Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 5 Apr 2000

Vol. 517 No. 4

Children Bill, 1999: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

I pointed out yesterday the good work health professionals and juvenile liaison officers are doing in difficult circumstances with scant resources. There has been a significant increase in the number of children in care in the past ten years, creating problems for those professionals and others trying to cater for a situation which arose in surprising circumstances. It is a contradiction that there should be a 52% increase in the number of children in care in the past ten years when the economy has become so buoyant over the same period. The number has increased from 2,614 in 1988 to 3,984 in 1998. It is estimated that 61% of those children come from "a lone parent" background. We should attempt to find out why so many children from one parent families end up in care.

The health boards are spending an enormous amount of money trying to place children with behavioural problems in suitable accommodation in Britain. Resources for the care of such children should be provided at home if possible. It would be less expensive than having delinquent children placed in homes in England.

Raising of the age for criminal responsibility from seven to 12 years is a positive element in the Bill. It is an outdated concept that a seven year old child can be a criminal. Deputy Currie tried to introduce legislation which raised the age of responsibility to ten years of age and this Bill goes two years further. Another positive aspect is the emphasis on community work, which is often more effective than a prison sentence. Those who have been involved in such work have done very good service to the community. This is a step in the right direction.

The Bill has been anticipated for many years and it is good that we are discussing it at long last. It is essential that the resources are provided to ensure it is properly implemented. The situation for children will be improved by this Bill.

I compliment the Minister and his officials on this comprehensive legislation. In his term of office to date, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has initiated more than half the legislation dealt with by the House. He is to be complimented on the workload he has undertaken and the comprehensive nature of the legislation he has brought forward.

This legislation, which deals with a complex area, is no exception. In reading the Bill and its explanatory notes, many issues come to mind. Those will need to be addressed if the Bill is to be implemented successfully.

I compliment Deputies Ring and Carey on the manner in which they outlined how the Bill will affect constituents who come to our clinics with various problems. As we debate this comprehensive Bill, it is essential to reflect on the issues with which we are confronted in our constituencies relative to the sections of the Bill to ensure we do not lose sight of the issues. While we will provide a framework for the working of the legislation, there is often a difference between how that framework operates and how it delivers in a tangible way the protection and assistance needed. Legislation is passed into law, but in some cases it might as well not exist because it does not address in a tangible way the needs of the people affected by it.

As society is constantly changing, a comprehensive Bill such as this also needs to be reviewed on a regular basis. While it consigns to history the 1908 Act, we will need to constantly review this legislation because people's problems are also constantly changing and, for some, the changes in society always seem to be for the worst.

The pressures of modern living experienced by family units are enormous and cause serious problems in households. Those pressures place further pressures on the children of those families and we should seek to protect them in the first instance. That is the function of this Bill. Rich and poor families are affected by the pressures of life and when the dysfunctional aspect creeps into the lives of families it knows no bounds.

My concern regarding such pressures and dysfunctional families is for the children of marginalised families, the children of families who have little or nothing to look forward to in their lives. Their parents may be unemployed or employed with no aspiration. Life for them may mean just getting up and doing the same thing day after day. That attitude can create problems for the children of those families. They may grow up without any aspiration in their lives which gives rise to a never ending circle of activity, with the children almost certainly following the same path as their parents unless we can help them to break out of the cycle of poverty, neglect, torment or the dysfunctional aspect of family life.

While I do not want to categorise children, it is useful to examine how different groupings of children are affected by such pressures. The parents of some children do not care about life while the parents of others are divorced or separated. Some children are out of control because something is missing in their family units and other children quietly suffer through ill health or neglect. There are also children who are institutionalised in homes and looked after by others.

Regarding children whose parents do not care, the Bill touches on many of the aspects of that problem. Within social welfare we have created a model in the family resource centres which can be of great assistance to the children of parents who do not acknowledge their responsibilities. It is necessary to constantly emphasise that parents must acknowledge their responsibility for their children.

The family resource centre provides some support for such families and they have proven to be particularly successful in urban areas. While they continue to be funded and are relatively new, they could take on much more of the work done by the agencies and perhaps provide a more personal service for the families affected or for family units that are breaking down. The role of such centres in this regard should be examined by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. In terms of implementing the provisions of the Bill, the centres should be examined with a view to their providing a support mechanism and in this regard they would require further financial support and education for their leaders.

Families come together in those resource centres and give leadership to their communities. There is nothing like peer leadership from people in a community who have found a way out of the vicious cycle and who are prepared to give back to their communities by way of the benefit of their experience. The homework clubs within the family resource centres are working because the parents of the children who need it are being asked to participate. There is a two way process at work. The parents of the children are being re-educated and the children who have suffered through a lack of education are finding a support mechanism to break the cycle. The parents and the children are now almost going back to school in the evenings and that has a very positive effect on the development of communities. To a degree, we do not acknowledge their input enough, otherwise we would allocate them more funding and further expertise. The family resource centres, the homework clubs and the home economic clubs advise parents on how to get as much as possible out of their limited resources to put food on the table. That has been a simple but very important component of the activity of those clubs. All of that helps to strengthen children's understanding and an understanding of the needs of children in the home. It helps to develop a bond between the parent and the child and to provide a learning curve for the family unit because an interest in education and learning has been renewed in the family as they begin to participate in the community.

More qualified social workers in this area should be provided. Part 2 deals with family welfare conferences. Section 16 deals with children in need of special care or protection. It emphasises the new role the health boards will play as a support mechanism in this regard, but we must acknowledge that we are asking the health boards, which are already underfunded, do not have the necessary expertise and whose staff are overworked, to carry out the work in hand.

While this is a good idea on which I commend the Minister, we must ensure a large amount of money is found to support the family unit, through the health boards, by way of family conferencing and intervention at an early stage, as proposed in the Bill. Many parts of the Bill refer to funding and providing proper professional staff to interface with the family unit which finds itself in trouble. Children who are not being looked after are part of a unit which is in difficulty.

The second group are children of parents who are divorced or separated for one reason or another. In these modern times, we must all understand that separated parents or partners are part and parcel of life. We need to support the single parent, be it a mother or father, who finds himself or herself rearing children. Sufficient tangible support is not delivered by the health boards or other agencies to support the growing number of people who find themselves trying to look after a family while trying to work, keep a roof over their heads, give guidance and leadership and participate fully in the education of their children. Even with two parents, it is a difficult job to match every demand from primary or second level schools to assist in the education of children. We must give special consideration to those people who are separated and cannot devote time to ensuring good education for their children.

Another aspect of separated parents is that more often than not the male partner is the one who finds himself out of the family home. Yet, once he keeps in constant contact and is supportive in rearing his children, he will not be given a local authority home because the housing waiting lists are growing and his priority in terms of accommodation is way down the line. Men who are almost homeless and seeking accommodation to provide for family visits cannot achieve this. I find this heartbreaking because these men are making special efforts to participate in rearing their children and supporting their family from a distance. We should ensure that a parent at least has reasonable visiting accommodation to be able to take his children as often as the law requires or the partnership seeks through the intervention of the Department of the Environment and Local Government or the rent subsidy scheme of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. More and more of these people are coming on to the housing waiting lists and finding no support. The Bill caters for many aspects but other Departments should give support and ensure this problem is dealt with. The partner outside the home should be supported in finding accommodation so that family sharing can be accommodated.

Homelessness for separated men or women, or the children of that family, can happen very easily. These people fall out of the education net, are not picked up by family resource centres, find themselves sleeping rough on the streets and almost go unnoticed until a neighbour or friend identifies the problem or the child becomes ill and turns up in a hospital. Then all the bells start ringing. However, in the course of the difficulties such children experience as a result of the break-up in the home, no bell rings because the infrastructure within the health boards is simply not adequate to find out about these children. These children do not come to public notice until there is a crisis. We should support that family, because it is basically a unit with participants willing to make it function, albeit from a distance. We cannot allow this situation to continue and I would like to see it addressed by way of the health boards, local government and this Bill.

The other grouping to which I want to refer is children who are simply out of control. It is interesting the Road Traffic (Joyriding) Bill was debated during Private Members' business last night. Effectively, we are talking about teenagers and children as young as ten years of age, sometimes even younger, who are totally out of control and where no family responsibility is being exercised. These children are out on the streets and doing what they want. Perhaps at this point we should acknowledge the many members of the Defence Forces and the Garda who down through the years turned up at the local community centre after they left their barracks or Garda station and involved the young people in playing football and so on and gave them something to do. They gave these children a way of life other than crime into which so many young people are now entering. The voluntary contribution of these people to society and to the family unit was greatly appreciated. Part of the Bill deals with this issue and puts it on a statutory basis. My concern is that we will train and put in place people who will function during working hours but when these problems emerge, generally speaking they emerge well outside working hours, we will be faced with a serious difficulty. I would like to see that part of the Bill married to the voluntary contribution being made by so many up to now and that effort being encouraged at community level so that there will be seven days a week care and trust for these people who find themselves in difficulty.

We must ensure that those who quietly suffer, whether in the home or in institutions, no longer have to do so. We must find a way of reaching out to these children. I commend the Minister on bringing the Bill before the House and I hope the debate will unfold some way of ensuring that what happened in the past – I come from Kilkenny city where we have had a bad experience – will not happen in the future.

I am pleased the Minister is in the House this morning and, lest he is replaced by someone else, I will begin with what should be the end of my speech. It may be difficult for the him to listen to all the contributions and take them on board. His mind may be wandering to blue seas around Cahirciveen. However, I will make a point about illiteracy. There is no relationship between illiteracy and intelligence. One of the main reasons there is so much juvenile delinquency is that many children are illiterate. The problem of illiteracy is not being addressed in school – I am aware this will offend many teachers. Many of my friends are teachers, as is my wife – because many teachers cannot identify it. If they are lucky enough to identify it, they cannot deal with it, and this includes remedial teachers.

I have a video of a programme on Channel 4 which I said I would send to the previous Minister for Education and Science. I shall send it to the Minister's private secretary before the end of the month. Perhaps during the Easter period he will have an opportunity to view it. The research was carried out on a detention centre for juvenile delinquents south of Edinburgh. Prior to the survey it was estimated that in Ireland dyslexia affected 4% of the population some time ago; research shows it affects 8% or 10%. Before conducting the survey at the detention centre the researchers estimated it might be 15% or 20%. The results were startling. Some 50% of those in the detention centre suffered from dyslexia. Dyslexia is not a terminal illness. If discovered in time it can be addressed. The esteem of those in the detention centre was increased when the difficulty was addressed. In the past one-third of a class was considered average, one-third was intelligent and one-third was thick as their father and grandfather and were put at the back of the class. That is simply not true.

While there is full employment, 200,000 are unemployed and each year there are 10,000 early school leavers. The 200,000 unemployed includes those 10,000 early school leavers. The Minister will be familiar from his clinics in Kerry with the wife who comes to him and says her husband is due to finish his FÁS scheme in a few weeks' time and he is in a state of depression and asks if his FÁS scheme can be extended. He likes it and gets on great with his colleagues but cannot go out to find a job. The reason for this is that he has a set pattern of work which is not academic and does not involve paperwork. He does not want to go into a factory where there are signs stating one must wear a hard hat, wash hands, clock in and clock out, etc., because he cannot read and is afraid to admit it to his peers. I ask the Minister to bear that in mind and, with the Minister for Education and Science, to set up some research. It is available in the United States and in England and that may save us having to go back to invent the wheel.

When we look at the Brinks Mat robbery a few years ago, and various other robberies, we ask how they were carried out. We must remember we are dealing with people who commit crime. They may be illiterate but they are intelligent. Their way of striking back at society is to go out and commit crime because society has failed them by not addressing their reading difficulties.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill which has been a long time coming. I note that the Minister in his opening paragraphs stated that he does not wish to take up the time of the House outlining the many twists and turns, over recent years, that have eventually culminated in the Bill and then goes on to do so. No matter what the background, it is important that this Bill has eventually reached Second Stage. It covers three areas of law – it provides the framework for the development of the juvenile justice system, it re-enacts and updates the 1908 Act and it provides for a family welfare conference and other new provisions for dealing with out-of-control non-offending children.

We are all aware of how vulnerable children are and while many of us would like to think that Dickens and Fagin do not belong to our age, we are sadly very wrong. One does not have to walk over O'Connell Bridge to witness the exploitation of children; it happens in many other areas of this country and is manifested in many forms, be it in child prostitution in a public toilet or in the collection of glasses in a well established lounge. Many children are simply deserted by their parents. During the Christmas period I had reason to spend several nights in a children's ward in a hospital in Dublin and it was heart wrenching to discover a little three year old boy crying each evening for his mother having not received a visit for over a week. It is difficult to tune into such an existence. However, there is an onus on us to deal with such situations.

Strangely enough in medieval times, the age of majority became fixed at 21 years but, for all but the upper classes, this was irrelevant since even the very young worked as soon as it became physically possible. In this Bill a "child" means a person under 18 years of age. A child has a limited participation in its own decisions. Children cannot vote, sit on a jury, hold public office or own land. The Children Act, 1908, was the basis for the creation of our present juvenile system and the time has definitely come to revamp our approach and to establish and implement a system that serves our children and our time and causes them to stop and reflect how their actions can impact on victims. This is a theme that could easily be extended right across the criminal law area. Many difficulties have been experienced over the years in introducing comprehensive juvenile justice legislation.

In the 1980s the Department of Health and Children made proposals, which included juvenile justice provisions, aimed at replacing the 1908 Act. In the mid 1990s the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform took over this work. The key factor which delayed, frustrated and blocked the progress was the difficulty in agreeing the respective responsibilities of the main Departments concerned, namely, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Health and Children and Education and Science. Under new legislation this was overcome when Deputy Currie was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for Children's Affairs at the three Departments and immediately took on the task of progressing this legislation. On his appointment he established under his chairmanship a co-ordinating committee of officials from each of the Departments.

One of the first tasks of the committee was to break the impasse of responsibility that was holding up progress on a children's juvenile justice Bill. Agreement was reached that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform would be responsible for the detention of 16 and 17 year olds, the Department of Education and Science would be responsible for young offenders under 16 years of age and the Department of Health and Children would be responsible for disturbed non-offending children. Deputy Currie then brought forward the Children Bill, 1996.

Ireland is not unique in thinking that we have difficulties with juvenile crime. It is a feature of developed countries that problems arise with juvenile delinquency and crime to a greater and lesser extent and many have more serious problems than Ireland. Juvenile crime has been always with us. After feudalism broke down in Europe, every succeeding generation of adults has considered itself to be in the middle of a juvenile crime wave, with some children effectively out of control and it was considered that things were better in the days of their youth.

The reaction of legislators heretofore has been by and large to introduce harsh measures to deal with delinquency at times of particular concern. Opinion swings full circle when the harsh measures are not seen to work and a more liberal approach is then followed. When this does not work there is a return to the harsher measures and a cycle of juvenile justice oscillation between the two traditional approaches, the juvenile justice delinquency model and the welfare model. It is accepted that this country and this Bill embraces, as did the 1996 Bill, that the most appropriate system for this country is a modified form of a justice model which incorporates suitable elements of the welfare model. This is the best way to break out of the cycle earlier described.

It facilitates the individual child offender to be dealt with in a way that presents the best and most appropriate hope for rehabilitation while ensuring the common good of society generally, and also ensures that the feelings of the victims of juvenile crime are taken into consideration.

We must examine clearly why there is such a high level of crime with juveniles at a time when the standard of living of most of the population has never been higher. Studies show that a high percentage of crime is committed by young males who live in the more socially deprived areas of our cities and towns. Drugs are a major factor in many areas but it is also the case that only a small number of children in deprived areas actually become involved in crime. We must learn to know why this happens and detailed studies must be completed to enable us to tackle and deal with the problem rather than dealing as we are in this Bill with the outcome of the problem.

The juvenile who commits crime is usually a boy from a deprived background. The family is often dysfunctional with a strong possibility that one or both parents, or brothers or sisters, was previously involved in criminal activity. He often suffers from low self-esteem. He will also associate with people who are involved in juvenile delinquency and will be under intense peer pressure. He will have very little medium to long-term planning for his future or for a career. He may have a short attention span and have difficulty relating with other people. He may crave attention and acceptance by his peers through his behavioural activity.

Most crime committed by children is petty. Larceny is by far the most common and the majority of crime, such as housebreaking, shoplifting and breaking into cars, are committed by boys in the 14-15 age group. For the Bill to operate the Department of Health and Children must provide substantially increased resources to the health boards to develop child and family support services. This difficulty is found in all areas of legislation. A great deal of legislation is being brought forward, perhaps too much, but we cannot implement it because of a lack of resources. While the financial resources may now be available, in many cases the human resources are not.

More finance must be provided to help in the provision of services for families and children under stress. Residential accommodation facilities and support services for at-risk adolescents and young homeless people must be made available. Parenting courses, family resource centres and counselling and social education programmes must be provided. All schemes must be available and aimed at disadvantaged areas, children in need and parents under stress or who lack parenting skills. Many groups and societies now provide courses in parenting skills. People of an older generation sometimes dismiss the need for them and say that parents should have these skills instinctively, but this is often not the case. Given that we have so many young mothers we must examine the concept of parenting skills courses.

The objective of these schemes must be to prevent young people becoming involved in crime. It is accepted that young boys need role models. Many families today are single parent families and 95% of these consist of children with their mother whose father is absent. Society is changing fast and the State has a duty to ensure that a child has a right to know his father and to have his father's influence. Society must state that fathers have a duty and responsibility to take a parenting role. If a father is absent or inadequate and a mother is under pressure because of her personal circumstances, young boys look to their peer group to relate. If this group is comprised of young children in similar difficulties it will be easy to become involved in petty crime. With very low self esteem, very little sense of worth and no hope for the future, those young people can get satisfaction from breaking the law and ending up with the proceeds of their crime. They can also quickly learn that the justice system, in their circumstances, does not exist. They no longer fear the gardaí, judges or authority because they understand that nothing will happen them. They can then be influenced by more serious criminals who will use their vulnerability and recklessness to involve them in serious crime which often includes drug related offences.

The approach of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to increase prison numbers, while welcome, should also include a deep examination of why people start committing crime, what brings them into crime and why they commence on the road which eventually leads them to prison. We must try to get to the root of the problem. Most of the reasons for youthful crime are environmental, educational or social. We must recognise that approximately 90% of prisoners left school before they reached their 16th birthday. This highlights the educational and environmental backgrounds which influence the development of criminal activity in a young person. In most cases it is shown that they are oblivious to the suffering and difficulties they inflict on their victims. They do not understand the trauma such victims go through. In fact, they do not wish to care about this. This must change and such people must be made responsible for the outcome of their activities and be sensitive to the hurt caused.

The family has changed dramatically. When I was young the traditional family consisted of a mother, father, children and their children. In today's society the family comprises many types of units. It might be composed of a single parent and children or a man and woman who have families from previous relationships as part of their family. This is not a very important issue. What is important is that parents take responsibility for the children in their care. More juvenile offenders are produced from dysfunctional families, particularly where there is a history of alcohol abuse, drug abuse, criminal activity and physical and sexual abuse. The services must assist all families, whether they are described as dysfunctional or otherwise.

Our present approach is inadequate. It is not right simply to remove the young person and obtain another place for him in an overcrowded detention unit, whether in the short or long-term. The best place for a child to be reared is with his or her family. More emphasis must be placed on the responsibility and duty of parents to bring a child to adulthood and to prepare him to have a productive, happy and fulfilling future.

Education has a key role. There must be a serious examination of our education system which does not respond to areas of underprivilege. Designed often by comfortable, middle class professionals, it is not accepted by, or relevant to the underprivileged. Juvenile crime must be seriously, comprehensively and radically tackled at its source. Parents have rights but they also have responsibilities and they must not be allowed to abdicate their responsibility for parenting their children. The best opportunity for a child to have a crime-free, drug-free and decent life opportunity is to have a background which is secure and supportive. Detention for child offenders must only be seen as a last resort. Alternative forms of sentencing must have a priority. Community service must be developed and better funded and monitored, with meaningful and productive projects and programmes to involve the child and to bring to the child a sense of contribution to the good of the community while under the supervision in the schemes.

The combination of increased community service and the curfew provided for in the 1996 and 1999 legislation will have several benefits. It will keep the young offender out of prison and detention, thus having an effect on both those systems by reducing overcrowding. The work which is provided must be productive and designed to sow the seeds of community and civic spirit in the offender. The community will benefit from the work done. Community service must be suitable in terms of where it takes place, the length of time on the service and its value to the community. This approach, installing in the offender a sense of rehabilitation, must be the overriding factor with the punitive or humiliating aspect of such service being minimised.

Adequate Government funding must be provided for community centres where young people are encouraged to keep active and occupied. Drug related crime involving juveniles must be closely examined. We must look at all types of drug related crime such as possession, feeding the habit and crimes committed while under the influence of drugs. I call for more funding for drug treatment programmes for juveniles. These must be introduced as a matter of urgency and I compliment the former Minister of State, Deputy Flood, who has done Trojan work in this area. Young offenders might be given a choice of detention for the full statutory period or a reduced sentence with attendance at intoxication treatment programmes.

Education is the way out of the difficulties experienced by many communities. The education programmes must respond to the difficulties experienced in these communities. In modern Ireland we emphasise the individual more than the group. In the more affluent areas young people are given the means to achieve their expectations, including a thorough formal education. In many families in such areas there is an automatic expectation that the child will attend a third level institution. In some less well-off families an interest and motivation is instilled in young people and the means are given to obtain a trade or skill.

I cannot over emphasise the importance of literacy. The Minister could be the man to address this issue. Like Socrates he could adopt an idea, although I hope he will not come to a similar end.

I congratulate the Minister on introducing this Bill and I welcome the opportunity to make this contribution to the debate.

I agree with Deputy Timmins's comments regarding literacy. Two years ago, this was the first issue selected for study by the Joint Committee on Education and Science. Literacy levels in Ireland and Great Britain are frighteningly low compared with other countries in northern Europe. This is why there has been such an emphasis on adult education which covers all areas of literacy. Green Papers and White Papers on this issue have been published. While people may be able to read words on a page, they may not be able, for example, to follow instructions on a medicine bottle. Frustration and even danger can follow from this inability. I am glad this issue has been mentioned and that funding is now being provided for adult and ongoing education.

We have recently had debates on the Children Bill, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Bill and the Education (Welfare) Bill. The emphasis is on issues that affect children, of which literacy is one. One gets the impression in listening to debates on the subject that children are only interested in watching television. In many instances they are addicted to it. In this respect parents and the media have an important to role to play. I am critical of the level of violence depicted on television programmes. Many children have said to me that they would like to see more sports programmes on television. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Sky Television can devote a series of channels to such programmes. This is a matter RTE should examine.

While there may not be a swimming pool or games room in many small towns and villages, there is normally a sports field where games such as gaelic football, soccer and rugby are played. We must applaud community and voluntary organisations on the great efforts they are making to help children participate in sport. This is one of the areas which must be examined in the context of the White Paper on rural development which states that all policies must be rural proofed in considering new decentralisation programmes. At its meeting yesterday the National Economic and Social Forum highlighted the need for poverty and eco proofing. It should be clearly stated, however, that all policies should be child centred. This applies to the new national school curriculum in respect of which teachers are undergoing in-service training. National lottery funds should be spent on the provision of sports and other facilities for children in rural areas.

The Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs also has a role to play. Although the economy is performing well, many families encounter great difficulties in meeting the cost of school uniforms and school contributions. To reduce the size of local contributions in recent days the Minister for Education and Science announced an increase in school grants. While this is welcome, the back to school clothing and footwear allowance should be improved.

Children in particular are hooked on advertisements, particularly in the run-up to Christmas when great pressure is exerted on parents. The major British soccer clubs seem to change their jerseys and shorts every few months. Children want to have the latest strip.

I join the Minister and other Deputies in paying tribute to Deputy Currie on the work he put into the 1996 Bill. As the Minister said it had to be replaced by this more comprehensive Bill which repeals the Children Act, 1908, and deals with three main areas of law. It provides a modern statutory framework for the further development of the juvenile justice system, re-enacts and updates provisions in the 1908 Act protecting children against abuse by persons who have the custody, charge or care of them, and provides for family welfare conferences and other new provisions for dealing with out-of-control non-offending children.

Several Parts of the Bill are the responsibility of the Minister for Health and Children, namely, the Parts that deal with family welfare conferences, children in need of special care and treatment and special residential services. There will therefore be an overlap. The health boards will be involved in family welfare conferences given that the child concerned is in need of care or protection.

By reason of their age and level of maturity, young offenders deserve to be treated differently and more humanely than adult offenders. The juvenile justice system developed under the 1908 Act is incapable of further development unless this is underpinned by new legislation. The Minister mentioned the new restorative justice measures. With modern thinking, which is reflected in the Bill, in time there should be a noticeable decrease in juvenile offending. The Minister stated that the objective of the Bill is to divert first-time and non-serious child offenders away from inclusion in the criminal justice system and that he wants to provide the courts with means under which they do not necessarily have to proceed to a finding, usually of guilt in more serious or persistent cases. Such cases may be referred to the health boards for the convening of a family welfare conference or to the probation and welfare service for the convening of a family conference.

The issue of joyriding is being debated on Private Members' time. I have been frightened by some of the descriptions given. Some joyriders are known to be addicted to so-called recreational drugs and alcohol. This is one of the aspects to which the Minister has given some thought. The Bill provides for ten community based sanctions, of which eight are new. It also provides for the reintegration into the community of child offenders placed in detention as a last resort by the courts.

The concept of restorative justice was pioneered in New Zealand and is now being followed in a number of other countries. The Bill gives effect to its most commonly known meaning – every action that is primarily orientated towards doing justice by restoring the harm caused by a crime. One way of doing this is to bring together all the parties involved to deal collectively with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future.

On Committee Stage of the Education (Welfare) Bill there was reference to the fact that the Garda Síochána has been involved in early intervention by ad hoc committees where children leave school early. The attempts made in Tuam have been very successful. While such committees should not be placed on a statutory basis, by the same token they should not be excluded by way of actions taken under legislation. The gardaí concerned were effectively doing the work of school attendance officers which were located only in Dublin and other cities.

The two examples of restorative justice in the Bill include the New Zealand model. We cannot directly transplant a country's model into the Irish system but the proposals are new and the Garda diversion programme in Part 4 is a good example of restorative justice. It is incorporated into the programme which may or may not be chaired by a garda, but it will provide a forum for the child, his or her parents and other family members, possibly other interested persons and, where appropriate, a victim to discuss the child's offending and the reasons for it. It will confront the child with the consequences of his or her actions and establish the basis for a lifestyle that does not include anti-social behaviour. It will allow the child to apologise and possibly make reparation to the victim.

There is also a unique provision called restorative cautioning in section 26 under which the victim may be present for the administration of a formal caution to the child. This allows for a less formal type of conference which will be suited to cases where the more structured conference might not be appropriate or justifiable. The courts will also be given the power to direct the Probation and Welfare Service to convene family conferences. These will be similar to the Garda conferences but they will be appropriate in cases where the Garda consider that it had no option but to prosecute, that is, where the non-enforceable aspect of the Garda conference might have led to compliance difficulties.

The benefit and advantages of the court directed conferences are that there is an opportunity for the case against the child to be finalised without proceeding to a finding and all that would entail. The child and his or her family will have a say in finding a solution. It will not have been imposed by the court. The outcome of the conference will be supervised by the court and enforceable. It is not an easy outcome. The recommendations of a family conference may include making an apology to the victim, making reparation, restriction on the child's movements and participation by the child in supervised activities.

The age of criminal responsibility is raised in the Bill from seven to 12 years. Children under that age will become the responsibility of the health boards and among their intervention options will be the convening of a family welfare conference. The Minister gave good arguments in favour of raising the age to 12 years. He stated that, after a thorough examination of the issues involved, a former Dáil committee on crime recommended the age of 12 years in its first report. He also stated that the UN committee on the rights of the child criticised the low age of criminal responsibility in Ireland.

I understand the number of children under 12 years of age who come to the notice of the Garda is relatively small. The 1999 crime report shows that the number of children under 12 years of age reported to the Garda national juvenile office on suspicion of committing offences was approximately 1,000. Not all of those will require alternative intervention. Although raising the age to 12 years will mean that children under that age who commit offences will no longer qualify for admission to the Garda diversion programme, they will still have contact with community gardaí. This will be on a more integrated and co-operative basis with other agencies such as health boards.

It would not be possible to raise the age in stages by means of regulations as proposed in the 1996 Bill. This is because of the Supreme Court decision in the Laurentiu case where it is likely that a power to raise the age in regulations would, if challenged, have been found to be unconsti tutional. Regardless of the specific arguments, raising the age of criminal responsibility at this time to 12 years is the right course of action. It is the age below which we should not wish our children to be criminalised.

I praise the work of health boards, particularly the Western Health Board of which I was a member, in helping children who are abandoned and have to be taken into care. In the Western Health Board region, on occasion it was necessary to find facilities for children outside the country. I hope funding will be provided to ensure that such centres and facilities can be established in health board regions in the future.

The two new court powers mentioned by the Minister may result in cases not proceeding to finality. The first is the family conference while the second relates to the health boards convening a family welfare conference to ascertain whether the child's real problem is a need for care or protection. These are two important new additions to the Bill and highlight the greater emphasis on care and protection and restorative justice. Where the court proceeds to a finding of guilt, it will usually request a probation officer's report. The only circumstances in which a report will not be requested is where the court is imposing a minor penalty such as a small fine or where it already has available to it an up to date report on the child. The system of reports is central to the success of the Bill. They will not only contain information resulting from interviews with the child and, where practicable, other family members on the child's behaviour and willingness to make amends, educational circumstances and prospects, motives for the offence and likelihood of reoffending, but they will also give a view on what would be the best way of dealing with the child and what is available.

A most important provision relates to the responsibility of parents for their delinquent children. The Minister said there are situations where action must be taken on this issue. Two existing provisions which require parents to pay compensation or to be bound over to control their children have been added to by the inclusion of a parental supervision order. The court will be empowered to impose this order on parents where it is satisfied that a wilful failure on the part of the parents to take care of or control their child contributed to the child's offending. This is a typical carrot and stick approach under which the parents will, for example, be given the opportunity to take part in a parenting skills course or get treatment for substance abuse. Failure to comply may result in them being in contempt of court.

The protection provisions essentially update the provisions of the 1908 Act. They have not changed radically from the 1996 Bill, but there are two significant differences. First, the scope of the cruelty offence has been broadened to include a child's mental or emotional health or well-being. The 1996 Bill referred only to physical health or well-being. Second, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act, 1993, is being amended to raise the penalty for soliciting a child for the purpose of prostitution. This is essentially a holding operation pending a more considered examination of the issue of child prostitution in the context of the analysis of the discussion paper on the law on sexual offences.

I congratulate the Minister and the Minister of State on their work on the Bill. It is an improvement on work done in the past and I hope it will make speedy progress through both Houses.

This debate arises in the wake of a study by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions which shows that two out of three children in secondary education in the State are working part-time. Despite all the talk about education being the key to the success of our economy, school children are going out to work in increasing numbers. The trend continues where more children from lower income families are dropping out of education before the leaving certificate to enter the workplace. They often earn low wages and work in poor conditions. These statistics are staggering and they say something about the value placed on children in our market driven society.

The National Minimum Wage Bill, which was enacted last week, contains provisions which discriminate against those under the age of 18 and those in training in terms of the application of the minimum wage. The long-term aspirations and expectations of many children from low income families continue to be low. The Bill addresses the problems arising for children where society has already failed them at the start of their lives. This is the immediate backdrop to this debate and it reminds us that while there is much in the Bill that is welcome, it is also overdue and necessary. The test will be its implementation.

We must not only recognise the rights of children, we must also provide the resources to vindicate those rights.

Perhaps the most overdue provision in the Bill is that which abolishes reformatories and industrial schools. These places exist now only in name and, thankfully, no longer resemble the dreadful institutions of the past with their disgraceful neglect and shocking abuse of children for which both Church and State were responsible. People who suffered in these prisons have only felt able to reveal the full truth of their horrific childhood experiences in recent years. Their stories demonstrate how lowly the rights of all children were regarded for decades in this State. We may have emerged from that dark age but we still have a long way to go.

The Bill provides a new framework for the development of the juvenile justice system. It replaces the 1908 Act to protect children against those who have custody, charge or care of them and provides for family conferences and other measures to deal with "out of control, non-offending children". I am happy to record that I welcome the general thrust of the juvenile justice provisions which place emphasis on the rights of the child and introduce new ideas. The concepts of family conferences, action plans and restorative cautioning have the potential to be progressive and constructive.

For the first time in the legal system, the idea of restorative justice has been introduced and that has significance beyond this Bill. I would like to see it developed, monitored and introduced in other legislation as a real alternative to imprisonment. That opens up a whole new vista and gives rise to a debate in which I look forward to engaging. Such alternatives to imprisonment must be developed because the rate of committal in this State is disgracefully high. I have spoken in the House previously about the scandalous conditions in what I can only describe as the "hell hole" that is the male section in Mountjoy Prison. I would like the more enlightened aspects of this Bill which deal with imprisonment to be applied on the wider front.

The raising of the age of criminal responsibility from seven to 12 is a central provision of the Bill. This is a welcome and necessary development. It means that children will be removed from the criminal justice system and placed directly under the care of the Probation and Welfare Service. That brings us to the vital question of implementation. While the reforms are progressive – I am pleased to have the opportunity to acknowledge that – the reality is that the probation service is grossly underfunded and understaffed. The majority of probation and welfare officers have a caseload of up to, for the want of a better description, 70 clients. If the provisions of this Bill are to be implemented in full, this caseload will inevitably increase. That is a major concern to me.

In addition to an increase in numbers of clients, section 260 also makes provision to extend the duties of probation and welfare officers under the Probation of Offenders Act, 1907, to all cases under this Bill where a child is placed under the supervision of a probation and welfare officer. In 1998, probation officers were on the verge of taking industrial action due to gross underfunding and the massive caseload with which they were expected to cope. At the eleventh hour, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform gave assurances that staffing levels would be increased. Unless this actually happens, the provisions in the Children Bill, 1999, cannot be implemented. It is imperative to stress that point.

The costs involved in establishing the special care units provided for are massive. I am conscious of the fact that a special care facility to cater for the needs of four health board regions is earmarked for construction in the town of Castleblayney which is situated in my constituency. While such facilities are necessary, the reality is that, unless provision is made for effective community based projects, early intervention and the full range of preventative measures, the problems to which I refer and the attendant costs of special care will continue to escalate.

The Bill is essentially an extension of the Child Care Act, 1991. However, many of the provisions contained in that Act have yet to be implemented in full. Inspectorates of residential homes are only up and running now, eight years after provision was made for their establishment. I ask the Minister to inform the House of the programme for implementation of the provisions in the Bill. How long will we be obliged to wait before sufficient probation and welfare officers are employed and before the restorative justice provisions are up and running? I pose those questions respectfully and I would appreciate if, in his reply, the Minister would address these pertinent and central questions.

In shaping my view of the Bill, I had the assistance of a person who has worked at what can only be described as the cutting edge in the care of troubled children. The point he emphasised above all is the need for the earliest possible intervention to prevent children from coming within the ambit of the Bill. This means combating social, economic and educational disadvantage at the earliest age possible and providing pre-school services and every necessary and remedial assistance in the formal school system. As elected representatives with significant knowledge of cases referred in our constituencies, we must recognise that this advice, which was provided by someone who works at the coalface, makes eminent sense, not only in terms of the provisions of the Children Bill, 1999, but also across an entire gamut of the concerns which affect society.

I wish to place on record the advice I received from the gentleman to whom I refer:

Unless we have these programmes in place, then we are basically firefighting at a later stage. Many of the kids who end up in care or get involved in offending behaviour are identifiable at a young age. Residential and special care units while necessary are expensive to run and limited in what they can achieve as in many cases the damage has already been done. If you can get to them and to their family and community at an earlier stage they have a much better chance.

That is good advice which I am happy to share with Members, the Minister and the Department. It is critical that we take it on board and act accordingly.

The need for legislation such as this highlights how Irish society has failed children. I hope that when enacted, and with the necessary resources provided to implement it, the Bill can contribute to more just, humane and progressive treatment for the children who will come within its remit and, as a consequence, for all children.

How often have we scratched our heads, put our hands in the air, experienced sheer frustration and bewilderment and been aghast at the misbehaviour of juveniles? How often have we asked who is responsible and whether we can make anybody responsible? Is it the parents, the school, the justice system or society in general? Is there proper co-ordination between State services in the provision of facilities and services for young people?

What has become of the school attendance register, the first indicator of family dysfunction? Why is it no longer the feature of school life? Why are so many young people begging on the streets? Are they being forced onto the streets and who is responsible for doing that? Why are so many juveniles involved in pickpocketing and other petty crime? Have they been trained for it and who trains them? How many families have been affected by loitering and anti-social behaviour by juveniles? When they seek help from State services they do not get the response they expect. Look at the prevalence of bullying. What is the definition of bullying? This has never been tackled. There is also the problem of the emergence of gangs and the dangers this poses for other juveniles.

These questions have been prioritised and to say they are being answered in this Bill would be an understatement. The Children Bill, 1999, is probably one of the most important Bills published in the last 50 years. If passed, it will affect the lives of thousands of children over many decades, as was the case with its predecessor, the 1908 Act. It is one of a number of fundamentally important initiatives in relation to children which this Government has brought to fruition. The Bill is also the culmination of work by previous Administrations, a fact that is not always acknowledged although the Minister did so in his speech. Other important initiatives include the recently introduced child abuse guidelines and the establishment of an inspectorate of social services.

The Bill is a serious and necessary reappraisal of the 1996 Bill introduced by the then Minister of State, Deputy Currie. The emphasis is on the most up-to-date and sophisticated methods of dealing with juvenile justice and associated child welfare which take account of best international practice. It deals more progressively with parental responsibility and seeks to identify and correct the structural weaknesses in how services have been provided to young offenders and to disturbed non-offending children. For these and other important reasons, the 1996 Bill would have required hundreds of amendments so the Minister was wise to take the decision to introduce his own Bill, a better and more comprehensive measure.

A number of issues have been raised which demand comment. The interaction between education, health and justice is of paramount importance. I agree with Deputy Ó Caoláin that we must reach young children before they reach the coalface of offending. The decision of the Minister for Education and Science to reintroduce the attendance register for schools is vital. We must also realise how important self concept is for young people. We must be conscious of the ego of the individual, the drive to succeed in life. Lack of that drive can be one of the causes of anti-social behaviour.

The role of teachers has become more complicated. Not only must they deal with teaching and education, they must also deal with the social umbrella they encounter in the schoolroom. As chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, I was involved in procuring a report on attention deficit disorder. It is revealing that statistics in the United States show that 30% of prison inmates suffered from ADD. It is significant that the vast majority of these people went through their schooling without the condition ever being detected. Why would it be? Who was trained to detect ADD? Nowadays we realise that parents have to deal with the anti-social behaviour of children with this condition while they can be a disruptive force in the classroom. Often parents are unable to recognise the condition so it falls on teachers, in liaison with the social services, to ensure it is recognised at an early age.

The problems of illiteracy and truancy are linked and the teacher and school have as great a role in dealing with them as parents. Often, however, due to the family circumstances, this role is not undertaken in a serious way by parents. Dyslexia, as Deputy Timmins pointed out, is another condition which teachers are expected to recognise at an early age in children. Everybody is aware of the difficulties associated with dyslexia, the disruption that can occur in the classroom and the lack of self concept for the children concerned, when the condition is not recognised by the teacher or the school.

In drafting the Bill the Minister has recognised the serious role education plays in early childhood years, the importance of ensuring teacher training and setting aside school days for special training needs and ensuring there is integration in the approach of the schools, the health service and the justice system. Perhaps the most progressive and unique feature of the Bill is that is does not devise a system based exclusively on a particular approach to the problem of juvenile offending. That is welcome. It is based on many approaches to combating juvenile offending and is the right approach. The problem with the single based approach was that the system became more important than the needs and the misdeeds of the offender who could only be dealt with within the narrow confines of the system in favour at a particular time. I applaud the Minister's proposal to supplement rather than supplant the provision on which the system is based. It is essential in legislation such as this not to close off avenues for dealing with young offenders.

While the Bill uses various approaches in dealing with juvenile offenders, many of its constituent parts are supported by a set of principles or objectives. That the Bill states clearly what it hopes to accomplish is an innovation. It has respect for those involved. It states: "to use as tools in combating juvenile crime." These sets of principles and objectives allow for less confusion and more progress in dealing with juveniles.

The philosophy that children do not belong in court is long overdue and is welcome. As Deputy Micheal Kitt mentioned, raising the age of criminal responsibility from seven to ten years was recommended by the committee on crime and also in the first human rights report on the rights of children. In line with those two recommendations, the Minister has adopted the right approach that 12 rather than ten years of age is the most appropriate age.

There has been concern that children may have been criminalised in the past for many of the wrong reasons. There was a temptation for those involved to charge young offenders with a crime to ensure they received care and protection in an institutional setting. That was wrong but it was the thinking at the time.

The family welfare conferences are important. Before this Bill was introduced, many people questioned the role, rights and responsibilities of parents relative to their under age children. There was a view that if families were made more responsible, a stricter regime in terms of control might be in place in the home and children might be made far more responsible.

Family conferences will be good for a number of reasons. They will be good for families because they will establish straight away how dysfunctional a family is, the needs assessments of the family, the support systems which should be put in place and what holistic approach in terms of education, health and justice should be provided.

Many parents who allow their children out to play with others feel their children have a sense of responsibility. However, they might often not be aware of the behaviour of their children in the groups which form. It is only after early correction that those families will become aware of what is going on, the places where disruptive behaviour occurs and the consequences for the other children and families who suffer at the hands of those children. The early warning signs are important.

In the case of a dysfunctional family, the question arises as to how one gets them to attend a family conference if they do not want to. That is why it is important the Garda Síochána is involved in terms of liaison with the family conferences, that parents are made responsible, that support is given to parents who need it and that the services are in a position to provide the care which is important in these instances.

Victims have been given a status in the Bill which is far greater than that given before. The toughest thing for anyone who has committed a crime is to see the person against whom the crime has been perpetrated. A sense of reality strikes at that stage. Looking at the human psyche, when victims of crime are faced with the perpetrator, many have a charitable instinct and wish to ensure that rather than any major retribution, corrective measures are put in place to ensure the juvenile who has become involved in that crime would be given the support and help necessary to put them on the right path.

In the case of crime by juveniles, it important, where there is an ability to pay compensation, that families are made face up to that responsibility. They have not been made face that responsibility until now. This is an extremely important feature in the Bill.

On the question of curfews, how many people come to our clinics to say young people are loitering outside their houses, particularly if it is a corner house? The Garda are called but as there are so many avenues out of the area, it is possible to evade them. These conferences will be important from the point of view of the curfews they can put in place. They will be able to indicate clearly to the offender that he should not to be in a given location for the next six months and that he is not to associate with particular groups for a specific period. That will hang over the individual. It is also important that after three years of good behaviour, the criminal record of a young person who has had to go to a detention school is removed. That is an extremely important provision in the Bill and one I very much welcome.

People have spoken about the resources and the time scale for introducing the Bill. I say pointedly that the most important thing is that legislation is in place. While the effectiveness of the Bill will depend on the resources available, everybody should recognise that by having such legislation in place, there is pressure to provide those resources. Whatever one might say about the Child Care Act, which was introduced on a phased basis, people can see that the resources put into child care have increased dramatically over the years of the implementation of that Act.

Two difficulties arise with this Bill and I seek clarification. In regard to Mr. Justice Kelly, the High Court and the facilities available, is there a major difference between the type of facility Mr. Justice Kelly seeks to have available and that which would be available under the Bill? I understand there is and I would like that clarified.

There is a problem in the era of the Celtic tiger with recruiting qualified staff. While massive additional resources are being put in place, it will not be easy to recruit the numbers of staff required to ensure the effectiveness of the Bill. Perhaps the Minister of State can recall the "Children First" review approach which had a three year lead-in. Is it proposed to have a similar phased approach to the implementation of the Bill in terms of resources and facilities?

This is an excellent Bill in concept and content. I welcome it and it is timely. The length of time spent on its gestation was worthwhile because it is comprehensive and will be seen in time as a milestone in legislation concerning children.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Hanafin, who will have a huge input into what we aspire to do under this Bill. The Bill attempts to create inclusion, not exclusion, and to bring together the dislocated parts of the system which do not work together and communicate with each other and which are not fully resourced.

As I waited to make my contribution, I was reminded of the truth of the saying, which originated in Africa, that it takes a village to raise a child. That is a difficulty with which this society and other modern societies must cope. We no longer have enough villages caring for children because of the changes in society. I would like the Bill to focus on how we can create that community and sense of responsibility, both professional and voluntary, to allow for support not just for children but also for parents. The manner in which families develop, the resources at the disposal of parents and the power they have in parenting makes a world of difference to how children turn out.

The pleasure in discussing the Bill is that it will be done in the knowledge that, while vast resources will be needed, for the first time in the experience of the State, resources can, must and will be available. A further pleasure is that £500 million more than was expected was received in revenue in the first quarter of this year. Imagine the difference it would make if that amount of money were invested in child care, in intervening to aid parents at risk, in poverty-stricken families and in disadvantaged areas.

I will have an opportunity as a member of the Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights to discuss the Bill again on Committee Stage. I will not, therefore, bother dealing with the sections in detail now. A great deal could be done in making the Bill work and making it redundant in the penal area to give advantages and opportunities to children so they do not become involved in circumstances where there is talk of curfews and parents having to pay fines. We must start at the beginning. The Minister of State is aware of the value of access to good quality, professional child care from an early age, especially in disadvantaged areas.

The Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights studied a report from the expert working group on child care which examined the effect of good quality child care, especially on children in disadvantaged areas. Statistics in the United States of America showed a seven fold return on the investment made in child care in that there was less criminality and the children who received this opportunity of pre-school and good quality child care stayed in school longer and had greater career opportunities and earning potential. Statistics exist, apart from our own experience, which show that that type of investment in child care across the board at the same standard for all children is essential. It does a great deal to give them a head start and allow them enter formal education on a level playing field.

A development in built-up areas which shows how our society has changed considerably, and to which Deputy O'Keeffe and others referred, is children loitering at the sides of buildings or on waste dumps. We must invest in sports facilities for children. If children have good constructive leisure activities and a sense of the community coming together, competing and excelling, it would assist them to develop normally and outside the gang structure. We know that is part of the solution.

National and international statistics repeatedly prove that if attention deficit disorder and dyslexia are not tackled and are exacerbated children drop out at an early stage, become excluded from the system and, consequently, from any type of career opportunity. Intervention is needed at an early age and I welcome the fact that we have an economy and a Department of Education and Science which will continue to invest at that level.

It is always helpful to draw on models in other countries. They can be studied and their best features adopted. Much of the Bill concentrates on bringing together qualified personnel with a certain amount of voluntary input and the sharing of information through panels, family courts and the monitoring of children to prevent as many of them as possible from becoming subject to the penal system.

The Minister of State and her staff may be aware of the model in Scotland which appears to have a higher rate of success than the systems used previously and which continue to be used in the rest of Britain.

A fact sheet produced by the Scottish Office Information Directorate in August 1997 summarises Baroness Linklater of Butterstone who, speaking in the House of Lords on 24 March 1999 regarding this project, said:

The setting up of the Medway Secure Training Centre was an initiative which was doomed to failure. Some young offenders are locked up without exercise or fresh air for 24 hours a day. Before Medway was built, we knew that community-based options had the greatest chance of success in terms of re-offending rates, as well as being significantly cheaper: it costs £2,400 per week to keep a child in Medway, whereas in a community-based project I know in Scotland called Freagarrach, it costs £330 per week. Strategies involving families, local agencies and programmes well focused on offending behaviour were the only ones that had some hope of effecting change. Medway was found to have a reconviction rate as high as 100% whereas in Freagarrach the reoffending rate is less than 40%.

I was excited by this model and quite a lot of British and Irish politicians have visited Freagarrach and been very impressed. Much of the programmes this centre is developing are similar to the contents and aspirations of this Bill. For instance, there is an offenders groupwork programme dealing with attitudes to offending, drug and alcohol awareness and masculinity. The report states that:

Due to the fact that almost 95% of referrals to the project are young men, the issue of masculinity in relation to offending was high on the agenda. The issues covered within the group included self-awareness, assertiveness, peer pressure, attitudes towards women and challenging stereotypes.

We are all concerned about difficulties and alienation experienced by young men and this is an interesting part of the programme. The programme also concentrates on making offenders aware of victims and the effects of their behaviour on victims. Car related offences are addressed with young people attending a car theft groupwork programme and a video is used to highlight the consequences.

This programme in very practical and also involves family network meetings and other measures to support families. Families are often powerless and feel totally unable to cope with the offending child and it must be very helpful for them to know that they have professional and group support. We must start from the premise that all parents want to be good parents. They want to bring up their children well and for them to be successful and happy. We must allow parents who do not have those skills or who did not have the privilege of a good family experience to obtain such skills. If the provisions of this Bill can be implemented, society and the penal system will save in the long run by having far fewer reconvictions and recidivism. It is very sad that people become so institutionalised by prison that they have no option but to return to an institution. The country is small enough and the economy is performing well enough to allow us to break that mould with legislation such as this.

Scotland also brought about radical change by setting up the children's hearing system which is encapsulated in sections of this Bill. The principles underlying the system are that children appearing before the courts, whether they have committed offences or are in need of care or protection, have common needs for social and personal care. The committee on children and young persons considered that the juvenile courts were unsuited to dealing with those problems because they had to combine the characteristics of a criminal court of law with those of a treatment agency. Instead it set up hearings where a reporter had referrals made regarding children deemed to need compulsory supervision measures. Children's panels were set up. The report states:

Members of the Children's Panel volunteer to serve and come from a wide range of occupations, neighbourhood and income groups. All have experience of and interest in children and the ability to communicate with them and their families. There is an approximate balance between men and women; panel members are recruited between the ages of 18 and 60. Members are carefully prepared for their task through initial training programmes and have continuing opportunities during the period of service to develop knowledge and skills and attend in-service training courses. People are appointed to the panels by the Secretary of State for Scotland. The task of the selection is the responsibility of the Children's Panel Advisory Committee for the local authority area.

This is an important provision because local authorities know the calibre, qualifications and commitment of the people involved. The report outlines that the initial period of appointment for a panel member is up to 5 years and is renewable on the recommendation of the CPAC. This approach combines professional and voluntary services and the support of the community. We should consider providing for such an approach in this Bill. The children's hearing system has been the subject of a considerable body of research, most of it carried out by researchers based at Scottish universities, sometimes with the support of funds from other countries. A review of the research has been published.

In the consideration and implementation of this Bill, it is essential that there is independence, monitoring and research. There must also be an annual report. Many legal and other agencies will be established under this Bill comprising qualified social workers and a large input from the Garda. People designated to take on these important jobs will have to be remunerated for the extra work, qualifications, commitment and training involved. We will have to place financial importance on the value of their work if we are to attract highly qualified, committed and motivated people.

There is a need for such agencies and for the urgent enactment of this Bill. Judges in the Children's Court are very frustrated by the lack of suitable alternative projects to which they can refer children who need special care and treatment. As legislators we are ashamed that judges have to send highly disturbed children who need support, understanding and resources to institutions which are totally unsuited to their needs. A recent case involved the recurring appearance of a 17 year old, highly disturbed young woman who needs much care and treatment. This woman was sent to the Central Mental Hospital, although it is unsuited to her needs. That is a matter of grave concern.

I welcome the serious penalties which will be imposed on adults who are found to have introduced children to sexual abuse or who abuse them. The high levels of child prostitution and homelessness cannot be ignored. They have a horrifying impact on all those they affect.

The new agencies and panels must be monitored and must operate in a transparent fashion. We must ensure such bodies do not become enclaves of professionals but remain accountable. There is concern about the family law courts. Once they became private, disturbing reports began to emerge from them. The people involved should be allowed to remain unidentified but the conferences should be monitored and public reports should be allowed. The possibility of intervention by other qualified staff or legislators if they are concerned about the workings of these bodies should exist.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. There is not a town or village which does not suffer crimes committed by children. Such crimes have caused distress to parents, schools and communities. It is timely that a Bill of this nature should come before the House.

In my county there has been an increase in the number of crimes committed by children. There are many different reasons for that – lack of parental control, bullying in school, peer pressure, drug and alcohol abuse and family breakdown. Whatever the reasons, we must address this issue in a creative manner.

This Bill seeks creative solutions to a difficult problem, children becoming increasingly involved in crime. The co-operation between the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Health and Children and Education and Science in drafting the Bill was most welcome. These three Departments deal with children's issues and it was right to involve all of them in the consultation process.

I welcome the philosophy that children do not belong in the courts or in prison. In keeping with that philosophy, the Bill raises the age of criminal responsibility from seven to 12 years. We must ensure that children do not offend or, if they do, do not continue to offend. It is vital that we put in place the facilities to ensure children get every chance to avoid a life of criminality. In many cases they are only looking for a second chance or seeking attention; many juvenile crimes are committed because children are ignored by their parents. If we sit down with those parents in an environment which is conducive to the children recognising that they are doing wrong, we will see a reduction in crime committed by children. The Bill gives us an opportunity to turn young people away from crime.

It is important that victims have their interests protected. They have nothing to fear from any of the proposals in the Bill. It does not let children involved in crime off the hook, it makes them realise that what they are doing is wrong and that they must make recompense to the victims. The advantages of restorative justice are well documented and it is an innovative way of dealing with these problems. It is important that the child offender and his or her family is involved in arriving at an equitable solution and that the offender be made aware of the effect of his or her criminal behaviour on the victim, possibly in the presence of the victim. When a child is confronted with the victim of the crime, it can have a stark effect which can turn him or her away from crime permanently.

Young offenders should be dealt with differently because of their level of maturity. This Bill attempts to ensure they do not get sucked into a criminal way of life. Young people deserve to be treated differently because there is still time to persuade them to follow a different way of life. The juvenile justice system has developed from the Act of 1908 and a Bill of this nature is long overdue. With modern thinking, and the co-operation of all sides of the House in passing the Bill quickly, there will be a noticeable decrease in juvenile offending in the years ahead.

The objective of the Bill is to divert first time and non-serious juvenile offenders from the criminal justice system. We do not want to see young children with criminal records, we want to see as few "guilty" verdicts as possible. The Bill provides the courts with a means by which they do not necessarily have to proceed to a finding of guilt but can look at other alternatives such as family welfare conferences. These conferences can be organised by the gardaí or the health board. The health boards are already responsible for children under 12 years of age and now they will have greater responsibility in cases where children are not involved in serious crime. For more serious crimes there can be a court conference. It is important to bring the family together, the parents or guardians and the child, so everyone is involved in working out a solution. Experts should not lay down the law on parenting. We want children and parents to realise, in front of the victim, that they have done wrong and must change their ways.

The community sanctions in section 115, eight of which are new, are welcome. The last thing we want to see is the imprisonment of a young child; that should be the last resort in all cases. If there is anything we can do before that happens then that option must be explored.

I spoke to a number of garda in my county of Mayo who have dealt with child offenders in recent months. There has been a fairly significant increase in the number of offences by children in my town recently. It has become a major talking point. It has been a major issue in other areas long before now but it is beginning to trickle down to all areas. Every town and village is affected by it. The bottom line is that once the gardaí sit down with the parents, the child and the victim, that is sufficient in a large number of cases to ensure the child moves away from crime. Where this process and approach are working, we should promote them more. We are talking about reintegrating child offenders back into the community. The detention of the child offender should only be a last resort.

Restorative justice refers to every action primarily orientated towards doing justice by restoring the harm that has been caused by crime. I welcome the Garda diversion programme which is a conference to discuss a child's offending and the reasons for it. It will confront the child offender with the consequences of his or her action and establish the basis for a lifestyle that does not include anti-social behaviour and allow the child to apologise and make reparation to the victim. That is an important aspect of the programme in that children aged between 12 and 17 will be forced to confront their crimes, apologise for them and in some way make amends. That is a significant process and it will have a major influence on young offenders.The facilitation of communication between all the parties involved to address the problem is a most important aspect of the process. Such communication, particularly involving the parents, is vital because they have a major responsibility. Sometimes parents may not be aware their children are running wild along the streets or are involved in crime. When a garda calls to the door, in many cases that is the first indication the parents have that their child has been involved in a crime and it is a major shock for them. A process that facilitates discussing such crime is a major step forward.

I also welcome the less formal method of restorative cautioning. In the case of a crime that is not so serious, a conference may not be a suitable way of dealing with it and a less formal caution by a garda to a child in front of a parent is a welcome move. In more serious cases court directed conferences will be held. They are appropriate in cases where the Garda consider they have no option but to prosecute. It still affords an opportunity for the case against the child to be finalised without proceeding to a guilty finding in court and for the child not to start off with a criminal record. Statistics show that children with one criminal conviction tend to reoffend and have many more convictions. The child and the family should have a say in finding a solution. The outcome must be supervised and under the Bill it will be supervised by the courts. Therefore, it will be enforceable under court directed conferences. That is welcome.

I welcome the provision that raises the age of criminal responsibility from seven to 12. I am sure no one wants a child aged between 7 and 12 to be called a criminal. This provision is long overdue and I am delighted it is included in the Bill. The UN committee on the rights of the child has criticised Ireland in the past for having a low age of criminal responsibility. There was pressure internationally for us to raise this age. Everyone recognises that a child under the age of 12 should not be called a criminal.

As chairperson of the Western Health Board, I am aware that the health boards play a major role in dealing with children under the age 12 and their work in that regard will continue. It is not that there is no mechanism in place to deal with offenders between the ages of seven and 12. I am delighted that the number of children under the age 12 who come to the attention of the Garda is very few and long may that continue. Offenders under the age of 12 will still have contact with community gardaí. I welcome that my local superintendent has put in place a network whereby the Garda liaise with the families of children who have got into difficulty in the com munity. That measure has been extremely successful. The Bill will enhance that position.

The implementation of the Bill will create pressure in terms of staffing and resources. It will put pressure on the health boards which are put to the pin of their collar in dealing with problems of children at risk. They do not have enough social workers or the time to deal with their major workload. As the health boards will be involved in many family conferences, I ask the Minister to ensure they have adequate resources in terms of staff and funding. There will be no point in two to five years asking why the system did not work. The system is excellent if it is implemented properly and with adequate resources. I ask the Minister to bear that in mind when it comes to the implementation of this Bill.

The Garda will have a major role to play in terms of the Garda diversion programme, court conferences and family conferences . While some members of the Force have undergone training to prepare them for this work, it is important that such training should continue and if additional resources in terms of training are required that they be provided because we want the Bill, when enacted, which hopefully will be soon, to be a success.

The same position applies to probation officers who are involved in community projects designed to divert young people away from crime. They have been doing that work successfully for many years. To ensure the success of the Bill when enacted, I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the probation service will require additional funding. The health boards will also require additional funding. While the health boards are always seeking additional funding, the provision of such funding would be well spent on the care of children and on preventing serious crime in the years ahead.

Regarding the court powers that will come into effect under the Bill, when a court proceeds to a guilty finding it will usually request a probation officer's report. While detention of a young offender will be a last resort, it is important that the Bill should provide credible alternatives. Such alternatives must be acceptable to the victims. The eight of the ten proposed community sanctions that are new are innovative and creative. I am sure the victims of child offenders would be happy to allow those community sanctions to have a chance to work. Nobody is demanding that a 13 or 14 year old be put into a detention centre. I am sure the victims would be happy if a child offender acknowledges the seriousness of his or her crime, that the parents are aware of it and that a community sanction is imposed. It is important that the victims are involved at every stage of the process because if they are left out and do not receive any communication they may be of the view that nothing is being done. I have experienced that sentiment in my community in County Mayo where communities have felt nobody was doing anything to address the prob lem. We have a major responsibility, through the Garda, to make sure the victims are kept fully informed during the process.

I welcome the measure in the Bill that places responsibility on parents for their delinquent children. There are two existing provisions that require parents to pay compensation. This is important because I cannot highlight enough the responsibility of parents for their children. If they do not control their children, the situation will get out of control.

The inclusion of a parental supervision order in the Bill is a welcome development. The courts will be empowered to impose this order on parents where they are satisfied that a wilful failure on the part of parents to take care or control of their child has contributed to the crime. A lack of parental control has contributed to the situation in many of the cases that have come to my attention. If addressing that problem requires the placing of a heavy fine and sanction on the parents, I welcome it.

The Bill is about rehabilitation as opposed to punishment and detention. For young offenders, rehabilitation is a crucial factor in deterring future criminal acts.I welcome the additional powers in the Bill and the resources being put in place which will be of fundamental importance. If the necessary resources are put in place for health boards, the Garda and the probation officers, we will have excellent legislation which will serve this country well for decades. It is long overdue but I congratulate the Minister on an excellent consultation process in drafting a Bill which will find approval among all parties in this House. I hope this will result in a reduction in the number of juveniles involved in crime and that will augur well for the whole community.

I welcome this opportunity to speak on this important Children Bill, 1999. Whenever we discuss children in this House, we are dealing with one of the most important issues of our society because society depends very much on how we educate and rear our children to become the adults of the future.

The Bill provides for a new juvenile justice system, which I welcome. It covers three main areas of law. It provides the framework for the development of the juvenile justice system. It updates the 1908 Act protecting children against persons who have custody, charge or care of them. It provides for a family welfare conference and other new provisions for dealing with out of control and non-offending children. Many of us wish there was not a need for this type of legislation. We would wish for an ideal society, giving everything necessary to parents or guardians to rear their children so that we would not require this Bill. However, we must be realistic. Sadly, there are juveniles who offend and people who will come within the ambit of this Bill. We must ensure that, as a result of it and any other legislation which may be introduced in this House, we will reduce dramatically the number of children who will appear before the courts or who will need a Bill such as this.

It has taken three years to introduce this Bill since the former Minister of State, Deputy Currie, introduced a Bill. I have no difficulty about the delay in introducing it. What is of much more importance to us and to the families and children who will be affected by the legislation is that we get it right. It is most important that every effort is made to ensure that what we aspire to will be the outcome of the legislation. Having read the Bill, I am thankful that the end result will be that children who find themselves in need of this Bill will be dealt with in a more humane and understanding way, a way more suited to the age of the child. It is harrowing for many of us to read in the newspapers about some of the agonising court cases relating to children. I find particularly harrowing the way in which judges have to try and find out how best to deal with the child's needs and requirements. Unfortunately, we had come to a stage where the aim was to get the child away at all costs and out of an environment where he or she could further offend. This is not how things should be. There should be in place different centres and resources to suit the needs of those who offend.

We must remember that a child is not born a criminal; a child grows into criminal activity. Therefore, irrespective of what is included in the Bill, it does not deal with the kernel of the problem, that is, the reason young children resort to offending, to becoming non-conforming people in society and to becoming aggressive, violent and intolerant. These are not the attributes of a child. We think of children as being kind. Perhaps some may have a tendency to do things their own way but it is not in the nature of any child to be violent and cause trouble in society. The cause of children becoming offenders relates to the environmental, social and family background. We must deal with these issues, given that there is ample funding available. There are newspaper reports today that the Minister for Finance will have to cope with trying to spend an additional £500 million coming into the Exchequer's coffers since January. This money should be diverted towards the needs of children.

The children about whom we are talking in the context of the Bill are generally deprived, vulnerable and of low esteem. Why are there such children? A few aspects of life today are fundamental to creating children who become non-conforming in society. We are all aware of the responsibility of parents but, unfortunately, too often we cannot speak of parents in the plural because nowadays there are so many single parent families. Every child has a father and we must consider closely how a father can so easily abscond from his responsibility as a parent. Anyone responsible for bringing a child into the world has a responsibility to rear that child. Whether these people are living on social welfare or working elsewhere in the economy, they should contribute towards rearing that child. We are far too lax in this regard. As a member of a Dáil committee, I visited Sweden on one occasion to look into the welfare of children there. They have very tight restrictions on the responsibilities of absconding parents. They begin from the premise that every child – I am sure we would all agree with this – has a right to know who are his mother and father. They can track down the father and legislation is in place to ensure he honours his responsibilities.

Can we blame single parents trying to rear families, very often in unsuitable circumstances, with lots of strain and stress and often in an environment which is most unsuited to them? This brings me to the role of local authorities. There are long housing waiting lists. The majority of people on these waiting lists are single parent families. The children are starting off with a disadvantage in that they do not come from families where there is a mother, a father and children. These people are in flats, awaiting local authority housing during the child's formative years. Very often the accommodation is very poor and unsuitable and in many cases they must climb stairs. They are without gardens in which to occupy their children or help the children create a sense of amusement or self-esteem. It is becoming a major social issue in our towns that we will end up with housing estates with predominantly, if not all, single parent families.

I am not aware of any direction from the Department of the Environment and Local Government to the local authorities to ensure there is a better mix. Life is about mixing the old with the young, the employed with the unemployed. Above all, children must have role models, but that will not happen if they live in an environment almost identical to their own where mothers struggle without resources to rear children. I ask the Government to look into this social issue. If we were geared towards a better social mix it would help eliminate some of the problems that emerge therefrom.

Because of the crisis in the housing area, due to a shortage of development land, families are being put into areas where there are no green spaces, no community activities and no leisure pursuits or activities for children when not in school. It is when they are out of school they get up to mischief and learn a different way of life. They resort to going to the nearest railway and stoning trains, visiting car parks and cutting tyres and watching the elderly and stealing their handbags. One could say it is a way of filling their time. We have an obligation in this regard. We must hang our heads in shame in that so many of our young people do not have community facilities to give them an occupation and arouse their interests in whatever sphere of life they have a talent. No child is without some talents.

I taught for many years in Clonmel Vocational School through which I came in contact with many disadvantaged families. For a period I also taught students in St. Joseph's school in Fairyhouse, a centre for offending children and the homeless. From dealing with those children on a daily basis, whether from a disadvantaged background or from St. Joseph's, I found a goodness in each one of them that could be built on. They wanted to become proper citizens and to have a future but everything was stacked against them. The school system did not have the resources to cater for their needs. Children from stable families have advanced before starting school and may have had the advantages of playschool and kindergarten. From day one children from disadvantaged backgrounds are behind the other children in the class. We do not have the resources to help them to be on a par with their colleagues. As those children move into the senior classes, school becomes more difficult, they get into trouble and choose not to attend school. More often than not they stay up all night and in bed all day and their parents, or a parent, may lead a similar lifestyle.

I could speak forever on the Bill because improvements in many areas would minimise the number of children that come within its ambit. A nation can best be judged on how it deals with its children. We cannot hold our heads high in that regard. We are taking positive steps but we must realise the difficult task and the immense challenges ahead. While the Bill is good and will make a difference, I ask the Minister to introduce the changes I have outlined so that fewer children will come under its remit. Let us look after our children. They are our future and our nation of the future.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Boylan.

I thank Deputy Ahearn for sharing time with me. I am delighted to see her looking so well and congratulate her on her contribution on an area in which she has great experience, being a teacher in earlier life. I am pleased to contribute to this important debate and compliment earlier speakers who have a constructive approach to the rearing of children. As Deputy Ahearn said, they are our future and how we rear them will have a bearing on the development of our country.

The traditional family unit as we knew it when I was growing up consisted of the husband, wife and the children. The wife, being the mother, remained at home and the husband, being the breadwinner, went out to work and brought home the money and the children were reared. Generally it was left to the mother to look after the children and it was very successful. Marvellous and wonderful families were raised. In some families there were eight, nine and ten children. People managed by making sacrifices.

That has changed in the past decade due to the pressures of modern day life. Nowadays both parents have to work. The wife has a job outside the home to help pay the mortgage and to make provision for the children. We must admire their courage in doing that because it is a great sacrifice. It means the mother has to get up early to get the children ready. We must ensure there are proper facilities for babies who are minded outside their homes and that those looking after them are qualified. The ideal situation is where another mother, or another woman, takes care of three, four or five children. I do not like the commercial developments where large buildings are turned into crèche facilities and qualified young people brought in to care for the children. I doubt if it is the right environment for bringing up children and I wonder how they will turn out. Children are brought out into the wide open world very early in life.

The number of single parents is a cause of concern. Young girls are becoming mothers when they are not aware of what is involved. It can happen in any home and in some case the girl will have the back-up of the family. In other cases, she will move out to set up in a flat or apartment away from home. The advice and facilities available to that child are vitally important.

Young offenders can come from any section of society. Young people from good homes, for one reason or another, can turn out wild. If they are taken in hand in the early stages they can be dealt with. Some speakers said they should not be classified as criminals. Nevertheless, we must be strict because people have to be protected from vandalism. I listened this morning to Deputy Coveney on "Morning Ireland", in a relay from Private Members' business last night, speak about young fellows buying second-hand cars at knockdown prices of, say, £20 or £30 and driving through estates at speed and inflicting terrible injuries. These are young people of 14 and 15 years of age who have not yet left home. Their parents may not be aware of their involvement in this activity. While the parent is responsible, the State has a role to play in providing back-up services and ensuring that type of car is not available to them.

In my county a new judge, Mr. Justice Mohan, has been appointed to replace the late Mr. Justice Donal McArdle who was a marvellous individual who knew how to implement the law effectively without going overboard. Mr. Justice Mohan's administration of justice in Virginia District Court last Monday has sent alarm bells ringing around the Cavan-Monaghan area. New Age Travellers appeared before him.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.