It is proposed to group amendments Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive. Amendment Nos. 2, 5 and 6 are alternatives to amendment No. 1. Amendment No. 4 is consequential on amendment No. 5 and amendment No. 3 is related to amendment No. 6. All may be discussed together by agreement.
Children Bill, 1999: Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 15, line 18, before "(1)", to insert the following:
"(1) Subject to subsection (2) of this section, this Act, to the extent that the provisions thereof do not involve a charge on public funds, shall come into operation one calendar month following its enactment.
(2) Part 3, to the extent that the provisions thereof do not involve a charge on public funds, shall come into operation upon the enactment of this Act.”.
I welcome Report Stage of this Bill. It has had a lengthy gestation. The legislation was published in its present format in 1999 and it has taken two years to reach Report Stage. It had a previous life as a Bill published by the previous Government some years earlier.
The main provisions of the legislation will replace the Children Act, 1908, and attempt to put in place a modern structure dealing with juvenile justice. The Bill deals with a number of other areas of public concern and addresses children who suffer personal difficulties, are incapable of caring for themselves and are out of control to the degree that they cannot be cared for by their parents.
The difficulty with the Bill is that there has not been any indication from the Government as to when it will be implemented. It has taken too long to be progressed through the House and has not been given the priority it deserves. We have been confronted by a section which prescribes that various sections of the legislation can come into operation on such days as may be designated by the Minister for Health and Children or the Minister for Education and Science.
On Committee Stage we invited the Minister of State to outline a time frame within which the provisions in the legislation would be brought into force but she failed to do so. In the context of major legislation such as this, which will transform our criminal justice system and redress major gaps in the child care area that have been not merely ignored but exacerbated during the lifetime of the Government and been exposed by the courts, the House should not enact the measure and leave it to the Government to determine when a particular section might come into force.
As the Bill has had a lengthy gestation, it is reasonable to assume some preparatory steps have been taken within Government, in Departments and through consultation with health boards to allow the legislation to be enforced with some speed. It is reasonable to assume, if the Government is serious, some of the new statutory instruments or regulations which are needed to bring sections or Parts of the legislation into operation should be in draft form and ready to be laid before the House. It is also reasonable to assume that in this year's Estimates for the Departments of Health and Children, Education and Science and Justice, Equality and Law Reform the necessary financial allocations have been made to facilitate the operation of the legislation.
It should not be left to the Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Health and Children, Education and Science or the Minister of State with responsibility for children to decide whether the Bill should come into force in October 2001 or, perhaps by some electoral accident the same people happen to be in Government, in October 2002 or in a decade's time.
My amendment proposes a new section which would facilitate within one calendar month the laying before the House of whatever regulations may be required to allow certain Parts of the legislation to become operational. Part 3, which should come into operation on the day the President signs this measure, deals with children in need of special care or protection. It seeks to amend the Child Care Act, 1991, which would provide statutory provisions to deal with children who have particular difficulties and need a special type of care by way of a special care order. This relates to the hundreds of children in need of special care and attention secure facilities, and psychiatric or psychological services but who cannot be cared for in their own homes, on whose behalf court cases have had to be initiated on almost a daily basis during the lifetime of the Government.
Court cases have been brought by parents on behalf of their children, by health boards in some instances and by other individuals. In all these court cases the Department of Health and Children has been named as a defendant or respondent. Frequently, health boards have been named as defendants and respondents and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has also been named on occasions. The Departments are named as respondents or defendants in the proceedings through the legal personality of the individual Ministers. The Minister for Health and Children and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform are responsible for this Bill. Because of the Government's total failure to provide appropriate care facilities for children, these Ministers are the most litigated among the Cabinet which forms this Government.
Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been spent defending the indefensible in these court cases. We are told that in excess of £0.5 million has been spent in payments to counsel representing applicants in these proceedings. That is only in respect of cases which have progressed to the degree where cost orders have been made. Similar sums must have been paid to counsel acting for the State. Similar sums must be owing to solicitors and counsel acting for applicants bringing cases which have not yet been disposed of. Hours and days of Judiciary time have been taken up by these cases.
We have seen exposed in the courts on a weekly basis the chaos administered over by the Minister for Health and Children in the context of providing places for children with special needs. Plans have been presented to the courts about the provision of new facilities which did not materialise, submissions have been made on behalf of the Government to the courts telling members of the Judiciary of the existence of social services which barely exist and promises have been made about ensuring that new facilities will be in place to meet needs within a certain timeframe which are not kept. The manner in which the Government has dealt with these children is a national scandal. Because the children do not have votes and because we are talking about a minority of children whose problems affect a minority of families, tragically their plight is not something which warrants the type of concerted media attention that forces responsible Government action. The inaction of Government is frequently covered up in a smokescreen of public relations.
My concern relates not only to the entirety of the Act but to Part 3 in respect of which cases are daily litigated in our courts. The Government has not been prepared to give a commitment that Part 3 of this Bill will be brought into force immediately upon the Bill being enacted. I ask the Minister of State to give that commitment. If she will not give that commitment, I ask her in the context of the promises of Government action made in many cases to Mr. Justice Peter Kelly, who has done extraordinary work as a High Court judge in bearing the burden of the tragedies of the many children the Government has not properly provided for and in seeking to provide by judicial order measures to meet their needs, to indicate why Part 3 of the Bill cannot be brought into force automatically upon its enactment. I want the Minister of State to tell the House if all the necessary resources are in place to bring Part 3 into force. I want her to explain why we do not have a timeframe to bring into force the other provisions contained in this measure.
Deputy Shortall, who has tabled similar amendments, and I are in an identical position in the manner in which the rules of this House curtail us in the type of amendment we on the Opposition benches can frame. Like me, I have no doubt Deputy Shortall – I hope she will not take umbrage if I take the liberty of speaking for her in this regard, although I know she can speak for herself, but I am sure we are ad idem on this issue – did not want the amendments tabled, which we are now discussing together, to have any proviso attached to them. Neither of us had any wish to say either the entirety of the Bill or particular sections of it should be brought into force either immediately or in a month's time but subject to the proviso that bringing them into force would not result in any additional Government expenditure. That proposal is nonsense.
While there are aspects of the Bill which can be brought into force which will not incur Government expenditure, there are others, such as the provision of some of the essential services under Part 3, which would incur Government expenditure. However, the Opposition benches have been advised to table it that way because we cannot amend a Bill in any way which might impose an additional charge on the Exchequer. The difficulty each of us has is that we have not been given an assurance by the Government to date that all the moneys which needed to be allocated to the various Departments this year to bring this Bill fully into force have been allocated. If our amendments were tabled in any different shape or form, there was a risk they would have been ruled out of order and we would not have been able to raise the issue of the timeframe for bringing this legislation into operation.
I invite the Minister to tell us that whatever moneys are needed have been voted, proposed and accepted by the Government and that the sections, whether it is Part 3, which deals with children who need special care or protection, or the other Parts of the Bill, can be brought into force. Part 3 should be brought into force immediately and the remainder should be brought into force within one month of the Bill's enactment. The only reason for the one month provision is to provide a short timeframe within which necessary regulations can be laid before this House and can become law. That additional provision is necessary in respect of the different Parts of the Bill. We will deal with the specific substance of the Bill's provisions at length during the day.
I want to comment on the need for this House to lay down a specific timeframe for the bringing into force of this legislation and the obligation on the Minister to put on the record of this House a timeframe to which the Government is prepared to commit itself. I am speaking from the knowledge of how a Fianna Fáil-led Government previously dealt with child care issues. The Child Care Act, 1991, which was also passed after a lengthy gestation period and enacted in this House in 1991, was put in place after substantial lobbying and much difficulty and controversy. I remember the day the Bill went through the Seanad and the President signed it, the then Minister for Health in a great fanfare of public relations publicity ensured that self-congratulatory statements were issued to record the tremendous work which the then Minister had done in processing this legislation through the House. A call was made on the public to recognise that we had entered a new era in the area of child care. The problem was that it was not until October 1995 that most of the provisions in the Child Care Act were brought into force. That was after Fianna Fáil was thrown out of Government and Fine Gael came back into Government. It was not until 1995 that the new range of measures in the legislation required to protect children at risk had an impact on anybody.
The tragic reality is, that having failed our children for decades, we continued to fail children at risk after 1991 by not putting in place the protective legislative measures necessary to cater for the diversity of problems and difficulties they suffer. Some of the children, on whose behalf claims will be made for compensation under the new Residential Institutions Redress Bill, 2001, were being sexually and physically abused in the early 1990s. They have been failed by social services and the Government because legislation enacted in this House was effectively left to gather dust on a departmental shelf. There was no concept of the need to prioritise bringing before this House the regulations necessary to render it operative.
This Bill must not sit on a Department shelf for four years after enactment by this House. It must be rapidly brought into force by ensuring that all necessary resources are properly in place and the preparations needed to make the regulations are fully and properly undertaken within a time frame controlled by this House as the legislature.
This Bill must go from the Dáil to Seanad. It is a tradition that this House does not discuss the business of the Seanad but I invite the Minister to indicate whether the Government will allocate sufficient time to this Bill to ensure its enactment in the Seanad before the summer recess. I urge him to ensure that this happens. If the Seanad must sit late into July to complete that task, so be it.
We have failed – and continue to fail – to address urgent problems relating to children. Children have been left in a vulnerable position because our court system and legal remedies are antiquated and we lack the special schools and facilities necessary to deal with children experiencing difficulties. It is a disgrace that our criminal law relating to children continues to operate under an Act passed almost a century ago by the Westminster Parliament and largely replaced and repealed in 1926.
I support amendments Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, in particular I support amendments Nos. 2 and 3 in my name. These amendments concern the commencement date for this Bill. The reason I, and presumably Deputy Shatter, have put down these amendments is that we have no confidence that this Government is serious about dealing with juvenile crime. The record stands as an indictment of the Government.
In 1997 the Minister inherited a Bill that had already passed Second Stage in this House. He chose to sit on it for several years before finally producing it in an amended form last year. We then had to wait several months to debate it. Time and again the Bill was put on the long finger. It was taken on Committee Stage only after a great deal of pressure had been applied to both the Taoiseach and the Minister concerned. This side of the House does not believe there is a sense of urgency on the part of either the Government or the officials of the three Departments concerned.
The record over many years and during many Governments shows that issues relating to children, particularly children on the margins, are not given political priority. As Deputy Shatter said, juvenile justice is still governed by legislation dating from 1908. It is difficult to understand why this area receives so little political attention. Clearly most of the affected children are on the margins and do not have political clout having no right to vote because of their age. Most children who come into contact with the law are poor and many politicians assume that because the poor are not generally the voting public, they can afford to ignore them. It is not until later in life, when the same children have become criminals filling our prisons at enormous cost to the State, that the issue of justice receives high profile attention in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform or elsewhere at political level.
Our prisons are bulging. People are incarcerated at a cost of £70,000 to £100,000 a year, which is an enormous waste of human potential. Most of the problems manifesting themselves in our prisons could have been dealt with when the prisoners were aged eight, nine, ten or 11 and the problems were first presenting. There was no service in place to deal with them. These children grew up neglected by the State and it was only a matter of time before they ended up behind bars in the State's care.
I deeply regret that the principle of prevention has not yet been accepted by Departments and, specifically, their senior officials. The tendency over many years has been to consider problems as serious only when they have manifested themselves in adults.
The Minister has frequently spoken about this Bill, having launched it and its various sections umpteen times in the media as if they constituted new ideas that he has suddenly come up with. The incredible media machine this Government operates has succeeded in putting across the idea that it is serious about what it is doing. In spite of all the launches, reports and press statements, we are in a position in 2001 of having massive budget surpluses while our child welfare and protection services are in a shambles. The reason I can describe our child protection services as a shambles is that I deal with problems in my constituency almost on a daily basis. People through out the country contact me on this matter. I will give a few examples of the shambles and chaos that exist in case people are not aware of them.
This morning, for example, I was contacted about a 13 year old girl who has been in the care of a health board since four years ago when a court issued a lengthy care order for the child to be kept in the care of the health board until she was 18 years of age. A care order of that duration is serious. The child was being housed in a health board facility. It seems no one paid attention to the fact that a 13 year old needs very close supervision and care and eventually the child came and went as she pleased and was left to her own devices.
She was taken out by a male relative who sexually abused her on a number of occasions. He also sexually abused a number of other young girls. A case will come before the courts shortly. The 13 year old concerned was not only seriously physically and sexually abused by that person, she was also abused by her alcoholic mother. Because of the seriousness of the case, she was placed in the care of the health board. Recently it decided to release her, having found her too difficult to contain in a health board facility. She has been released on to the streets with the requirement that she reports to her local Garda station by eight o'clock every evening. If she reports to the Garda, they will contact a duty social worker who will try to make arrangements to find a hostel bed for her for the night. That is the state of our care services. A 13 year old child is being left to her own devices, having been sexually abused, left on the street with no question of any educational or care services being put in place. Somebody who is highly vulnerable and very much a child at 13 years of age is being left entirely to her own devices. The State has abnegated all responsibility for that child and the only promise is the prospect of a hospital bed if she reports to a Garda station. That is a care system that is in absolute chaos.
That is one particular case. That is a child who has come before the courts where a care order has been issued. There is also a situation within the Northern Area Health Board which serves the north city and county of Dublin. Before any cases can be taken to court, a child must be allocated a social worker. Many complaints are made to the social work services where there is a suspicion of sexual or physical abuse or serious neglect. These complaints would be made by a school principal or teacher, for example, a neighbour who is aware of something going on at home that is worrying or a complaint from a relative. Complaints are made to the local health board and children now go on a waiting list for a social worker. On the north side of Dublin there are 686 children waiting to be allocated a social worker. I ask the Minister to ponder on what this actually means. In one part of the country, the north side of Dublin, there are 686 children, about whom there are suspicions of sexual or physical abuse or serious neglect, on waiting lists for a social worker. Of these, we are told that 200 are priority cases. There are, therefore, 200 cases where it has been established that there is abuse or neglect and the service still cannot meet the needs of those children. These are the most highly vulnerable at-risk children that one can imagine. They are children who are in situations of abuse and danger and the care services are not in a position to intervene to protect them. That is the reality of Ireland's booming Celtic tiger economy of 2001 where the children of the poor are being left to fend for themselves and it seems that nobody gives a damn.
On the question of the detention services operated by the Department of Education and Science, the position is not much better. Only recently, the case of a 12 year old boy was brought to my attention. He had been in trouble with the law over a number of years. It was the usual case. A dysfunctional family, the child had left home when he was eight or nine years of age, was living on the streets, got into trouble with the law and finally, when he was 12 years of age, he was sentenced to 12 months detention. The case took a long time in the Children's Court. He was finally given a 12 months sentence. As we are aware, it is a matter of last resort that a child is given a custodial sentence, to be served in Oberstown. The Garda duly collected the child from the Children's Court, drove him out to Oberstown, knocked on the door and was told by the director that there was no room for him. The Garda drove the child to an address in my constituency and delivered him home. That was the end of that. That, again, is our shambles of a care system. A child who engaged in activities sufficiently serious to bring him before the courts and impose a lengthy sentence, in the context of a child, simply because no place was available is just left to his own devices on the street. I would be prepared to bet a penny to a pound that it is only a matter of time before he ends up in St. Patrick's Institution and then in the care of the State in Mountjoy Prison. It is only a matter of time until he reaches the age of 18 years when he will qualify.
On the basis of first-hand, practical experience, the Government has clearly displayed that it does not care about the needs of the most vulnerable children, the children of the poor who come in contact with the law, whose parents will not vote, write letters to The Irish Times, turn up at politicians' clinics or be in a position to have parliamentary questions tabled. Those forgotten people, the emerging underclass that we have allowed to develop, will be consigned to the underclass unless there is some kind of political seriousness about tackling the problem. The kind of scatter-gun approach which is a hallmark of the Government, where it spends money where there are likely to be votes, does nothing to help these forgotten children.
It is for this reason that, in spite of all the fanfare about the production of the Bill – no doubt that when it completes all Stages the Minister will issue a number of other press releases – I am not prepared to continue with the charade of pretending that action has been taken or changes made when, in all probability, this legislation will sit on the shelf for several years until such time as there is political will, if it ever happens, to implement it.
The other aspect which gives a clear indication that the Government is not serious about implementing this legislation in the near future is that little or no preparation has been made to put in place the type of resources, particularly staff resources, required. Since 1995, when the "FN" case was heard and the State given a clear responsibility for providing for the needs of children, we are aware that there have been serious shortages of social workers. This is ludicrous. Leaving certificate students are queuing up to get into university to undergo social work training, yet the number of social work places in universities is minute compared to the need that exists.
There are 700 children waiting for social workers on the north side of Dublin. The position is equally bad in other parts of Dublin and, no doubt, throughout the country. I asked the Minister of State recently the number of children on waiting lists for social workers, but she was unable to provide the answer. As the data are not collected in the Department, three or four weeks later I am still waiting for the information. If the Minister does not know the scale of the problem, how can he possibly pretend to be dealing with it?
There is a huge shortage of social workers and no serious attempt is being made to increase the intake into universities in order to meet the existing demand before the implementation of the Children Bill. Given the huge shortages in staff provision, even if there was political will, there is no chance that this legislation can be implemented in the foreseeable future. It then becomes a vicious circle because where there is understaffing within difficult services – there is no doubt that providing social work services for at-risk children is a very difficult job – the burden is all the heavier for those in the jobs. The burnout rate and the turnover of staff is very high. The more difficult and needy the areas, the less likely they are to have adequate staff because staff move on, very often to the private sector where the job is much easier and where they are better paid. They leave behind a trail of personal and human destruction, with long and growing waiting lists for essential social work services to protect the most vulnerable children. Nothing has been done in recent times to ensure there is an adequate supply of social workers for the current need and the increased need that will arise from the implementation of the Children Bill.
The other important aspect in relation to staff is the probation and welfare service which is seriously understaffed. On Committee Stage the Minister stated that attempts to recruit the staff complement which had been agreed were unsuc cessful as the people were not available. These people will come from the same pool as social workers. The staff are not available to meet existing needs.
Some time ago I asked the Minister what the projected Probation and Welfare Service need would be in the context of the full implementation of this Bill. He stated that an additional 90 probation and welfare officers would be needed. He was not able to recruit the complement for last year and he has no chance of recruiting the additional staff. There has been no forward thinking on the part of the Minister or his officials to enable them to meet the staff demands which will arise as a result of this Bill.
The Minister will recall that, on Committee Stage, I asked him if he had held discussions with the Minister for Education and Science or the Higher Education Authority to ensure that the intake into universities would match the demands which would arise as a result of this legislation. At that time the Minister stated that he had not held such discussions. Has he made any effort to ensure there will be a sufficient number of people in training to meet the demand which will arise from this legislation? If he has not done so, he will confirm my belief that this is an area which receives little or no political priority, which has been seriously neglected over many years and which the Minister continues to neglect by his inactivity.
I have referred to the litany of problems and crises which I come across, almost on a daily basis, in my constituency. These crises which affect vulnerable children are coming before the courts at least twice a week and the three Ministers were threatened with being held in contempt of court because of their inaction in this area. Vast amounts of money are being spent defending these cases. The Department has spent £500,000, yet that is a pittance compared with what health boards are spending going to court and making indefensible cases in which they try to claim that the needs of vulnerable children are not their responsibility. I am referring to a situation in which, for example, a health board decides it is acceptable that a 13 year old child is left on the streets to her own devices. This is the kind of mentality whereby a health board thinks it is acceptable to leave children on their own without accommodation or care. Those same people are going to court and defending their right not to accept responsibility for children who come to the attention of the courts. In recent years in the ERHA area, between £6 million and £7 million has been spent defending these cases. It seems extraordinary that at a time when there are such shortages of resources for the child protection services, we are squandering that amount of money defending the indefensible.
In light of this, it is essential that we put in place a mechanism to ensure that this area is taken seriously and that the legislation on which we have worked for a long time is implemented in a short time scale. However, we cannot have any confidence in the Minister or the media to ensure that happens. Deputy Shatter, the Ministers and I spent six or seven long and arduous sessions on Committee Stage going through the detail of the Bill. To the best of my knowledge not one reporter attended any of those sessions. This work represented more than 20 hours of detailed consideration of the legislation yet, again to the best of my knowledge, not a single line appeared in any newspaper or on any radio or television station regarding this important area.
The Minister takes the view that this is a vast area which he can afford to ignore at a political level as there are no votes in it and he will not be damaged electorally. He is bolstered in that view of politics, and of the Government's responsibility, by the media which has shown little or no interest in this issue.
One must ask questions about the role of the media and the criteria it uses to select the political issues to be covered. Many newspapers and radio stations are driven by market concerns where advertising is a major element of their operations. By and large those who are inclined to advertise in the broadsheets are not the kind of people who would be remotely interested in the needs of abandoned and abused children in Ballymun, north Clondalkin, Tallaght or Darndale. There is an absence of any sense of responsibility on the part of many journalists to look at this as a serious political issue, or as an important issue of justice, equity, neglect and of who should care for the poor. Not many journalists have taken the time to acquaint themselves with the issues or to apprise themselves of the scandal which has existed for many years, and which continues to exist, in the child welfare and protection services.
A couple of years ago the media was interested when the Taoiseach issued an apology to those who were abused and neglected by people charged with caring for them while they were in the care of the State in residential institutions. Most people shared that sense of regret and deep apology. However, this abuse was not confined to the past – it continues to happen. Hundreds of children are in dangerous situations and are being abused and seriously neglected and this State, with all the money at its disposal, is not in a position, or is not prepared, to provide care and protection for them. As I said to the Taoiseach yesterday, I have no doubt that in ten years time there will be another "States of Fear" programme and another inquiry into the situation which exists in 2001 where hundreds of children are not being provided with the care and protection they require. This State has chosen to avert its gaze and to put money into sexy pet projects which the public likes and in which the media is interested. Meanwhile, the children of the poor who are most at risk and who are being abused, continue to be abused at an official level by the State and by the media whose role it should be to highlight inequality and injustice.
I am sure the media will pick up on the Mini ster's press releases when the Bill is passed. However, I invite those members of the media who are interested in political issues, in political responsibility for the way in which we run society and in ensuring justice for all, to take the trouble to look behind the Minister's press releases and see what things are like in the real world and the neglect and abuse which continues.
I have no confidence or optimism that this matter will be treated seriously. There is no sense that the Minister will take this Bill and get it through quickly, to ensure it is implemented at an early stage to protect children who depend on him for protection. I would be prepared to bet money that this legislation will lie dormant for years until there is another scandal or inquiry and then we will start to consider implementing sections of it. I do not believe the Minister is serious about implementation. It is necessary to set implementation dates for the Bill. As Deputy Shatter stated, Opposition Members are not in a position to propose any action on a Bill if it involves a charge on the Exchequer. For that reason, we can only include the proviso that the provisions of this Act which do not involve a potential charge on public funds shall be brought into operation immediately. I am concerned about the aspects of this Bill which will require considerable resources—
The Bill is subject to a guillotine at 7 p.m. While I am very reluctant to curtail any Member's contribution, there is a considerable number of amendments to be debated.
I appreciate that and just wish to make a final point. Due to the fact that a number of the Bill's provisions require urgent implementation, amendment No. 3 proposes that the Minister, be it the current Minister or any future Minister, regardless of his or her political persuasion, shall report to both Houses of the Oireachtas at six monthly intervals on progress made in bringing the Bill's provisions into operation. Given our hopeless record in this area, I am not confident that this or any other Minister will take this matter seriously nor am I confident that the media will pursue the Minister of the day to ensure he or she does the job properly. For that reason, I intend to press amendment No. 3.
In 1996, as an Opposition Member, I made it very clear that I was not satisfied with the provisions of that year's Children Bill. I also made it clear that substantial amendment would be required if the Bill were to be effective and reflect modern Irish society. I make no apologies for having ensured that the legislation as it then stood was carefully studied in my Department when the Government came into office. It was our view that the legislation would not meet modern requirements and, in those cir cumstances, consideration was given to amending the legislation. It was subsequently found that the amendments required would be so numerous that it would be preferable to produce new legislation. That is not for a moment to deny the work carried out by former Minister of State, Deputy Currie. We merely sought to improve the legislation to meet modern requirements.
It took two years to do that.
Previous legislation in this area was almost 100 years old and since the legislation I sought to introduce would, in all probability, survive for many decades, I felt it should be a model of international best practice. In that context, former Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, was sent to New Zealand to consider the situation there and to see whether we could adopt some of its legislative provisions in this area which have proven successful. We also considered the position in other countries and, having done so, produced what I regard as an innovative, imaginative and forward looking Children Bill which will stand the test of time.
In regard to the accusation that a two year delay elapsed prior to Report Stage, this legislation was introduced in 2000—
—and we in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and people in the other relevant Departments have been in a position to proceed with the legislation for some time. However, time was not made available to debate the legislation and we can hardly be faulted for that. The legislation currently before the House is a model of best practice and I am confident it will be effective and prove inspirational in the coming years.
All of the amendments before the House are variations on a theme – the commencement of the many and varied provisions of the Bill, responsibility for which will be a matter for three Ministers – which was fully explored and discussed on Committee Stage. Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 are totally new and the first of them would, if accepted, cause nothing but confusion about what will or will not come into operation on the signing of this legislation. This type of amendment would be bad enough in a short Bill but in a Bill comprising 273 sections and two schedules, it would be nothing short of disastrous. The amendment has little, if any, regard for reality. How would the Garda, the health boards, education officials, the courts and members of the public know what would be in operation on day one? Complete confusion would reign.
In an integrated Bill such as this, there may be sections which would not pose any potential charge on public funds but which would be dependent on sections which would involve such a potential charge. What, in the circumstances, is meant by "potential charge" and who would decide what it means? In practical terms, the cost of implementing the provisions of the Bill will become clearer in time. What would happen if a section were to automatically come into operation simply because someone decided it did not involve a potential charge but if it were later to emerge that a charge was involved? We would then be faced with the ridiculous situation where a Minister would make an order bringing into operation a provision already fully operational for some time. Assuming that matters would not be as obvious as I suspect they would be, lawyers would clearly have a field day.
Amendment No. 3, if accepted, would cause confusion and present us with many practical difficulties. It is also totally unnecessary as the information sought would be available through other means such as parliamentary questions. Therefore, I suspect the real purpose of this amendment is not simply to gain information. I referred to confusion and practical difficulties. The amendment refers to "the Minister" which is defined as "the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform". However, large chunks of this Bill are the responsibility of the Ministers for Health and Children and Education and Science and it would not be appropriate for one Minister to continually report to the Houses under statutory obligation on the statutory obligations of other Ministers. The wording of the amendment would result in the Minister reporting on the progress of the implementation process to both Houses of the Oireachtas for an indefinite period.
Do the Ministers not normally speak to each other?
Amendment No. 6 in the name of Deputy Shatter was fully debated on Committee Stage. Amendment No. 1 which involves the imposition of a definite time scale on the Bill's implementation is of a similar nature. These amendments confuse the legislative process with the administrative provisions required to be in place before the Act or any part, section or provision thereof comes into operation. Asking a Minister to accept amendments such as these is tantamount to asking him or her to accept responsibility for the unknown or for matters which, in certain circumstances, are outside his or her control. I will illustrate that point in a moment but I want to first place on record the actions already taken to ensure the Bill's speedy implementation.
The Garda community relations section has operated pilot schemes on restorative conferencing and cautioning for more than a year. Approximately 30 such conferences have been held and I am delighted the reports I have received are very encouraging. To date, most juvenile liaison officers have been trained in mediation and other relevant skills by the Mediation Council of Ireland and a company called Real Justice. With regard to the family conference to be convened by the probation and welfare service, experts came to Ireland last September from New Zealand to train probation officers in family conferencing. Planning has also been carried out on implementing the provision of places of detention for 16 and 17 year old detainees, separate from older detainees. On 16 January 2001, I formally announced the commencement of a major programme of redevelopment at Cork prison. The project, which will take three years to complete at a cost in excess of £35 million, will include a separate facility for 16 and 17 year old detainees in a 40 place unit with full support facilities. Detailed planning and preliminary site work is at an advanced stage and building work is expected to commence later this year on the main buildings in the complex. Sites are also currently being examined in the Dublin region for a further 110 such places, comprising separate secure detention facilities for up to 20 females and 90 males.
Part 2 of the Bill provides for a Special Residential Services Board which is already operating with a full membership on an administrative basis pending the enactment of the legislation. Plans have been prepared by the Department of Education and Science for a capital development programme for children detention schools. The sum of £9 million has been allocated this year to implement the programme while priority has been given to the provision in Lusk of a specialised highly secure unit to cater for the depraved and unruly children who would previously have gone to prison as well as for those with particular special needs. Section 101 provides for day assessment of children found guilty of offences as an alternative to the preparation of a report while the child is in custody. Plans for the provision of such at an existing probation office have encountered planning difficulties over a change of use of the office. The unavoidable consequence has been a delay of well over 12 months, but I am glad to say that the place is open for referrals from the courts for the preparation of probation officer reports. The problem with planning illustrates how delays can occur which makes acceptance of an amendment such as this impossible. It is clear that much has been done and is being done to ensure the speedy and co-ordinated implementation of the Bill. Many provisions will come into operation when the Bill is enacted and shortly afterwards, but it must be faced that some parts will require substantial capital expenditure or the employment of additional staff. With planning and other delays and the difficulty of attracting staff of a high calibre, it is difficult to predict precise implementation dates for some parts of the Bill. Regrettably, this makes acceptance of the amendments impossible.
I now turn to amendments Nos. 4 and 5 which refer to implementing Parts 2 and 3 of the Bill which are primarily concerned with putting the family welfare conference on a statutory footing and imposing certain duties on health boards concerning children in need of special care and protection. As I pointed out on Committee Stage, the two Parts are inextricably linked to each other and with Part 11 which establishes the Special Residential Services Board. Under the Bill, where it appears to a health board that a child in its area is in need of special care and protection a family welfare conference must be convened under Part 2 before the board can apply for a special care order under Part 3. It will also have to seek the views of the Special Residential Services Board if the board still proposes to apply for a special care order after the conference has completed its deliberations. It will, therefore, not be possible to bring into operation Part 3 without also bringing into operation Parts 2 and 11. The Government has made a major investment in the development of child welfare services for vulnerable children and their families and for children at risk, including the development of services in anticipation of the implementation of the Bill.
This year the Government allocated a further £33 million in revenue for the further development of these services. In the letters of net determination issued by the Department of Health and Children health boards are instructed to introduce the family welfare conference on a phased basis in order that they will be in a position to meet their obligations under Part 2. The Department has also approved the development of an additional 110 high support special care places to enable Part 3 of the Bill to be introduced. Approximately half of these places already exist and include the purpose-built care unit at Ballydowd. Over the next 12 months it is anticipated that most of the rest will come on stream bringing the total number of places to 160. Significant progress has been made by health boards in meeting these targets despite the many difficulties such as objections to planning permission, difficulties in recruiting staff due to the economic climate and opposition from local communities.
The Government was responsible for establishing the springboard initiative establishing family support projects to work intensively with children, mainly in the seven to 12 year age group, who are at risk of going into care or getting into trouble with the law.
They are pilot projects.
In addition, a joint working group from the Department of Health and Children and the health boards has been established to identify the gaps in the services for children in need of special care and protection with a view to submitting recommendations soon. A great deal of progress has been made. However, to allow for the planned development and strengthening of the services it is necessary to allow for the phased introduction of parts of the Bill. As I pointed out on Committee Stage, the implementation of these parts is considered a priority by the Government and it is the intention to implement them before the end of the year. The £33 million which has been allocated includes money for the ongoing development of high sup port special care units, the phased introduction of family welfare conferences, the development of youth homeless services and the further development of family support services, particularly the springboard initiative in Raphoe, Darndale and Loughlinstown. All these will strengthen the services necessary for implementation of the Bill.
During the course of her contribution, Deputy Shortall referred to the lack of personnel in the probation and welfare service and child care services. It is a sad fact of life that there is difficulty in recruiting the necessary staff.
What has the Minister done about it?
That is no fault of the Government. It is just a fact.
What has the Minister done about it?
As Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I was enabled by the Minister for Finance to recruit 49 additional probation and welfare officers. The difficulty immediately arose that we could not get a sufficient number of people.
We have known that for years, but what has the Minister done about it?
The Deputy asks what I have done about it. What I did about it was to see if it was possible to get people on a temporary basis. We advertised for 25 people on a temporary basis and happily we were successful.
The Minister did nothing about it.
Another 25 were sanctioned and we now have sanction for 50 temporary probation and welfare officers this year, many of whom have taken up duty. The remainder will take up duty over the rest of the year.
Has the Minister done anything about the intake into the colleges?
There will also be a confined competition in two years time for these probation and welfare officers in order that they can be made permanent. I am rather surprised to hear the Deputy implicitly criticise the former Eastern Health Board, of which she was chairperson. Many of the matters she mentioned were the responsibility of that health board and now come under the remit of the Northern Area Health Board. I have no doubt the Deputy was an excellent chairperson, but would have thought that the health board, having responsibility for them, would have tackled the issues of concern which she has raised lucidly this afternoon.
It cannot do it if it does not get funding from the Department.
For our part, the resources have been made available. Of that there can be no question.
That is not true.
While it is not possible to construct buildings over night, it is true that places are going up as a result of the Government's interest and activity.
There are no staff for them.
Since the Deputy raises the issue of staff, health boards are conducting campaigns in the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa to recruit experienced social workers.
Why can they not be trained here?
The Minister for Health and Children, as an example of the Government's bona fides, has agreed a substantial pay rise for child care workers to ease recruitment difficulties.
I strongly believe that across all areas dealing with children, the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Hanafin, has done an outstanding job. This is recognised across society.
Tell that to Mr. Justice Kenny in the High Court instead of this flimflam to which we have to listen.
It is being ensured children who are deprived will have opportunities in life which they did not have previously.
It is completely false for Deputy Shortall to state that there is no interest in vulnerable and disadvantaged children because they or their parents do not vote. All the available evidence, in terms of the resources which have been brought forward to deal with the problem, indicates the contrary. The comprehensive children strategy announced by the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children is further testimony that the Government has been extremely proactive towards the children mentioned by Deputies Shortall and Shatter.
The waiting lists are getting longer.
I would be the first to acknowledge that more needs to be done but in so far as it is possible to advance the resources, facilities and services required by the children concerned, these are being provided. They will continue to be provided, votes or no votes.
It is noteworthy that at the start of his comments the Minister engaged in what could best be described as a somewhat tortured, politically partisan semantic analysis of the amendments. The Minister managed the unique feat of talking for some time without putting on the record when precisely it is anticipated particular Parts of the Bill will be brought into force. That is a direct question, simply put, to which the Minister has failed to respond. This Bill has 13 Parts and 273 sections. The Minister has managed to not tell the House when a single Part or section will be brought into force. He has expressed a vague aspiration that some bits of the Bill might, by the end of the year, be brought into force.
In the context of the amendments as tabled, the Minister well knows the reason for the phraseology of the first two amendments, which was set out clearly by me when I started speaking. If it is not possible to get the Government to agree to commence Part III instantly and the remaining Parts within one month, will the Minister explain why the Government has any difficulty in not placing before the House, one month after the enactment of this measure, a timetable detailing when it proposes to bring different provisions of the Act into operation? Why is it not willing subsequently to use further timetables on an amended basis if it cannot fulfil the original timetable? That is what amendment No. 6 deals with and the Minister has not dealt with the substance of that. The House has a role in ensuring that legislation which passes through it becomes operative.
The difficulty, as Deputy Shatter well knows, is that there are built-in time limits to the legislation. It would not be feasible or practical and I have explained in great detail why it would not be feasible or practical to do what the Deputy says. He understands precisely why I cannot do what he says. He also knows the Government has approved my approaching this legislation in the best of good faith and that it is not being put on the Statute Book for the fun of it. He is unwilling to accept my explanations for reasons best known to himself.
Sadly, the Minister did not avail of the opportunity to respond to me. I find it quite extraordinary that a measure designed to bring our laws on children into the 21st century and to effectively sweep the cobwebs of the 19th century off the Statute Book has been before the House for two years and the debate on it is concluding today, yet the Minister is not able to put on the record a commitment that any particular section in the Bill will become operational within an identified time frame or by a particular date. That is treating the House with contempt and is trying to create a charade that legislation is in place to revolutionise the law on children and services which the Government has no intention of bringing into operation this side of the next general election. That is the stark reality.
In the context of the preparations the Minister outlined and the preliminary work done, if that work is at the advanced stage the Minister alleges, it should be within his competence to make a commitment to the House regarding at least some aspects of the legislation. I am particularly appalled at the cavalier manner in which the Minister dealt with the proposal in Part III, which should come into force immediately. How many more cases have to be brought before Mr. Justice Peter Kelly on behalf of children with special difficulties, for the Government to recognise the need to enact new legislation and to put in place a statutory framework to address the problems of these children? How many more times will officials from the relevant Departments, Health and Children or Justice, Equality and Law Reform, have to be called to give evidence before courts to explain the gross neglect by the Government in this area? How many more children will die because of the Government's failure to provide the secure residential establishments with professional back-up services needed to meet the special problems of the children whose cases are daily dealt with in the High Court? How many more High Court investigations are to take place into Government failure?
I predict that within the next five to six years we will have yet another tribunal examining issues relating to the State's failure to care properly for children. The Ministers who have had responsibility for children in this Government – in the Departments of Education and Science, Justice, Equality and Law Reform as well as Health and Children – and the two Ministers of State appointed with titles as Ministers with responsibility for children will be called to give evidence before that tribunal. Before that happens the State will have to answer to the European Court of Human Rights for its failure to protect children and to afford to them the protections that court has held they are entitled to under the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. I take no satisfaction in saying this. I do not want to see the State hauled before the European Court for its failings but it is inevitable that will happen. I do not want hundreds of thousands of pounds wasted on legal costs because of the necessity of bringing the plight of children in difficulty to the High Court when such money could be properly spent on providing the facilities needed to care properly for those children and bringing into force the provisions in this measure.
The Government has no sense of priority about this issue. The next time a tragedy affects a young child who has not been catered for by the State the tabloid media will feature it on their front pages and there will be shock and horror among the non-tabloid newspapers, which will have editorials written on it. Not too much will be written about the fact that during today's deliberations here it has been pointed out that although the Bill passes today, it will not become operative and probably will not do so, on this Government's plans, for a number of years. The only hope of bringing this measure into operation within a reasonable time frame is based on the real possibility that Fianna Fáil will be thrown out of Government after the next election and that the Opposition parties will receive sufficient electoral support to take over the reins of power and to implement this measure as a priority.