SECTION 35.

I move amendment No. 163:

In page 18, lines 8 to 10, to delete the definition of "pre-school child" and substitute "‘pre-school child' means a child who is aged between two and six years;".

This is a fairly straightforward amendment. It relates to the definition of a pre-school child. All children over six would be in school and would, therefore, not be pre-school children and all children under two would be too young to be in the pre-school category as they would be infants. I think this is an improvement. I received representations from a number of interested groups that they would prefer to have this than the initial definition included.

Amendment No. 163areads as follows:

In page 18, lines 8 to 10, to delete the definition of "pre-school child" and substitute the following:

"‘pre-school child' means a child who has not yet attained the age of six years;".

What is important in this section is to arrive at what is appropriate and what is the most suitable definition in the Bill. Before we came to this section, as members may be aware, I met with a group of people who are specifically and solely involved in pre-school groups, day centres and day nurseries. We went through this section very carefully and I felt that what they wanted and saw as relevant should come in for debate.

There seems to be confusion about the whole definition of pre-school and perhaps the Minister could comment on that. We all have a clear picture of what that is, that is, children who are in a school, a social school type situation or learning type situation, between certain age groups before they go to standard school. We have a bit of a problem and I did try to amend the title of the section. In the definition between day care, day nursery, pre-school, all of these terms indicate different things. I would be a little bit concerned, as I know the groups I spoke with are concerned that they are all being lumped together, when there are very different needs for different groups.

To discuss specifically this amendment, the feeling again is that it should be openended because, while I see Deputy Yates' amendment as being relevant as well, are we sure we are not going to be talking about children under this age of two years? Are we going to be talking about children from birth, babyhood and up? If you confine it to this amendment maybe it would be unfortunate, because it would not deal with and could not cope with the younger children. I would like the Deputy to consider this strictly. It is really dealing with Deputy Yates' point of view, only it is defining it a little bit more.

I do not understand what Deputy Yates is trying to achieve in amendment No. 163. The amendment would have two effects. First, it will bring within the scope of this Part of the Bill children of four and five years of age who are attending national school. This seems to me to be an unnecessary duplication of the functions and responsibilities of the Department of Education towards such children. I will deal with this in more detail when I respond to amendment No. 163a in the name of Deputy Fennell. The second effect of amendment No. 163 would be to exclude from the provisions of this Part children who are less than two years of age. Thus, infants attending nurseries and cr�ches would not stand to benefit from the scheme of regulation and inspection we are creating here. That is a major omission and on that basis alone I urge Deputy Yates to withdraw amendment No. 163.

On amendment No. 163a I accept that the definition of pre-school child here is rather cumbersome and I am aware it has been criticised by some of those involved in providing pre-school services. I would like, therefore, to explain why the definition reads as it does. Under the School Attendance Acts the minimum age at which children are required to attend school is six years. Despite this, as everyone here was well aware, it is a long-established practice that parents start sending their children to school from the age of four years upwards. It has been estimated that over 50 per cent of four-year-olds in the country are attending national school. The figure for five-year-olds is over 90 per cent. The number of children involved is of the order of 100,000 in our country.

The whole purpose of this Part of the Bill is to provide a scheme of control and inspection of services which are not subject to any form of statutory regulation at present. However, this is not the case with regard to four and five year old children who are attending national schools. Those children benefit from the various rules and regulations laid down by the Minister for Education with regard to the conduct of national schools. In addition, the Department of Education have a well developed and highly professional schools' inspectorate which monitors all aspects of the operation of schools.

In preparing the Bill the Government took the view that it would be wasteful and inefficient to duplicate the responsibilities and activities of the Department of Education in so far as four and five-year-olds attending school are concerned by imposing obligations on the health board in relation to the same group of children. I might add that a similar attitude was adopted by the former Coalition Government in preparing the 1985 Bill. Under that Bill regulations in this area were not to apply to care provided by or in any school recognised by the Minister for Education. It seems to me that the safety and welfare of young children attending schools was adequately protected through existing arrangements under the overall supervision of the Minister for Education. Therefore, we should confine this Part of the Bill to children who are attending services and facilities that are not subject to any regulations at the moment.

I do not accept the basic assumption that those children who are five and six years of age or four and five years of age at primary school are perfectly well cared for. I think that is a dangerous assumption. Part of the modern concepts of child care services involve a preventive role for health boards and this is acknowledged in other aspects of this Bill. That requires some care for these children over and beyond strictly educational aspects of four and five-year-olds who are at national school. I do not believe it is right to distinguish between the separate roles of education and care. The child care coalition strongly agree with this definition and it is in line with what is happening in other EC countries. I would feel strongly as regards the one and two year olds. I take your point on that. I would not wish to give them any less protection in cr�ches than I would give to other pre-school services. Therefore, I would acknowledge that point, but it is wrong to assume that the caring requirements in the preventive role of the health board are non-existent because children are in national school. In my view it is flawed.

Would it be possible for the Minister to give us the benefit of his thinking in the area I explained earlier concerning the concepts of pre-school children? Are we talking about day care, day nursery, pre-school, play groups? I know it is called pre-school services but in the definitions it incorporates much more — cr�ches, day nursery, day care etc.

On page 18 of the Bill a pre-school child means a child who has not attained the age of six years and who is not attending a national school or a school providing an educational programme similar to a national school. Pre-school service means any pre-school, play group, day nursery, cr�che or other similar service which caters for pre-school children. I think the Bill is very explicit.

I will speak later on the section which deals with the different treatments that are required for all these groups.

Deputy Yates, are you pushing your amendment to a vote?

Is the Minister reconsidering his position after my last intervention?

I think I made my position very clear. I have outlined the position and you have accepted at least 50 per cent of what I said as being in order. I have outlined the facts fairly clearly and I hope Deputy Yates will not push his amendment. However, that is for him to decide. I have given commitments in the past and he still chose to push them.

I withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 163a:

In page 18, lines 8 to 10, to delete the definition of "pre-school child" and substitute the following:

"‘pre-school child' means a child who has not yet attained the age of six years;".

I am disappointed that the Minister will not agree to delete the section after "six years" as I have outlined in my amendment and make the definition more general rather than specific. I would be prepared to withdraw my amendment and come back to it again at a later stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

We proceed to consideration of amendment No. 164 in the name of Deputy Yates. Amendment No. 164a is related. With your permission, amendments Nos. 164 and 164a together.

I move amendment No. 164:

In page 18, line 12, after "creche" to insert ", day-care".

With regard to amendment No. 164 I might explain first that the term "day-care" was not used in the Bill because it is a term that is used in the health and social services in a wide variety of different contexts. For example, we have day care services for the elderly, day care for the handicapped, and increasingly day care services in our psychiatric and general hospitals. To avoid any confusion it was thought best not to use the term. However, if the committee feel that it would be useful to insert the term I would have no difficulty in agreeing to do so.

In view of what the Minister said I will take him up on his kind offer as the definition of "day-care" as it affects Part VI of this Bill, can only cover those who have not attained the age of six years, and so that the confusion he mentioned cannot arise because of the earlier definition. We do not know what is going to be established in terms of new facilities, cr�ches, day facilities, different parental patterns, career patterns and so on, and we should have the widest possible set of definitions so that there would be no exclusion sought from what are essential regulations. I would ask the Minister, therefore, to accept the amendment.

I support this very strongly. This was one of the views expressed by the group who are involved in this area.

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 164a:

In page 18, line 12, after "for pre-school children" to insert ", including those grant-aided by health boards".

I think there is a related amendment. Is it amendment No. 176?

Amendment No. 164b and 176b are related. We are on amendment No. 164a.

I move this amendment because I feel we should include in this Bill any and all pre-school projects or centres for children, including those grant-aided by the health board.

As regards amendment No. 164a, I do not see any great need to extend the definition to include a reference to services grant-aided by health boards. It is the intention that these services will be subject to the provisions of this Part of the Bill in the normal way. Again, however, if the committee feel that it would be desirable to make specific reference to these services I have no objection in doing so.

I thank the Minister and ask him to accept the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.
Section 35, as amended, agreed to.