Children (Care and Protection) Bill, 1985: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

Before Question Time I was questioning why the Minister had taken unto himself the power of exemption from the regulations in relation to the control of foster homes and private foster care. Section 12 (3) provides that:

The Minister may, if he so thinks fit, grant exemption from the provisions of this section to any class of person undertaking the care and maintenance of children or to any premises in which children receive care and maintenance and may withdraw any such exemption.

I would like to know why the Minister wants that power. He has been very specific in section 12 (2) about the nature of the regulations that will be made. What had he in mind when he decided that he would have this power to exempt any premises or any person involved in foster care? It is important that when a child is placed in foster care the foster parents be selected by somebody professionally qualified in child care and there is nothing in the Bill to indicate that this will be the case. Indeed, what the Minister said this morning about resources would cause concern that the health boards would not be in a position to appoint the type of staff necessary to ensure that the best care is made available to children. I agree with the Minister that no child should be in a children's home if a family setting is available for that child, therefore this section on foster care is important. When the Bill comes to be implemented that section must be appropriate to the needs of children so placed. It was disheartening to hear from the Minister that there are 70 children in children's homes who could have been placed in foster care had the parents given their consent.

I make a point that cannot be made too often, that prevention and good rehabilitation with good family support will ensure that more children will be able to remain in their homes. This is the ideal we should aim at, and it has been the experience in other countries. We welcome the provision for the regulations on children's homes. Again, the Minister has taken the power of exemption from the guidelines he has laid down for the regulations.

Regarding the regulations, the provisions of this Bill will not extend to various institutions listed by the Minister such as any school recognised or premises provided by the Minister for Education — that is fair enough — and a hospital or any institution within the meaning of the Health Acts 1947 to 1985 and the Mental Treatment Acts, 1945 to 1966. I question in this day and age whether children, particularly young children, should under any circumstances be admitted to psychiatric hospitals. I do not believe that the psychiatric hospitals have the appropriate accommodation or facilities for younger children particularly. Perhaps young persons aged between 15 and 17, while it would be better to have some more appropriate place for them, in the absence of another place perhaps could be treated, particularly if they are at risk to themselves, in the psychiatric hospital, but we should not have young children admitted to psychiatric hospitals even though they have to have the written consent of their parents and a letter from their family doctor.

Section 15 provides for regulations for the proper control and conduct of children's homes. Again this might be spelt out a little more in legislation as regards staffing numbers, qualifications and who will be in charge or working in those homes. What qualifications will they need? Will they be home parents, child care workers, persons with a diploma in child care? Admission will be through the health boards except in an emergency, and this is desirable. It is desirable that the homes would be small, that there would be fewer than 24 children in any of these homes in any given time. It would be desirable also that there be a sufficient number of homes to ensure that the children will not be placed too far away from their own homes and their parents who may wish to visit them. In this context at present we have not sufficient homes. Outside the Eastern Health Board area there are only 22 homesin toto in the country. Ideally one would hope that homes would not be necessary, but one would like to see a small home in each community care area so that it would be in close proximity to the parents if they wanted to visit their children. Some form of special home should be provided for children who need special care and attention.

Section 23 puts an obligation on the home to identify children and provide certain services such as advice, guidance service and facilities so as to diminish the need to receive such children into care or to keep them in care. This is one of only two sections in the Bill that goes any way towards prevention. This section is too vague. CARE in their document in 1975 identified the groups who are most at risk where problems might occur with unmarried mothers trying to look after their children on their own, fatherless families, families where the father is long term unemployed, where there are alcoholic problems in the family or where the mother is unable to cope and in the travelling community. They also made a point about the need for an adequate income in all homes, for education and recreational facilities for the proper assessment of handicap if there are children at risk, and for a social work service.

Section 23 is in Part III of the Bill which deals with children in need of care and protection. It refers specifically to children. It does not refer to young persons. I wonder were young persons excluded intentionally by the Minister. I see a case for including in the section and throughout the Bill young persons of 17 years of age as well as those under 15 years of age. Very often persons between 15 years and 17 years could be subject to some form of neglect or abuse, and it might be necessary for the health board to intervene. Persons up to 17 years of age should be included in the Bill.

There is a widening of the health board's authority to take persons into care. At present parents must be dead or destitute, or a child must be abandoned. Under the new proposals the health board can take a child into care while the mother is deciding on adoption, or where the parents are ill, or where there is marital breakdown, or a family crisis. They can take the child in for a short period.

We support the place of safety provisions. The health board have power to designate places of safety and they have power under section 26 (2) to cancel any such designation. Whom do they notify if they cancel a designation? Would they notify the Garda authorities who have fairly wide powers in relation to taking children into care in an emergency and having them placed in a designated home? Section 27 outlines the power the Garda have. If the health board were to cancel a designation, would they notify the Garda so that they would know the place was no longer designated?

Section 28 puts an obligation on the Garda to apply for a care order or supervision order within 72 hours of the child being brought into care in an emergency. I wonder is 72 hours too short a period. If a child were taken ill on a Friday evening, 72 hours might be too short a period to enable them to bring the child before the District Court. The district justice can grant a place of safety order for neglect, or assault, or where parents are unable to provide guardianship or are not providing proper guardianship, and for children who are sexually abused. That is an improvement on the 1908 Act.

There is no accurate information on how much sexual abuse of children and young persons there is in this country. We must address ourselves to that. The information from other countries is that it is quite prevalent. In the States each year 100,000 children are sexually abused, the majority of them by family members. Of those who got into trouble afterwards, in one survey by the Incest Crisis Link in the United Kingdom it was found that 90 per cent of rapists had been abused as children, 30 per cent of rape victims were abused as children and 40 per cent of alcoholics and drug addicts were abused as children. We must ensure that if this is happening in our community we can deal with it effectively and correctly.

Section 33 deals with care proceedings. I wonder whether young persons should be included together with children so that all those under 17 years of age would be protected by this Bill. There is an obligation on the health board to apply for a care order or a supervision order. Who will make that application and who will carry out the supervision? Will it be the authorised officer, or will it be somebody else in the health board? We welcome the new provisions for care proceedings and for supervision orders. In all legislation of this nature it is important to keep a balance. It is important that the health board personnel involved should keep a balance and ensure that, as far as possible, there will be the minimum interference and intervention with the family and that only where it is absolutely necessary will there be intervention to apply for a care or supervision order.

Section 42 is the other section which makes some gesture towards the prevention of abuse. It provides that a health board "shall, as far as practicable and subject to the provisions of this Act, promote the welfare of children in its area". That is vague. This Bill falls far short of providing proper legislation for prevention which is most important in order to ensure that the smallest possible number of children will need care through the health board.

Section 49 provides for the removal of a child from voluntary care. This is another area which must be carefully looked at because there could be a conflict between the rights of the parents, the rights of the foster parents and the welfare of the child. I was glad to hear the Minister stating on a number of occasions that the welfare of the child will be paramount. We must examine this section carefully on Committee Stage. Is the section in conflict with Part III of the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, which provides for enforcement of the right of custody?

Reference is made in section 53 (5) to the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act, 1976, but it is not clear if that Act will be used or some alternative with similar powers to that Act. Section 56 gives health boards power to work in conjuction with voluntary organisations and to have voluntary organisations carry out services on their behalf. One of the major criticisms I have of the Bill is that it does not lay down fairly and squarely the role of the voluntary organisations in the provision of services. We are very proud of having a large number of voluntary organisations engaged in all areas of social activity. We have many great organisations in the area of child care, such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the CARE organisation, Barnardos and many others, who are doing excellent work. The section states:

A health board may, in accordance with such conditions (which may include provision for superannuation) as may be specified by the Minister, make and carry out an arrangement with a person or body to provide services under this Act.

It does not put any obligation on the health board to work in conjunction with these bodies and organisations even where they are providing a very excellent service at the moment.

The task force were very specific in relation to the role of the voluntary organisations and it is disappointing that something positive does not appear in the Bill to ensure that the voluntary organisations who are doing such excellent work are not allowed to continue to do so. They should have some form of statutory authority and the health boards should be obliged to involve these voluntary organisations in such work. The task force report said that the child care authority, who in this case would be the health board, should not use professionally trained workers in aspects of the work which can be performed as well or better by people in local communities, associations or other voluntary workers if such resources exist or can be developed. They list the various areas where voluntary involvement is available at the moment, such as youth services, home help services, pre-schools, play groups, day nurseries and, to a lesser extent, work with mentally handicapped children.

The task force recommended a new form of home help service where the home help would be trained specifically in the care of children as distinct from the position at the moment where they mainly work with the aged and infirm. The task force also suggested that the child care authority should not be directly involved in those associations but, where necessary, the child care authority might assist financially or otherwise voluntary groups who organise play groups. The task force also referred to the provision of youth services, which are mainly provided by voluntary effort and centre around structural activities through clubs and centres. The task force felt that this kind of activity attracted children who are amenable to structures but that it failed to deal with children who are most in need of help who are usually not amenable to organised activities. It is important that there is a proper development of services and that it is acknowledged that there is proper support for the voluntary organisations who are making a valuable contribution to the care of children.

Section 57 makes provision for setting up child care advisory committees by each health board. There is an obligation on health boards to set up such committees. The section states that the child care advisory committee may include persons not members of the health board. It is disappointing that the section does not specify certain people who should be, as of right, on the child care advisory committees. The directory of community care, social welfare workers and representatives of the voluntary organisations providing services in the community should, as of right, be members of the child care advisory committees. This is left entirely to the discretion of the health boards in section 57. While I believe most health boards would ensure that there is proper composition in the child care advisory committees, there is always the danger that this might not happen and we could find a child care advisory committee where there would not be any representative working in the area of child care. It should be written into the Bill to ensure that there are people who are involved in the provision of child care services on the child care advisory committees who will have an important role to play in the provision of services.

Many of the voluntary organisations are concerned about their position when the Bill is enacted. A good case can be made for having a legal obligation on the health boards to accept the services provided by many of the voluntary organisations but also to enter into a contract with them for three years or perhaps five years so that the voluntary associations will be able to provide for their staff and they will know they will be retained for a certain period.

Part V of the Bill provides for custody orders. As the Minister pointed out, the welfare of the child will be paramount. That is important because in other areas there could be conflict between the rights of parents, the needs of foster parents and foster parents' rights. Foster parents, with the parents' consent, can apply for a custody order after one year and the health boards are obliged to give their consent after three years under section 64 (1) (b). If the consent of the parents of the child is not forthcoming after three years, the foster parents can apply to the district justice for a custody order and the health board's consent is not necessary.

Section 66 (4) gives the health boards the right to be heard. I believe they should be directly involved in the case where after three years foster parents can make an application for a custody order, just as their consent is necessary, with the parents' consent, when a couple are applying for a custody order after one year. It is important, in the interests of the child, that there should be health board consent. Section 64 (4) reads that:

A court shall not hear an application for a custody order unless the applicant has given notice of the application within 14 days of the making of the application or such extended period as the court may allow....

I am wondering whether that period is too short particularly in view of the fact that the parent of the child may not be available at that short notice.

Perhaps what is most extraordinary about the Minister's speech is that in dealing with Part VI of the Bill which relates to court procedures and evidence, he devoted fewer than three lines to that entire Part. He said that Part VI provides for various technical measures concerned with the conduct of court proceedings involving children, rules of evidence and so on. Anybody who has read the Bill is greatly disappointed that the court procedures are to be within the District Court system. I am sure the Minister will agree, as all authorities in this area agree, with the need for a proper family court system and with cases involving children not being heard in the present District Court system. The District Court has not the environment, the resources or the support services necessary for dealing with such cases. There should be one district justice initially with special training to hear cases involving children. The task force recommended that such a district justice would have available to him the services of two assessors and that he should be encouraged and facilitated to acquire the knowledge and training necessary for dealing with problems involving children. The recommendation of the task force was that a justice of the children's court should sit with two assessors if he considered that such assessors would be helpful to the proceedings. The task force recommended also that the proceedings be heldin camera and be informal. There were recommendations also about the physical conditions that should obtain in a children's court. The section in the Bill in that regard is very disappointing. It is fundamental that we have a proper procedure for dealing with cases involving children but there is nothing worth while in the Bill in that regard. The Minister may say there will be something on those lines in the third Bill which will be dealing with juvenile justice but that is not sufficient. A great opportunity is missed on this occasion to introduce a very necessary provision, namely, provision for a proper children's court system.

The whole question of the assessment of children and young persons who find themselves in trouble with the law is worthy of serious study especially at a time when serious crimes are being committed by young people and when there are not available the facilities necessary to assess those involved to identify those who need care and those who should be brought before the courts. In the past there may have been a tendency to have more sympathy with the perpetrator than with the victim of crime but it is important to have a balance in this area and to help children who can be helped without the necessity for court proceedings and thereby without prison sentences being imposed. There is a proper system of assessment but it is inadequate to deal with the numbers involved.

On the question of the role of parents whose children engage in criminal activity, some suggest that the responsibility should rest with these parents. While agreeing that parents have a responsibility to ensure that their children are kept out of criminal activity, there are many very good parents who are perplexed on finding that their children are involved in serious crime. It would be wrong that such parents should be charged with any offence committed by their children.

Section 79 provides for a prohibition on the publication or broadcasting of certain matters. One may ask whether that section goes far enough. While it will prohibit the publication of the names of the people involved, it may lead to sensational reporting in some instances and that might not be in the public interest.

The Minister dealt at length with section 83 which deals with the control and sale of solvent substances. We agree with that section because we must ensure that these substances are not available in cases in which they might be misused by a young person.

Another opportunity that was missed in this Bill regards the failure to do something about under-age drinking. There are sections in the 1908 Act that deal with the sale of intoxicating liquor to under-age persons and which deal also with the presence of young people on licensed premises. On this occasion we should have availed of the opportunity of amending the Act so that we might deal with what is a very serious problem. The Minister referred this week to the drinking of cider, so he is very much aware of the problem.

The 1908 legislation should be extended also to the sale of tobacco and tobacco products to young persons. While sections 39 to 45 of the 1908 Act provide for some control regarding the sale of cigarettes, there was no such provision in relation to the sale of tobacco.

We welcome, too, section 86 which provides for the placing of an obligation on the Garda to notify a health board in certain specified cases of crime involving children. This is in the interest of the children concerned and one can only hope that it will have the result of preventing children who have become engaged in crime from committing further crime.

The Minister referred also to the cost of implementing those measures. It is obvious from what he said and also from what we know of this Government, that they have no intention of allocating extra resources to the health boards for the provision of the services that will be necessary in respect of the implementation of this legislation. The Minister might have been expected to make a special allocation to each health board but I recognise that the policy of the Government is to provide services, expanded services and new services out of a reduced allocation. Obviously this also applies to the child care services and will cause major problems in growth areas such as Tallaght which has a population of 70,000 people. If money is not allocated to the Eastern Health Board to provide services for these people they will be seriously deprived. In new towns where people have moved away from their families it is essential to provide proper child care services. In his speech the Minister said:

I would remind the House that the national planBuilding on Reality makes it clear that within the health services the aim will be to bring about a redistribution of resources away from institutionalised services towards community services, particularly those for disadvantaged groups. If we are successful in this aim — and I am making every effort to ensure that we shall be — then I would expect to see gradual but worthwhile developments in our family support services over the next few years. Furthermore the area of the child and the family will be one of my first priorities in relation to any additional funds that may become available.

In other words, if the Minister can save money elsewhere then there will be a gradual introduction of the services necessary for child care. The Government know that there cannot be a saving because every health board has a serious deficit at present. This year the Government transferred responsibility for the general medical service to the health boards. Formerly they were financed from the Exchequer through the payments board. The health boards are in a serious dilemma at present because of an overrun on the cost of the general medical service.

If there is any redistribution it will be absorbed by existing services. As we know, the dental service, the optical service and other services have been practically abolished. The Minister has committed himself to improved services for the care of the aged in the community. Yet he says that if he is successful he would expect to see gradual but worthwhile developments in the family support services over the next few years and that the area of the child and the family will be one of his top priorities. How many different groups has he told that their group will be his top priority since coming to office? It must be asked if the Government are serious about providing the resources necessary to implement what is in the Bill.

A leading article in theIrish Press of 8 May 1985 gave a widely held view of this legislation and stated:

The Children (Care and Protection) Bill is a sorry thing. For nearly 80 years now we have been making the best of the Children Act 1908 in looking after our deprived children. It is over 15 years since the Kennedy Report on Reformatory and Industrial Schools was published, and the whole debate began on child deprivation and the responsibility of the State.

In that 15 years, voluntary bodies, such as CARE and the ISPCC have jolted public opinion and harried the politicians. Governments have made promises, and none more than the present Government. At the end of it all, what we get is a Bill about rescuing children when they are already damaged, a Bill about closing the stable doors too late.

Two things have been taken for granted by those concerned about deprived children. The first is that the main responsibility for looking after children must remain with their own families. In modern conditions, many families will, of course, need support and encouragement from the social services if they are to do the job we expect them to do.

The second thing is that Public Authorities providing social services will only do what comes easy to them or what they are obliged to do by law.

The emphasis in the Bill should, then, have been on family support and on providing an administrative framework to ensure that families who need support will be supported. The Constitution, with its emphasis on the family, demands nothing less; the Government, with its much vaunted commitment to social reform should have offered that at least.

As the seven major child-care organisations have pointed out, this is a policing Bill. If children are neglected or abused, it offers public care after a hearing in a District Court. The District Courts, as we know them, inexpert and over-stretched, are indeed a crude instrument of child care.

The Bill proposes a whole range of court orders to be preceded by social workers' reports, and followed at regular intervals by reviews. The energy of the social workers and the resources of the Health Boards will be spent entirely on the extreme cases and there will be nothing left for supporting families not yet at the brink.

In the coming months, the politicians and the public will be caught up in a debate about what should be done when families break down. When the Government is asked what it proposes to do for families before they break down, for deprived children who are not yet abused or neglected, the Children (Care and Protection) Bill will be no answer.

The majority of the task force believe that many of the services at present under other Departments should be transferred to the Department of Health and that the Department should be the main one dealing with the care and protection of children and young persons. It is disappointing that there is no reference to a transfer of services; for example, special schools are still under the aegis of the Department of Education. Some of these cater for children who are seriously deprived both socially and emotionally. They should be the responsibility of the Department of Health. While there is an educational element in them and that is very important, the same is true of residential institutions for the care of the mentally handicapped. These are under the aegis of the Department of Health and provide education for those resident in them. Some youth services could be transferred to the Department to ensure that they are available to those who are deprived in society. The majority of the task force recommended that the duties of school attendance officers should be carried out through the health boards or the child care authority. Outside of the boroughs, the Act is enforced by the Garda. Young children who miss school on a regular basis are in need of some kind of health care assessment and could be children at risk. Assessment and remand units might be placed under the Department of Health.

It is disappointing that there was no reference in the Bill to the setting up of a national children's council such as was recommended by a number of bodies. Perhaps it is not necessary to have it included in law but it is something that has been strongly recommended and the task force went so far as to suggest that it should have been set up immediately in advance of any legislation. It would have had an advisory, monitoring and promotional function in relation to child care. It is disappointing that there is no indication from the Minister that he intends to set up such a council. The Constitution provides for the protection of children in Article 42 which states:

In exceptional cases, where the parents for physical or moral reasons fail in their duty towards their children, the State as guardian of the common good, by appropriate means shall endeavour to supply the place of the parents, but always with due regard for the natural and imprescriptible rights of the child.

The Bill, in so far as it goes, is in keeping with that Article.

While we support the much needed improvements in the Bill, we are disappointed that the Government, who set themselves up as a Government of social reform, have wasted an opportunity to bring in legislation which would have ensured the highest level of prevention services and comprehensive provisions for the care and protection of children, especially those at risk.

I welcome the Bill which is long overdue. It deals with many gaps in current legislation and tries to provide a better child care structure and legislative framework for dealing with children who are at risk and in need of care and protection.

I am very reluctant at such an early stage to introduce a party political note but I found it difficult to restrain myself during Deputy O'Hanlon's contribution. Criticism of a constructive nature is welcome but to criticise the Bill in a destructive way on the basis that it is not doing enough, without going into the detail of the specifics which he wishes it to do, other than a reference to the task force report, is an indication of the limitation of his party's commitment, research or understanding in dealing with these areas.

The Bill must be welcomed simply because it is there before we deal with its specifics. Different Governments, including those of Fianna Fáil, did absolutely nothing in this area over decades. It is an indictment of all parties that this is the first time since 1908 that we have tried to tackle the legislative framework relating to children's law and child care services. We have tinkered around with it and introduced limited amending legislation over the years but we have never really come to terms with introducing anything that could be described as a comprehensive reforming measure. It is the shame of politicians in all parties that it has taken so long to produce this legislation. It is not as if they did not know about it and, to that extent, some of Deputy O'Hanlon's comments are difficult to stomach. In the three years I have been in the House, I have persecuted successive Ministers for Health, including Deputy Woods when he was Minister for Health, to introduce legislation on children's law. I raised it by way of Dáil Questions, Adjournment debates and on the Order of Business. I welcome the fact that the Government have at least produced this legislation and it appears that the Fianna Fáil Government in office in 1982 were no nearer producing it than I was of flying to the moon because it took the Department another two years to do the necessary background work to put this Bill together. This is not a party political matter. There is no difference in our theoretical mutual commitments to reform in this area. We are all in favour of children just as we are all against sin. We can all join hands in the House and regularly make stirring and passionate speeches in favour of children, born or unborn, but it does not mean that we do anything about it.

The indictment of politicians in all parties can clearly be seen in the Kennedy report in 1970. The introductory portion of that report said that the child care system had evolved in a haphazard and amateurish way and had not radically altered down through the years. It said that it might have been admirable at one time but that it is no longer suited to the requirements of a modern and more scientific age and our greater realisation of our duty to the less fortunate members of society. Politicians ruminated on that throughout the seventies and many of them made stirring speeches in that regard. They ruminated so much that they had to set up a task force in 1974 to urgently report on the issue. The task force took six years to produce their urgent report and, in September 1980, it was made available to a reluctant Department of Health who finally got around to publishing it in 1981. I do not mean that as an insult to anyone in the Department, I know that many officials there are passionately committed to this area. Possibly a Minister sat on it when he tried to understand it before it was printed. What did we do then? We sat on it again, it took nearly five years to produce this Bill and that is why I say that I welcome it simply because it is there. It provides us with the format for implementing many necessary reforms and it also contains a number of reforms that are so badly needed. Those reforms are easily documented and have been referred to by the Minister. I intend to deal with them in some detail later on.

The Bill essentially updates the provisions relating to the care and protection of children in that children can be taken to a place of safety — safety orders could be made under that 1908 Act so that is not an entirely new provision — but it updates the procedure and provides new grounds for taking children into care where that is necessary. It provides flexibility in the context of care orders so that the health boards will have a discretion when children are taken into care, to decide whether a child should be placed in residential or foster care.

It also provides a mechanism which people have been saying for years is necessary but no Government got around to providing it. I refer to the provision of supervision orders for children where there is a belief that they are at risk within the home. It is not necessarily the position that they should be taken out of the home but that families in difficulty or who are inadequate could, with support from the community or the health board, provide within their home care for their children under supervision. Therefore, I welcome in principle the provisions to provide for the making of supervision orders.

The position of foster parents over the years has always been legally ill-defined as our child care services have tried to evolve within the constraints of our archaic legal structure. Over the last three or four years we have sought to place emphasis on foster care and the Eastern Health Board and other boards have been involved in establishing groups such as the fostering resource group. There has been a lack of necessary legal framework to provide protection for children in the context of the fostering arrangement to ensure that such arrangement is stable and to provide protection for the foster parents. In so far as this Bill attempts to deal with that issue I welcome it as an indicator of the Minister's thinking and desire to tackle this problem.

Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,

I should like to thank Deputy Browne for ensuring that I have an audience and congratulate him on his relevant legislative contribution by interrupting our proceedings for six minutes. I should like to welcome him to this important debate and note that he appeared only one minute before calling for a quorum. If this is the level of seriousness of approach by Fianna Fáil when dealing with an important legislative measure of social reform it is a sad indicator of the limitations of that party.

The Deputy is contradicting himself.

Already we have had an example of the limitations of the approach of that party in the contribution by the Opposition's spokesman. Deputy Browne's approach was a more eloquent example of the level of expertise and committed contribution which the party intend to make to the debate. I would welcome the Deputy doing this on a regular basis if for no other reason than that it removes the mask of concern and commitment Deputy O'Hanlon tried to present in regard to this area, a commitment that was never evident at any stage from the party opposite when in Government in the past three of four decades.

Deputy Browne is welcome to call for a quorum on a regular basis because I am sure Deputies around the House are waiting with open mouths to hear the pearls of wisdom I am going to utter on the Bill. I hope he has the decency to allow us to conduct ourselves as a legislative assembly rather than as a playground for parliamentary slapstick in which we can all engage in tossing the odd humourous party political point at each other, or arranging for bells to ring whenever we are bored, run out of constituency work, or have nothing better to do than come into the Chamber and try to make political asses of ourselves.

The Deputy should return to the Bill.

I hope we will have an opportunity to have a constructive debate on the Bill, though to what extent Fianna Fáil will permit that to take place I will wait and see. I also wait with an equally open mouth to see what level of contribution they will make on the substance of the Bill as opposed to simply attempting to score fairly irrelevant political points. I welcome the fact that the Bill provides a number of new legal mechanisms. I referred to the provisions relating to the taking of children into care, providing protection for children by way of place of safety orders, and so on. I also referred to the legislative provisions in regard to foster care and welcomed the fact that when children are taken into care, health boards will have some degree of flexibility in deciding whether that care should be residential or should be by way of foster care. I also welcomed the provisions in a general way relating to day care in creche facilities for children and the provisions to provide a minimum code of standards. That area has grown up greatly in recent years. There is no State involvement in it and I do not think the State wishes to have unnecessary involvement in a way which could prevent people operating such facilities. They are providing a facility that is badly needed but one wants to ensure that minimum standards and basic precautions operate in homes or buildings where such a service is provided. I am referring to the area of fire safety. We must ensure that those offering such facilities are properly suited to look after and care for children.

One of the oddities in the current legal position is that a parent or a couple, deemed to be completely inadequate by the courts to look after their children or whose children were placed with foster parents by a health board can open a day care centre to look after the children of other people. As things stand no meaningful intervention could take place on the part of either the Department of Education or Health. In so far as there will be a basic structure provided in this area I welcome that.

There are a number of things in the Bill that I regard as disappointing. Many aspects of the measure could be greatly improved and I hope that on Committee Stage we will have an opportunity to flesh out some of the provisions, amend some and add to others.

I welcome the Minister's speech. He said he hoped this would be a wide ranging and comprehensive debate, that he had an open and flexible mind to improvements being made in this legislation and he would be willing to consider amending some aspects or adding others as a result of comments made by Deputies and representations which may be made to him by many of the children's and voluntary organisations who campaigned for changes in children's law.

This Bill is welcome. We recognise the work done by many voluntary organisations over the years in seeking to press for changes in children's law and children's services. This is the first opportunity I have had to refer to the work done by these organisations. I have no doubt it is their work and their prodding of politicians which has assisted the Minister in producing this measure. They have helped push politicians of all parties into acknowledging the need for reform and change.

I do not want to insult any individual organisation by leaving them out but tributes should be paid to organisations like CARE, the Campaign for Deprived Children, the Children First Organisation, the Adoptive Parents' Association, ISPCC, Dr. Barnardos, the Irish Foster Parents' Association, the Irish Association of Social Workers and the Association of Workers with Children in Care, all of whom have made important contributions in advocating reforms of law and reforms of child care services and seeking greater facilities for children generally. The Irish pre-School Play Groups Association have made an important contribution. They sought the provision of minimum standards to deal with day care facilities. I have no doubt that the intent of this Bill is welcomed by them and that at some date in the future they will be able to make representations to the Minister about possible amendments they want to see in this legislation, as will all the other organisations.

The people involved in all these organisations have voluntarily laboured for many years. Hard working social workers have devoted a lot of their free time seeking to bring about changes to improve social services and legislative reforms in areas where they see such a need. It is only right to acknowledge the work done by these organisations. Another organisation which sought reforms in this area is FLAC. To some extent I have a vested interest in referring to some of these organisations because I am proud to say that over the years I have had involvement with most of them. The work of these voluntary workers has not received the acknowledgement in this House it so richly deserves.

The Minister referred specifically to the different legislative proposals the Government have to deal with children and children's law. This is the first piece of the legislation. The Minister referred to work being done on adoption legislation, to a juvenile justice Bill and to the status of children legislation which has not yet been published as a Bill but which is contained in a booklet, together with a commentary, seeking public response prior to it being introduced as a Bill.

I hope the Minister will not take this badly, but while I welcome the Bill I am disappointed that we are only at the stage where we have this particular measure. The hope was that we would have a comprehensive Children Act dealing with all aspects of child care and juvenile justice and that an adoption reform measure would be included in a Children Bill. It is unfortunate that we do not have an overall measure covering those areas because this means that we are not seen to be dealing comprehensively with the law in relation to children. We are seen to be categorising the different areas of law and not necessarily acknowledging the interaction between them.

In the context of adoption law, which has been crying out for reform for many years, one of the statements contained in the minority report of the Task Force on Child Care emphasised — and I will paraphrase it — that there was a need to see adoption as an overall part of a child care service and child care legislation and to integrate adoption law into overall children's law. It is unfortunate that adoption law is still being kept as a separate area of legislation. It is also unfortunate that it has taken so long for this Bill to appear. The Minister expressed the hope that we would have adoption legislation in this House before the autumn. I hope he can fulfil that aspiration because in my experience we have a major problem in the area of drafting legislation. The Minister referred to this when he said he would have preferred to produce one overall Bill but because of the length of time it takes to produce this type of legislation we have this Bill as a start.

If we have such difficulty in drafting legislation and providing comprehensive legislative measures in areas where the need for reform is so well documented, the time is long overdue to reform the whole system in the preparation of Bills at the parliamentary draftsmanship stage. I cannot understand why it takes so long. It seems that every Government Department — the Department of Health are not unique in this — have commitments to produce legislation in a wide variety of areas. Much of the legislation is not controversial in the party political sense; much of it is long overdue and necessary, and much of it is required to reform anachronistic legislation which can no longer provide for the social and legal problems of modern society. Yet this legislation seems to be clogged up in a parliamentary black hole which is described as the Office of the Parliamentary Draftsman into which it seems to disappear and out of which it emerges many years later. It seems that different Governments have been caught on this problem. In the areas of social legislation and social reform we seem to be particularly caught.

While I fully accept the Minister's commitment and acknowledge the Government commitment to reform in these areas, once that commitment exists why can we not reform the present procedures that exist in the drafting of legislation? If we do not have a sufficient number of parliamentary draftsmen, why not employ more? I have never been a Minister, I am not a member of a Government and I probably will never be a Minister, but I presume Ministers know how the system operates and have an insight into where the delays are. I find it extraordinary that it is impossible to produce a comprehensive child reform measure dealing with all the areas and that after two and a half years in Government we are only in a position to produce this measure, albeit it is very welcome.

This must be contrasted, for example, with the approach of other democratic countries of similar background to ours. In the early seventies Australia had a similar law system to ours in the area of family law and children's law and their legislation was totally out of date. A Government there in a couple of years was able to introduce one of the most wide ranging legislative reforming measures to deal with family law. What is our problem? Why do we lack the capacity to produce comprehensive legislation quickly? We have that capacity with regard to the Finance Bill, but perhaps that clogs up the works for six months of every year. Legislation of a social reforming nature takes too long to come through.

I fully accept the Minister's commitment and hope that he can fulfil his aspiration of producing an Adoption Bill next year. I have my doubts, not because of any lack of commitment on the part of the Government or the Minister but simply because, having been a Member of this House for three years, I see how slowly Bills emerge out of the bowels of the draftsmanship process.

We are dealing with an important Bill, but because we are not dealing with the adoption area or the juvenile justice area we are tackling only part of the problem. I also regret that the Bill relating to the status of children has not been formally published and given a First Reading before this House. A Bill is not a Bill until it is published in this House. The consultative process that might arise from the publication of a Bill, which is perfectly correct, could just as easily have been dealt with in regard to the Status of Children Bill as with the present Bill if the former had been given a First Reading, had a Second Stage debate and after some months had Committee Stage. I do not see the necessity for producing a glossy booklet containing a draft Bill, with what is basically a precis of the type of memorandum which would accompany a draft Bill, not giving it a First Reading here and not affording the House an opportunity of debating it.

This Bill, in the manner in which it is drafted, has inherent problems contained within it because it has not been preceded by the Status of Children Bill and the Minister does not know whether that Bill will be completed before or after this present one. He has clearly indicated that, if and when the Status of Children Bill comes before this House, this present Bill will have to be amended by that. There is need for an overall approach, to deal with these issues in a more comprehensive way. One cannot divide up children's rights and deal with one part of the problem at one time and another at another. As it has taken us so long to deal with the present part of the problem, I do not know when we will be able to deal with the other parts.

I want to make a number of comments of a general nature relating to the provisions of this Bill. When we come to deal with the Bill on Committee Stage we will have an opportunity to go into matters in far greater detail. First, there is the concept of the child. Let us take the provisions relating to children at risk, in need of care and attention, in respect of whom one may seek a supervision order or a care order, children who may be placed in fosterage or in residential care. It seems to be presumed in the Bill in the context of care proceedings, if we can call them that, that these proceedings can be brought only in respect of children under 15 years of age. If a child of 15 years and one day is being ill-treated and neglected by the parents, under this Bill there is a difficulty, if not an impossibility, in seeking a care order in relation to that child. If parents ill-treat their three children of six years, eight years and 15 years, it seems that a health board could take the two younger ones into care but would have no power to seek an order in relation to the other.

I refer to a document produced by CARE, the Campaign for the Care of Deprived Children, one of the very first comprehensive documents produced by a voluntary organisation, calledChildren Deprived, which was published in 1972. It suggested that it should be possible to make care orders for children up to the age of 17 years. I do not understand why 15 years is the cut off point. In retaining the definition of a child as someone up to the end of his fourteenth year and a young person as someone between the ages of 15 and 17, as this Bill does, we seem, for no explainable reason, to be slavishly adopting the categorisation contained in the Children's Act of 1908, as amended. I do not understand why. It gives rise to a major lacuna in this legislation in the context of what the Minister wants to achieve and what should be achieved.

There are also problems with regard to the definition of a parent under this Bill. A parent in the context of an illegitimate child is expressly said not to include the natural father. In looking for a care order a parent does not include the natural father if the child is illegitimate. What we think about when talking about illegitimate children is a child born to an unmarried mother, who has not been married to the father of the child and is not living with him. In those circumstances we can envisage that the father of the child is an irrelevancy as regards determining whether the child should be taken into care or not. The problem is that children are illegitimate under our law in circumstances not as simplistic as that. The problem, effectively, is that children may be illegitimate, for example, if one parent has been married, has obtained a Church decree of annulment and remarries in church. If a wife has remarried for the second time in church and is living with her second husband and is regarded by the Catholic Church as genuinely married to him, the civil law does not recognise the marriage. They can have as many children as they like, but the problem is that, although the parties have gone through a form of marriage because the child is regarded as illegitimate, the father is regarded as playing no role and having no rights and no involvement in the context of any care application made by a health board.

Debate adjourned.