave the community development programme behind. These amendments seek to express these strong criticisms.
This goes to the heart of how services, which operate differently - counselling and mediation on the one hand and community development on the other - can co-exist under the same roof. Deputy Broughan raised some interesting questions about community concerns. The key question for the Minister is to explain how he sees both services operating under the one agency in light of the strong criticisms and concerns of family resource centres expressed in letters we all received.
They are concerned about the lack of consultation and the potential for the erosion of the anti-poverty and community development ethos as a result of being under the new agency whose focus will be on family mediation and counselling. The Minister must address these concerns. How will the new agency's structures encompass the very different forms of work? Social services in England are organised with community development and social work services under one roof but with different structures of which the public are aware, thereby avoiding confusion. The two can work under the one roof here also, but the Minister must explain how it will operate. They are concerned also that the social inclusion commitment in the national development plan will be weakened by the transfer of these neighbourhood projects from the explicitly anti-poverty context of community development to the mediation and counselling context of the family support agency.
Work must be done to convince the family resource centres that they have a future in the new agency. Many feel strongly that they want to stay outside that agency and continue under community development. The Minister seems to be saying that he does not consider that feasible as he does not want some family resource centres in and others out. He must spell out how he sees the two different strands operating under the same roof.
Our amendments reflect these concerns and we suggest in amendment No. 7, for example, that the agency should support and develop family resource centres according to principles of community development and to promote social inclusion. This encapsulates the concerns of those who want to see community development continuing within the new agency and the principle of social inclusion continuing as an important ethos of the family support agency. We could all quote examples of community development work making a real difference to communities, such as projects dealing with truant children or after school homework clubs. Perhaps the Minister will spell out how this will work and address the clear anxieties expressed by the family resource centres, all of which have proposed changes to the structure. The Minister does not seem prepared to accept any of these amendments and clearly believes the proposed structure will work. I hope it will but it may be worthwhile to provide for a review of this process.
Deputies Broughan and Fitzgerald have touched on amendment No. 7 although it is not included in the group of amendments under discussion. They spoke about the principles of community development which are covered in amendment No. 7. Section 4(1)(b) provides that the family support agency’s role will be to support, promote and develop the family resource centres. These centres engage with their local communities in an empowering manner which fosters self-reliance and participation. I understand that this community development approach to their work is very important to many of the centres. Similarly, the marriage counselling and family mediation services place a very high value on the ethos which informs the professional manner in which they do their work. I want to see the unique characteristics of each of these sectors safeguarded for the future. I do not believe these values or the dynamic responsiveness inherent in the work of these sectors can be defined or prescribed in legislation.
The family support agency, as an independent body, is better placed than a Department to safeguard the values and principles which inform the work of the FRCs and the marriage counselling and family mediation services in meeting the demands and needs of people dealing with sensitive family situations and in supporting and promoting a community environment in which people's deeply held beliefs about family life and the type of society to which they aspire can be affirmed. To capture this ethos in a definition in the Bill would limit the possibility of it developing, evolving and being refined over time. Furthermore, this may ultimately constrain family resource centres as they grow and develop with their communities.
In keeping with the White Paper on the Framework for Supporting Voluntary Activity, I envisage the family support agency working in partnership with the FRCs, helping them to promote and develop their ways of working within their communities. Section 4(2) provides that the agency will carry out each of its functions, not just those which relate to the family resource centre programme, having regard to Government social inclusion policy. This provision is specifically intended to ensure the agency's work has a strong social inclusion focus.
On the issue of consultation, a meeting was held on 6 July prior to the Bill's publication with representatives of the FRCs at which the Bill's proposals were outlined. Numerous meetings have been held since then. My officials are due to meet with representatives of the support agencies in the coming days, some of which appear to have some difficulties with the Bill. I received a very positive reaction to my address at the forum launch. My view and that of the Government is that we cannot have some family resource centres outside the family support agency while others are within its ambit. The Government is also of the view that it would be nonsensical to leave the FRCs outside a new body which will have more power and increased potential to develop services for families.
When the Government took office, only ten family resource centres were in situ on a pilot basis. We undertook to build the number up to 100 over a period of time, some 80 of which are up and running or very close to commencement. Anyone who suggests there is some conspiracy afoot against family resource centres should examine the facts which show that there has been a dramatic increase in their number over the past four years. It would not be possible for the FRCs, financed under the family and community services resource centre programme, to elect to transfer to a community development programme. Both programmes are tailored to assist communities to respond to identified needs to achieve a particular focus of their work.
The assessment process is carried out by a technical committee which has ensured that FRCs are appropriately assigned to the programme. The membership of this technical committee includes people with expertise in the work of FRCs and people with expertise in the work of community development programmes. This issue has been the subject of intensive discussions between departmental officials and representatives of the forum. A small number of centres have raised concerns and departmental officials will meet with them to clarify funding criteria and to discuss whether they are appropriately placed in the family and community services resource centre programme, having regard to their work, and how they see their future development. I am confident that all these issues can be resolved.
The legislation is very clear. I do not know from where the Deputy is getting this red herring because there is nothing in the Bill which would in any way empower the FRCs to go down the road of family mediation or counselling services which are staffed by professionally qualified people who must meet stipulated professional standards. We are endeavouring to allow FRCs to evolve with the assistance of the new family support agency which will be answerable to the Minister of the day.
Is the Minister saying that he envisages community development work, on the one hand, and family mediation and counselling services, on the other, co-existing and developing into the future within the family support agency as they have done in the past outside of it?
If a family resource centre were to decide not to come under the aegis of the agency, would the Department continue to fund it under the community development programme? If the family support agency were to decide not to become involved in professional mediation, would it fulfil its remit?
I did not hear the Deputy's second point. If a family resource centre felt it could not participate under the new agency, we would discuss its concerns in an attempt to iron out any difficulties. Ultimately, FRCs must make their own decisions. I have not considered whether the Department would continue to fund them in the above scenario. We would have to consider individual cases as they arise. I do not envisage any resource centre refusing to participate. The forum represents family resource centres but less than half the centres are affiliated to it, so, to a certain extent, it may not be representative. A later amendment deals with this aspect. While I do not envisage it happening, if centres go beyond the remit provided, they would have to be aware of the consequences. My Department funds centres in certain areas. I do not know if they would be able to transfer to those. We would have to consider each case on its merits but I do not envisage it happening because, from my understanding of discussions my officials had with representatives of the forum and the centres on an individual basis, these difficulties will be resolved.
If they opted out of the mediation function because they decided they were——
They have no mediation function and they are not required under the legislation to have one. In addition, they are not required to have a counselling function. Subject to change, they will continue as they always have done. The mediation service is a separate, dedicated professional agency and it is the best example of how a family resource centre could not intervene in its remit. The same applies in the area of counselling. To be a counsellor one must have certain qualifications and experience in terms of hours spent in practice. Some may call themselves counsellors but they are not qualified. That is part of the remit of the evolving family support agency in terms of standards, training and qualification for counsellors. Separate professional bodies have standards dealing with the qualification of counsellors so I do not envisage that any Joe or Josephine Soap could set up a practice as a mediator or counsellor in a family resource centre in, for example, an estate in north Dublin. It would not happen.
When my colleague, Mervyn Taylor, was the Minister for Equality and Law Reform he gave a huge boost to this area and initiated the expansion to which the Minister refers. I was involved in this type of work long before my involvement in politics. Would centres be under pressure to introduce services?
The Minister should consider the history of this area. Many centres evolved from parishes in the early and middle 1980s and many of the local development bodies then established originated from some of the best parishes in the country under the aegis of vigorous and progressive parish clergy. Many of these developed under the partnership process, some becoming partnership companies. However, there was less development in some areas.
In this context the family resource centres developed a strong inclusion function. They are used to a degree of independence and have done outstanding work. There is a desire to maintain a direct relationship with the Department. At one point they could meet officials and the Minster to put the case for a major expansion of the community development programme in their area. I continue to have concerns about this aspect.
Does the Minister envisage that the voluntary committees will continue to operate as they do at present? Concerns have been expressed about this aspect.
Yes. On the question of mediation, there are only 50 professional mediators in the country. They are either in the mediation service or private practice. There is a dearth of mediators and we are endeavouring, through the mediation service, to train more.
There would be nothing to stop a family resource centre contracting a mediation service if it saw fit to have one dealing with family issues in its area. I envisage that development and would encourage it. I doubt it will happen in every centre but there may be a need in a particular area. In such circumstances it would be possible for them to contract the services of a mediator for perhaps one night a week or whatever. That may be a way forward. Mediators would be professional and would not tell those in the neighbourhood what they were doing.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 5, subsection (1)(e), line 12, to delete “Centres programme” and substitute “Centre Programme”.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 5, subsection (1), between lines 13 and 14, to insert the following:
"(f) to support and develop Family Resource Centres according to principles of community development and to promote social inclusion,”.
I inadvertently spoke on this amendment during previous amendments. The Minister has made clear his wish that both strands would continue to develop under the new family support agency. Acceptance of the amendment would build that into the terms of reference to the effect that the family resource centres would be free to develop, in the same way as they have traditionally, principles of community development and the promotion of social inclusion. The amendment provides for this and it would give a degree of security to the family resource centres if the Minister was to accept it.
I agree with Deputy Fitzgerald. The run up to the next general election will be interesting. Despite the major economic advances, which we are now trying desperately to secure, everyone accepts that there has been an increase in levels of relative poverty. There is a growing gap between those who have powered ahead and done well out of the famous Celtic tiger and a large section of the population who have barely held their own. They may be better off than four or five years ago but, comparatively, they have fallen further behind. In international terms this is one of the most unequal societies. In view of this the core principle here is fundamental to the work of the Department and the agency. That is why the amendment proposes that the functions of the agency shall be to promote social inclusion and to support and develop the principles of community development. The Bill provides that the agency shall "have regard to".
I addressed this issue when I read my briefing note on the amendment. It is the view of my officials and those who drafted the legislation that it is not possible to enshrine in legislation the principles of community development. However, I assure the committee and those involved in family resource centres that I do not envisage changing - it is not policy - the way family resource centres have evolved since they were set up originally in the early 1990s by my predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Woods. I acknowledge the work of Mervyn Taylor, particularly in the area of marriage counselling. The resources in those years were probably less than they are today.
We do not envisage that the ethos engendered by family resource centres will in any way be constrained or circumvented by the provisions of the Bill. I ask Deputies to accept this, rather than enshrine it in legislation which, as my officials have forcefully pointed out, may be a restriction on the future development of family resource centres.
- Broughan, Tommy.
- Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).
- Coveney, Simon.
- Fitzgerald, Frances.
- McGrath, Paul.
- Neville, Dan.
- Upton, Mary.
- Ahern, Dermot.
- Ahern, Noel.
- Brady, John.
- Brennan, Matt
- Browne, John (Wexford).
- Foley, Denis.
- Moloney, John.
- Wade, Eddie.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 5, subsection (1)(h), lines 25 to 28, to delete all words from and including “administer” in line 25 down to and including “Finance,” in line 28 and substitute the following:
(i) the scheme of the Minister known as the Scheme of Grants to Voluntary Organisations providing Marriage, Child and Bereavement Counselling Services,
(ii) the programme of the Minister known as the Family and Community Services Resource Centre Programme, and
(iii) such other schemes, grants and other facilities for financial assistance as may, from time to time, be authorised by the Minister after consultation with the Minister for Finance,".
This amendment is proposed in the interest of clarity. It clearly identifies that the family support agency will have a responsibility to administer the formal schemes of grants known as the scheme of grants for voluntary organisations providing marriage, child and bereavement counselling services and the family community services resource centre programme.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 5, subsection (2)(a), line 34, to delete “couples” and substitute “persons”.
This is intended to make it clear that the service is available to individual persons as well as to couples.
I may be able to reassure the Deputy in that regard. The use of the word "couples" was not intended to have any particular connotation. The word was used because, in all these issues, there are two parties, usually the two parents, to the dispute. For family mediation to be effective, both parties/parents need to be actively engaged in the mediation process. I have no difficulty substituting the word "persons" for "couples" in subsection 2(a) as the Deputy has proposed and I am pleased to accept the amendment.
I thank the Minister.
I move amendment No. 11:
In page 5, subsection (2), line 39, to delete paragraph (c) and substitute the following:
"(c) family support counselling.”.
I assume Deputy Fitzgerald is referring to an amendment to subsection (1)(c), line 6, and wishes to replace the words “family support services” with the words “family support counselling”. I am not in favour of accepting this amendment as I believe it would unnecessarily curtail the role of the agency in supporting a range of important activities in the developing field of family support. Under the scheme of grants to voluntary organisations providing counselling services, a wide variety of voluntary and community organisations are assisted. Organisations provide, in the main, marriage and relationship counselling and marriage preparation programmes. However, an increasing amount of work has been done with key voluntary providers of services by my Department in relation to the development of a preventative approach to strengthening the family, preventing marriage breakdown and minimising the effect of other life crises, for instance, bereavement counselling.
Therefore, many groups are involved in a broader field of counselling and support, not all of which could be described as counselling. Over the last few years, I sought and received sanction from my colleague, the Minister for Finance, to expand the grants scheme to include funding for voluntary organisations providing marriage preparation courses, marital relationship enrichment programmes, bereavement support programmes, suicide awareness programmes and rainbow groups for children whose parents have separated. Regarding another aspect of counselling, the voluntary organisations in County Louth were very responsive to the situations of farming families affected by the foot and mouth crisis. All these family supports are very important in assisting families in times of difficulty and distress. The effect of accepting the amendment would be to curtail the agency in promoting and supporting the development of these services to better respond to families' needs for support.
I thank the Minister for his comments. The intention of the amendment was that the service would provide family support and family counselling and I ask the Minister to consider whether it is necessary to include that point. His response indicated that he interpreted the amendment as relating exclusively to family support counselling. Perhaps he would reconsider it in the context of both family support and family counselling with a view to including an appropriate amendment on Report Stage if required.
We will have a look at it on the basis of the Deputy's proposal to include family support and family counselling.
I move amendment No. 12:
In page 5, subsection (1)(a), line 45, after “support,” to insert “and”.
This is a technical amendment to insert the word "and", omitted during drafting, between paragraphs (a) and (b) to create the correct grammatical link.
Amendment No. 14 is an alternative to amendment No. 13. Is it agreed that amendments Nos. 13 and 14 be discussed together? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 13:
In page 6, between lines 21 and 22, to insert the following subsection:
"(2) No action of the Agency under subsection (1) shall amend, change or otherwise alter the existing criteria for the operation of Family Resource Centres without the full, informed and prior consent of the centres concerned.”.
We have discussed the detail of this amendment to some degree already. The amendment copperfastens the work of the family resource centres as they operate at present. It also builds in consent and discussion with them. This is an issue for them because they feel they were not consulted enough previously. I will not elaborate further because we have already had a full discussion on the work of the family resource centres and how it will continue under the new agency.
Section 7 provides that, subject to the approval of the Minister, the agency shall establish criteria for the provision of financial assistance. It further provides that the agency may request information from any voluntary body seeking or receiving assistance from it and that the agency shall comply with any directives concerning the administration of grant schemes given to it by the Minister with the concurrence of the Minister for Finance. The accountability of the family support agency in financial matters to the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, to the public and to the committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas is clearly provided for in sections 25 to 27, inclusive.
The provision is intended to enable the family support agency to set the most appropriate criteria for the provision of funding to secure the objectives of its function, having regard to the funding available to it. Given the accountability issues involved, it would be inappropriate to make the exercise of the family support agency's responsibility to set criteria as provided for in section 7 subject to the consent of individual beneficiaries. In the circumstances, I do not propose to accept this amendment.
I wish to reassure Deputies about the position of family resource centres that are currently receiving funding from my Department. There will be no change in the funding commitments made to these centres or in the conditions set out in the three year contracts for funding which they hold with the Department as a result of the transfer. The criteria to date have worked well. Steps have been taken over the years, in consultation with the Minister for Finance, to update the criteria and the operating instructions under which the applications for funding are assessed in line with developments and improvements to the schemes to better respond to the needs of families and their local communities.
To ensure openness and transparency in the disbursement of allocations, it is anticipated that the agency as it becomes established will continue to review the criteria to ensure that they continue to be relevant to its functions, that they are responsive to new and emerging needs in the family support area and that they are compatible with the operational requirements of the voluntary providers of the service.
I welcome the Minister's statement that there will not be a change in criteria but that there will be the possibility of reviewing them as time passes. He does not envisage any change in so far as they are set out at present. I will withdraw the amendment.
Is the Minister accepting the sense of the amendments?
No. However, I assure Deputies that the criteria will not change in relation to the family resource centres currently receiving funding from my Department. There is no change in the funding commitment made to the centres or in the conditions set out in the three year contracts for funding which they hold with the Department as a result of the transfer.
Amendment No. 16 is related to amendment No. 15. Is it agreed to discuss amendments Nos. 15 and 16 together? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 15:
In page 7, subsection (1), line 1, to delete "6 months" and substitute "12 months".
This is a straightforward amendment to allow more time to the agency to develop the strategic plan. One year is suggested as opposed to six months.
I support the amendment. All Departments have prepared mission statements but they have been years in existence and have the experience to put together a strategic vision for their area of responsibility. It would be reasonable to give a little extra time to the agency, particularly in view of the fact that research and information are key elements of its work.
The existing provision provides that the agency must prepare a strategic plan within six months after the establishment day and thereafter every three years. This is in line with the Public Service Management Act, 1997, which was the original legislative instrument providing for a statutory obligation on secretaries general of Government Departments to produce a strategy statement. With the roll out of the Government's strategic management initiative, it has become standard practice for statutory bodies to be required to prepare strategic plans every three years, with the first plan required within six months of the date of establishment.
If I were to agree to the amendments, the agency would be operating without a strategic plan for the first year of its operation. The additional effect of this amendment would be to allow for what I consider to be an inordinate delay of up to one year before the second and subsequent strategic plans would follow. A strategic plan setting out the agency's objectives, outputs and related strategies and the use of resources available to it is critical to the agency and an important element of its terms of accountability. It is important that the agency work on the development of its plan immediately. In fact, work is already under way in the Family Mediation Service in consultation with officials from my Department to chart the possible future development of the service in the context of the new agency. Similarly, the first steps in the development of the counselling service have been initiated by my Department in partnership with voluntary providers of the service. Similar suggestions have been made by officials to the family resource centre forum. As this work would be a major asset to the agency, I am confident that not only will it be in a position to produce its strategic plan promptly, but it will be keen and anxious to do so in consultation with the sectoral interests involved.
Six months is a short period but if they are on alert at present and beginning the work in association with the Department's officials, it might be more feasible to have the strategic plan ready within that time. I will withdraw the amendment.
I move amendment No. 17:
In page 7, subsection (1), line 3, to delete "third anniversary of" and substitute "period of 3 years that falls after".
This clarifies that the agency must provide and submit a strategic plan every three years.
I move amendment No. 18:
In page 7, subsection (2), between lines 8 and 9, to insert the following:
"(b) be prepared in full and open consultation with Family Resource Centres and other voluntary and community organisations which fall within the remit of the work of the Agency,”.
This relates to the preparation of the strategic plan. The section provides that a strategic plan shall "comprise the key objectives, outputs and related strategies . . . " and will be prepared ". . . in accordance with any directions issued from time to time by the Minister . . . " and have regard to the most cost effective and beneficial use of resources. What we are trying to include here is that if there has been a lack of consultation in the run up to the establishment of the agency, it is important that the matter is addressed. The Minister says he has effectively dealt with it and obviously we will get some feedback when the transcripts of today's proceedings are read around the country. Perhaps it has been largely dealt with, but it is important that there is close consultation with people working in the area, that these people are closely involved and that they have an input into the strategic aims of the agency from the experience of their own work. Full and open consultation on the plan would be a reasonable addition to the basic elements which the Minister has included.
The best strategic plan will come forward if there is good knowledge of the work being done by the staff of the family resource centres, by the voluntary and community organisations and by the professional staff involved. The sentiment behind this amendment could be met in some part if, on section 9(2)(b), the Minister could reassure us that is what is intended in the development of the strategic plan, that it will be something that will not come down from the top but there will be consultation. The Bill is not clear. It states: “the Agency shall prepare and submit to the Minister, for approval . . . , a strategic plan”. Therefore, it is not absolutely clear how the Minister envisages the strategic plan and whether a chief executive will prepare it. The point is how can the different stakeholders feel confident that the strategic plan will take on board their different areas of concern and that these will be reflected in the plans for the year?
The amendment spells out that the people involved locally should be listened to and that their experience should be taken into account in forming the strategic plan. Section 9(2)(b) is not clear on that matter. It sounds as if it is directional from the Minister as opposed to coming from the agency itself. Perhaps the Minister could address that point.
The family support agency will draw up its strategic plan taking into account the needs of families and the local communities who are the focus of its activities. It will work in co-operation with other public bodies which have a shared interest in family matters as provided for in section 4(2)(b). It will work in partnership with the voluntary and community groups for which it is responsible as envisaged in the White Paper, Supporting Voluntary Activity. Section 4(2)(c) provides that the family support agency will have regard to Government policy in this respect.
It would be normal practice for all stakeholders to be consulted in the development of a strategy statement. I fully expect that the views of the family resource centres as well as counselling services and the mediation service will be an important resource to the agency in developing its plans. Each of the sectors is currently involved in a consultation process on strategic planning at some level with officials from my Department in so far as issues regarding future plans, further schemes, programmes and services will be progressed in the context of the new agency.
The Family Mediation Service has been actively involved in strategic planning with my Department. They will be looking at a strategic direction in the light of the establishment of the new agency. The principal providers of marriage and relationship counselling have been involved in discussions with officials from my Department on the development of the grant aid scheme, the establishment of best practice, the issue of professional standards and the development of marriage counselling services.
In recent discussions with the family resource centres, officials from my Department broached the possibility of preparatory work being undertaken to consider how best the work of the centres can be advanced under the agency. This preliminary work will be an important resource to the agency on its establishment. The agency will be responsible for determining the most appropriate way in which each of the sectors involved in its responsibilities, the marriage counselling services, the Family Mediation Service, the family resource centres, the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and other agencies, will inform this process.
On the point made by Deputy Fitzgerald, I agree that subsection (2)(b) could be used to make a direction. I hazard a guess that would not be necessary and that, as I stated earlier, the agency will act in consultation with the stakeholders in preparing its plan. I could not see it happening otherwise. If that was not the case, obviously the Minister could issue a direction in that respect.
Could I suggest that on Report Stage the Minister might consider inserting a section regarding the strategic plan that would clarify what he stated? It might be appropriate to say that the relevant stakeholders, the Minister and other relevant bodies would be involved in drawing up the strategic plan. What the Minister said clarified the matter considerably. If the Minister could table such an amendment on Report Stage, it would be helpful.
We can look at it but I cannot promise that we might be able to do so because when one puts something into legislation, it can have an effect one might not necessarily have wanted. For example, there could be a battle over the kind of consultation and one could end up with the legislation being used against the agency or the Minister in respect of the type of consultation. At the end of the day, the board makes the strategy plan, subject to the approval of the Minister. I will undertake to look at it, but I cannot guarantee that we will come up with something.
The section is vague on who will be involved in the strategic plan. It is not clear. I suppose one could take it as read, which is what the Minister is saying, but if there was a way of mentioning stakeholders in the section without tying the hands of the Minister, it would be helpful.
Who are the stakeholders?
That will vary from time to time.
One would need to set out who they are. As the process develops, there may be different stakeholders and families involved. For example, there may be new organisations which are set up to oversee a regional spread of family resource centres or some other type of stakeholder which we are not envisaging at present and it might mean that we would have to amend the legislation. I hazard a guess that the agency, in bringing forward its plan, would have to bear in mind the broad views of the different stakeholders in the service concerned. If it is the Family Mediation Service, for example, it is relatively easy to do that because there is one agency concerned. It would be different in the counselling area and the family resource centres area. The counselling area, in particular, has spawned over 400 groups. I hazard a guess that a little over a quarter of the 450 groups which get funding at present were getting funding four years ago.
It does not mean they did not exist.
It does not mean they did not exist but my point is that if we put it into legislation, all those groups might insist that as stakeholders in this area they are entitled to give their views individually. That could be a burden on the agency. We must proceed more in accordance with the spirit than the letter of the law.
How will this work in the future? If one compared it to the Combat Poverty Agency, for example, under subsection (2)(b) will it be possible for a future Minister of a Government elected on a commitment to social inclusion to direct that, as in the case of the NAPS, the agency shall produce a particular plan with his specific development targets? Will it transpire that the Minister will set the targets and the agency will go along with that because that is what the Government wants? Is it correct to say that it does not apply in a sense with an agency like the Combat Poverty Agency because its remit is to research and consider the broad spectrum and it does not have a local organisation? However, in this agency there will be local structures. The Minister is probably following the template of previous legislation for other agencies. Would it be better, given that it will have a local element, to make an amendment similar to ours?
We will examine it but I do not hold out great hope because the hands of the agency would be tied if we were too prescriptive about with whom it should discuss the strategic plan. We must look forward. Hopefully, the agency will have a sizeable research repository available to it through which it will be able to bring forward its own plans. It will have to take the mediation service into account but it would create difficulties if the legislation provided that other stakeholders should have an opportunity to be part of the production of the strategic plan. It would create a monster for the agency in the long-term in that every group or network of groups, whether they are involved in counselling and resourcing, would dictate the plan and probably cause difficulties for the compilation of the plan. As the Deputy said, the wording is used in regard to other agencies and has worked reasonably well. I would not like it if the agency did not take into account views in general but it should not address specific views of stakeholders.
I move amendment No. 19:
In page 7, subsection (5), between lines 36 and 37, to insert the following:
"(d) three members elected the Family Resource Centres Forum following consultative procedures agreed between the centres with the agreement of the Minister,”.
This amendment relates to the composition of the board and it is proposed that a further three members should be elected by the family resources centre forum following consultative procedures agreed between the centres and the agency with the agreement of the Minister. The family mediation service, family resource centres and counselling services will be under the one roof, the family support agency, offering a service to families and this should be reflected in the composition of the board. Representatives of the family resource centres have made strong submissions to Deputy Broughan and myself as they are concerned about their lack of representation on the board.
The Minister proposes that he will appoint one person as chairperson and the board will comprise 11 other members. One member will be an officer of the Minister and the remainder will have special expertise in the functions of the agency with one member of the staff of the agency elected by secret ballot to the board.
The amendment attempts to strengthen section 10(c) in regard to the membership of the board. I ask the Minister to reconsider the size and representation of the board. This refers back to the issue of stakeholders whereby the different stakeholders who will form the family support agency feel they should have representation on the board. I am interested in whether the Minister can accept the amendment in order to provide for more democratic representation on the board.
I support Deputy Fitzgerald. Like many Members I have experience of working with partnership companies. Ultimately, representatives of local companies sit on the board of ADM, which operates under the aegis of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. People are heavily involved on the ground and ADM comprises representatives of various partnerships throughout the country. Local development has been one of the finest achievements of partnership since the mid-1980s. Our case is that three representatives of the FRCF should be appointed to a 15 person board in recognition of its contribution. The Minister has given commitments on earlier amendments to consult.
The community action network was critical of the manner in which the Minister introduced the Bill. It says he undermined the strategic planning process and there was a total absence of a transparent and open consultation process. This amendment would ensure that would not happen in future. Small enterprise and jobs groups and unemployed action groups are used to having a number of representatives near the top who can liaise directly through ADM with the Minister. Why can that not be provided through this agency?
The appointment of members of the agency is a key task and under the legislation it is the responsibility of the Minister. Members of the agency must ensure it comprehensively fulfils the functions conferred on it by the Bill. They must have the ability to develop the agency and plan strategically for the future in partnership with the voluntary and community organisation it supports in the interest of families who are the focus of its responsibilities. I will give careful consideration to the membership of the agency and will seek persons who individually and collectively will bring their skills, talents and expertise to the operation of the agency.
It is my intention to appoint members with expertise in counselling, family mediation and work in family resource centres to the agency. There is a wealth of talent, expertise and experience in these sectors which will be a major resource to the agency in carrying out its functions. The FRCs in particular have been in contact with me, my staff, public representatives and officials from my Department about their desire to participate in the development of the agency at membership level. Representatives of the FRCs have had discussion with my officials in relation to how they may inform the appointments. I have been most impressed by their willingness to contribute to the development of the agency and their commitment to furthering the interests of the families with which they work at local level.
I look forward to receiving representations from the FRC forum. It will suggest a number of individuals who have the expertise and experience in the work of family resource centres and will positively contribute to the membership of the agency. I will consider the names proposed and any other representations on this issue in the interests of appointing the strongest board with the capacity to drive the new agency.
We have already had discussions with the forum in regard to the possibility of it making representations to the Minister about people it feels would be appropriate and I understand it is happy with that suggestion. In the longer term the agency will need to establish in consultation with the counselling sector, family mediators and resource centres the most appropriate way in which issues that affect the various sectors can be identified and brought before the board.
The counselling sector involves 450 local voluntary and community groups throughout the country. Family mediation, on the other hand, is still at an early stage of development. There are fewer than 50 mediators in Ireland. The family resource centre programme has only recently been established. Forty resource centres are affiliated to it but a further 40 centres which are in place or in start-up mode are not represented on the forum. We wish to reach our target of 100 FRCs shortly.
Representation of sectoral interests and how best to promote participation of all stakeholders in the work of the agency at some level will be a challenge for the agency. The legislative framework provides for broad structures within which the agency may address these issues, in particular functions in relation to undertaking research, engaging consultants and to establishing committees reporting to the agency, will be particularly helpful in identifying the best way to give representation to sectoral interests.
Section 10 provides that there should be 12 members of the agency. In my view, it is the right size for an agency charged with the responsibilities provided for in the Bill. This will allow the experience and expertise in each of the core fields of responsibility of the agency to be represented on the membership and will allow for the agency to adopt practical working arrangements in carrying out its tasks.
It was never the intention that this would be a representational agency of the different sectors; what we really want are experts in the area who would have knowledge of these areas. Obviously if the resource centre forum or people from the resource centres proposed names to us, then we will look at those. We will do the same for the marriage and counselling sector. We do not have any hang-ups about asking people. It may well be that there will be representatives from each and all of the sectors. I am always of the view that there can be too many people on a board; it is preferable to have a tight board and I am hoping to keep it down to 12. I assure the Deputies that the representations from the family resource centre sector and from the other sectors will be taken on board provided the people they propose have the required expertise.
I welcome the spirit of what the Minister says. It grasps the essential points that are being made in this amendment - that the sectors involved really did want representation on the board. The worry might have been that there would not be anyone with expertise in the area of community development or mediation or whatever on the board. That is a possibility but the Minister has made it very clear that he will be looking for representatives with those skills and from those areas to go on the board and that it will influence his decision who will be on the boards. I welcome that. Both Deputy Broughan and myself were suggesting that the way to do this was to increase the size of the board but I think the spirit in which the Minister has responded effectively means that the different sectors will be represented on the board and that he will ensure that.
Since we are discussing the different stakeholders in this area, I will take this opportunity to pay tribute to the people who have kept the family mediation service going over a long period. It was under threat from a number of Government decisions in previous years - not under this Government - and it is great to see how it has developed. I commend the amount of time and effort people have put in to train mediators and ensure a professional standard. I urge the Minister to ensure that some of that expertise and commitment shown by the people involved could be tapped for the board. There are also people in marriage counselling and the family resource centres who have put huge effort into each of those areas and who would have a lot to contribute at board level. I accept what the Minister says in relation to how he wishes to appoint the board and the type of membership he desires.
I wish to make an additional point. Because of my desire to keep the agency as focused as possible, the Deputy will see that there will be one officer of the Minister and not more than three from other Departments. We particularly restricted it to three because every Department wants to be on the agency if they have any input in relation to children or family. We came to the view that we would restrict the number of departmental people on the agency to the bare minimum. We envisage that they might not necessarily all be on the board. We envisage the three as Health and Children, Education and Science and Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Other Departments would feel that they should be there too. We may not necessarily have three from those Departments either.
Does the Minister see a special role for the chair of the agency?
Like any chair, it would be important that it would be someone of significance who would have a good management role. I have no particular people in mind.
I move amendment No. 20:
In page 8, subsection (9)(d), line 19, to delete “1999” and substitute “2001”.
This is a technical amendment to correct the year in the Title of the Companies Act on the passing of the Company Law Enforcement Act, 2001.
I move amendment No. 21:
In page 13, subsection (4), lines 9 and 10, to delete "pensions, gratuities or other allowances payable on resignation, retirement or death" and substitute "superannuation benefits".
The Parliamentary Counsel has suggested this amendment to avoid duplication. The text being deleted is already set out in section 1 in the definition of superannuation benefits.
I oppose this section. I notice that local government is not included here. We started a rigmarole in about 1994. We are talking about the membership in this case rather than the board. Are we talking about an official, the board or both? I am not sure if it applies in this one but as a reaction to that I felt that it could be inappropriate to immediately pull people off. I remember debating the Harbours Bill. A whole tranche of Bills came forward which basically banned politicians from holding positions. I did this by instinct because all of us - those who do not hold office - take for granted that we sit on many boards. I know the Chairman knows the additional responsibilities we all have. Many local agencies want a political representative, one from either side or whatever way they see it, to sit with them and to attend very lengthy and in the case of the partnership, half day meetings. There are all kinds of local projects, for instance the Urban programme on the northside. I do not think you are involved with me on that one, Chairman; our colleague, Deputy Carey was involved. In many cases politicians can be overburdened but sometimes communities like to see political representatives whom they trust representing them at a particular level. The blanket exclusion of politicians from boards and from activities of State companies is wrong.
I have some empathy with the sentiments expressed by Deputy Broughan. I will undertake to look at this section again. The latter part of the section does protect the chief executive and staff of the agency if they become involved in public life. They can be seconded from employment by the agency until such time as they cease to be an elected representative. I believe that these persons who wish to enter public life should not be discouraged and the protection afforded by this part of the section would be important in that regard.
I agree with the Deputy in relation to subsection (1). I am not in favour of members of the Houses of the Oireachtas, or indeed the European Parliament, being excluded from membership of the board. Although I am speaking against my own section, I fear there is an underlying suggestion, which is not in any way vengeful against public representatives, that they will use their party political influence on the board.
I do not accept that and if that was the case the appointment by me of Mr. Chris Flood to the national committee on volunteering would not have been possible. Now that he is retiring people say that is all right but I do not think we could have had a better person nominated to that committee. In the same way I do not want to exclude anyone and accordingly I will take that out and return on Report Stage to this matter.
Amendments Nos. 22 and 23 are related and, by agreement, may be taken together.
I move amendment No. 22:
In page 14, subsection (1), line 2, after "Agency" to insert "or a consultant or adviser to the Agency".
This amendment proposes to extend the disclosure provisions applicable to the chief executive and the staff of the agency to consultants or advisers engaged by the agency.
At the moment there is a telecom regulation agency where the chief executive is a consultant. Will the Minister tell us if that can happen to this agency? I do not know if this has been discussed in the Dáil but there seems to be a situation where the chief executive, who is a consultant, has represented people.
Section 14 (6) states that the chief executive shall not hold any other office or position without the consent of the agency.
There is a particular journalist who publishes on Sundays who is following up this matter. It appears to be the case in that other agency that one could have a chief executive who is a consultant.
He could have another job if that is agreed by the agency.
Again a consultant in the area we are talking about——
The danger is that allegations can arise if there are conflicts of interest. If one gives their expertise to an organisation in the same field, they could be in direct competition with the organisation of which they are the executive.
In section 19 there is a clear definition regarding disclosure of interests. I can understand it in other areas but I cannot envisage it in this area. I am reluctant to say that no consultant can be a chief executive of the agency because one might come across an independent consultant who would be at the top of their profession and, subject to the agreement of the agency, they would accept the provision that there could not be a conflict of interests. This might be more pertinent to other agencies where there are greater financial interests.
I move amendment No. 23:
In page 14, subsection (1), line 3, after "staff" to insert "or consultant or adviser".
I move amendment No. 24:
In page 14, between lines 38 and 39, to insert the following subsection:
"(5) The Third Schedule to the Freedom of Information Act, 1997, is amended by the insertion in Part 1 at the end thereof:
(a) in column (2) of ’Family Support Agency Act, 2001’ and
(b) in column (3) of ’Section 21’.”.
This amendment is designed to bring the Family Support Agency under the Freedom of Information Act, 1997. The Department shall also make regulations periodically to set out commencement dates for various bodies to which the provisions of the Act are to be extended. I will ensure that the Family Support Agency is included in these regulations at the next suitable opportunity. I understand that the Department of Finance will be preparing new regulations in June 2002 and this is to enable that to be done.
I move amendment No. 25:
In page 15, after line 52, to insert the following subsection:
"(6) The financial year of the Agency shall be the period of 12 months ending on 31 December in any year, and for the purposes of this section and section 27 the period commencing on the establishment day and ending on the following 31 December is deemed to be a financial year”.
This amendment is required to establish the financial year of the agency with the calendar year and to describe the first financial year as that part of the year commencing on the establishment day and ending on 31 December of that same year.
I move amendment No. 26:
In page 17, between lines 19 and 20, to insert the following subsections:
"(3) Where before the establishment day the Minister has entered into contract or arrangement with any person in respect of the Family and Community Services Resource Centre Programme, which is force immediately before that day, the Minister may, as he or she sees fit, under his or her seal, transfer or assign his or her rights or liabilities arising under such contract or arrangement to the Agency.
(4) Every right and liability transferred by subsection (3) to the Agency may, on or after the establishment day, be sued on, recovered or enforced by or against the Agency in its own name.”.
This amendment provides for the inclusion of provisions enabling the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs to transfer to the Family Support Agency, contracts or arrangements which are in force in relation to the family and community services resource centre programme. Individual family resource centres in the programme have contractual arrangements with the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs for funding over a three year period. All the new family resource centres to come on stream in the future will conclude their contracts with the agency.
Section 30(3) will facilitate the transfer to the agency on a phased basis of the existing contracts of FRCs that are already up and running. The provision will allow for a smoother transfer of the administration of the family and community services resource centre programme to the new agency.
Subsection (4) is a standard clause in relation to such transfers.
Will the FRCs have any independent income source?
It is stated in section 8 that the agency, with the consent of the Minister, may make charges as it considers necessary and appropriate in consideration of the provision by it of services and the carrying on by it of any activities.
Does it not have the capacity to do that in the existing structures?
The Family Mediation Service does charge for its training service; otherwise it is free.