Amendment No. 183 in the name of Deputy Yates is related to amendment No. 184 and may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 183:
In page 22, subsection (1), line 3, to delete "three" and substitute "six".
The purpose of the change from three months to six months' notice by management of children's residential centres to the Minister that they are ceasing to carry on the centre is to allow the needs of children to be dealt with. Children who find themselves in such homes could have had a very difficult, emotional past and it is vital that we try to minimise the risk of further damage by the closure of the home and the loss of relationships that would have developed in that home. It is also vital to give them more time to adjust to an alternative setting. The period of six months is more reasonable. For that reason and because of the emotional needs of children I ask the Minister to consider this.
I agree with Deputy Yates. The important factor is time. It is important that children have time to prepare themselves for a change of environment and personnel. They have been used to people looking after them for weeks, months or years in a centre. It is important that they be not just whisked out of that situation and moved on somewhere else without giving them an opportunity to get accustomed to the change. That is particularly so if there is a change of personnel, as there would be if, for instance, the manager is retiring. This is a meritorious amendment and I ask the Minister to look favourably at it.
I am strongly in favour of this amendment because all the weight of psychological evidence would be in favour of it and I imagine practitioners would welcome it too. For example, if an institution is closing down, it is very likely that an identical institution is coming into existence. What is likely to happen is that the people who would be moved would have to be assessed and that procedure would require time. it is likely to give rise to different profiles in relation to the needs of the people who need relocation. In those circumstances, it would be in the child's interests and in the interest of their longer term welfare to have a longer period of time. There is also the initial shock of being dislocated and it will take time to get over that. There is a strong argument in favour of six months and I support the amendment.
I support the amendment. One would hope that such a situation would never arise but I would pose the question in the event of a manager of a residential centre making a decision to close down for whatever reason, should something not be put in this Bill to say he cannot do that? What effect would it have if a person decided they wanted to close down? What can the Minister do unless there are penalties?
That is my concern exactly. I agree with Deputy Yates' amendment. I think it is very laudable on psychological grounds. Any disturbance that takes place in children's lives and the way they are being looked after and cared for should take place in the easiest, gentlest, most caring way possible. I agree fully with Deputy Sherlock. I think this is what he is getting at here: suppose a manager acts irresponsibly, what provisions are there in the Bill for making it mandatory on him — you can say it is mandatory on him if the obligation is placed on him — if he decides to ignore the obligation by ignoring the regulation? Where do you go then? I think it is a very relevant point that managers would be aware of; that in the event of their deciding to act irresponsibly and selfishly by closing down a centre in breach of the regulations laid down by the Minister, there would be an inhibiting factor by way of penalty. I seem to be in a penalty mood today. I think it is important that we would look at that side of it.
The whole purpose of this section is to avoid sudden closures of children's homes resulting in upheaval for the children residing in them. This section requires the management of a home to give reasonable notice of the intention to close down so that the health board have time to arrange alternative accommodation for the children. In response to questions that have been posed, in the event of some unexpected closure it would then be a matter for the health board in whose area this closure occurred, in consultation with the Department, to place the children in proper accommodation, foster care, another home or whatever was suitable to take account of the situation and to ensure the children were not left homeless or were not left in a serious situation. That would be taken into account.
I do take note of what my colleagues have said. Originally we felt that three months' notice would be adequate but I take Deputy Yates' point and that of other Deputies that six months' notice might be better. I am prepared to accept both amendments on that basis. In any event the Minister can, under subsection (2), accept a shorter period of notice where the circumstances require it so that there is adequate flexibility in the provision. Therefore, I accept both amendments.
I move amendment No. 184:
In page 22, subsection (1), line 5, to delete "three" and substitute "six".
I move amendment No. 185:
In page 22, subsection (1), line 7, after "Part" to insert "and in such cases the welfare and needs of the children shall be the primary consideration".
This may be superfluous to requirements but, again, may be important. It is difficult to envisage under what circumstances a children's residential centre would close. I will give two examples where I think this amendment would be important. The first is where a manager gives notice to a health board or to the Department that he wishes to close the centre. We will say the manager felt he could not continue to operate the centre because of under-funding, in those circumstances the Minister would seek to avoid the closure by acting in what would be the best interests of the children and making funds available. That would be one example. The second example would be where the centre was going to close anyway. Say it was agreed by everyone that it should close, the relocation of the children would be done in their best interests and would not be done on the basis of administrative convenience or considerations. In both those areas, given that we are essentially dealing with the 1908 Act and it might be 100 years before this Act is updated, there might conceiveably be circumstances where it would have been important to stitch into the Act that in such cases of closure the welfare and the needs of children should be the primary consideration. I would ask the Minister to consider this in view of whatever unforeseen circumstances might arise in a closure.
I can well appreciate what Deputy Yates is trying to achieve here but it appears that earlier sections take care of what he is trying to achieve, which is that the welfare of the children would be paramount. To that extent perhaps the amendment is unnecessary. What I would say about the closure of children's residential centres is that unless responsibilities and duties are accompanied by sanctions, in particular in relation to section 48, I cannot see irresponsible people responding responsibly.
I do not see any advantage in inserting this phrase here since, as I indicated earlier, the whole purpose of this section is to avoid unnecessary upset for the children living in the home and to ensure that alternative accommodation is obtained for them. It goes without saying, therefore, that the welfare and needs of the children involved is the primary consideration.
The entire thrust of this Bill is the paramountcy principle. Subsection (2) (b) of amendment 14 stipulates that we must regard the welfare of the child as the first and paramount consideration. The health boards will be directed to and — indeed do — regard their function with regard to child care as the welfare of the child and that must be their first consideration at all times. This is the substance of this Bill. I would be grateful if Deputy Yates did not push this amendment.
I still feel that at worst it would be no harm to have this in. However, I will consider it between now and Report Stage and withdraw it for the moment.