Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 11 Oct 2001

Vol. 542 No. 1

Family Support Agency Bill, 2001: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to present this Bill to the House. It provides for the establishment of a statutory body to be known as the Family Support Agency. The new agency will bring together the main programmes and pro-family services introduced by the Government in recent years to support families, promote continuity and stability in family life and prevent marriage breakdown, and to foster a supportive community environment for families at local level. The Bill delivers on commitments in the action programme for the millennium to protect the family through political, economic, social and other measures which will support the stability of the family and through a "families first" policy focus designed to make families central to policy making. The legislation marks a significant step forward in providing a comprehen sive and coherent response for families who have need of support services and for families generally.

The Family Support Agency will provide a family mediation service; support, promote and develop the provision of marriage and relationships counselling services, and family support services; and support, promote and develop the family and community services resource centre programme. The legislation will involve the transfer of responsibility for the administration of these programmes from within my Department to the new agency. I will bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage to give effect to this.

The agency will also have functions in providing information about these services as well as promoting knowledge about parenting issues and family responsibilities. It will undertake research and have a role advising me as Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs in family matters. The new agency will be overseen by a board with expertise and experience in matters related to its responsibilities and it will be accountable for Government investment in the development of family services and programmes which this year amounts to almost £12 million.

The Family Support Agency will be a dedicated agency and a resource for voluntary and community groups that work with families at national and local level and all those involved in promoting family well being. The provision of family mediation, support for the marriage and relationships counselling services and the development of the local family and community services resource centres are the core responsibilities of the Family Support Agency.

These programmes have been radically expanded and developed over the past few years as the key components of the Government's "Families First" approach. Government investment in them has increased from £1.5 million in 1997 to just over £11 million in 2001. This approach is very much in line with the views of the Commission on the Family which sought a greater balance between Government resources allocated to dealing with the legal consequences of marital breakdown and the resources allocated to preventative and social supports for families. This view was echoed at the series of family fora which I hosted throughout the country, eight in all. Over 1,000 people including public representatives attended the fora. While Government initiatives to support families were well received, the view was regularly expressed that there is a need for a greater focus at policy level on measures to preserve and support family relationships and to prevent marital breakdown in the first place.

The importance of mobilising local communities in building a supportive environment for families was also a prominent theme for local groups. The Family Support Agency Bill comprehensively addresses all of these issues. The responsibility for the Family Support Agency to support, promote and develop further family support pro grammes, its functions to undertake research and its information and advisory role to me will greatly strengthen the way in which the Government's response to families in the future can be developed and delivered.

The detailed provisions are contained in the explanatory memorandum. The Family Support Agency will set out its functions, as set out in section 4, to provide family mediation through the Family Mediation Service which the Government has expanded nationwide over the past four years. As Members will know, the service is a free, professional and confidential service which assists couples who have decided to separate to reach agreement on all issues related to their separation. It is important when a couple has decided to separate that they may have a service which allows them to deal with the issues which arise at the breakdown in a non-adversarial manner where this is possible. This approach, which is particularly helpful where children are concerned, is a main feature of the mediation process that parenting arrangements focus on children having ongoing supportive relationships with both parents into the future. The Family Mediation Service was set up on a pilot basis in 1985. In 1997 it was available in two centres, Dublin and Limerick. Since the Government has taken office, and given the commitment that we made in our programme for Government to make it nationwide, I have established new services in Athlone, Castlebar, Cork, Dundalk, Galway, Tralee and Wexford. The Dublin service has been expanded and relocated to larger premises to deal with more clients and new services have been established in Tallaght and Marino, serving Coolock and the northside of Dublin.

A new service for Blanchardstown and surrounding areas is planned for later this year. In line with the nationwide expansion, there has been a significant increase in the numbers of couples being assisted by the service from 484 couples in 1997 to 1,225 couples in 2000 and obviously more this year. In addition to its services to clients the Family Mediation Service each year provides a small number of training places for people who wish to specialise in family mediation thereby contributing to the growth and development of a vibrant profession of family mediators throughout the country. The Family Support Agency Bill provides the statutory framework to secure the future development of these activities. An important goal for the Family Support Agency will be that family mediation is recognised and promoted as a alternative to more adversarial approaches to resolving issues that arise on marital breakdown and that more people throughout the country have access to this valuable professional family support service. In bringing this legislation before the House I am also fulfilling a Government commitment to provide a statutory basis for the Family Mediation Service. This was promised in the review of the programme for Government which was carried out after two and a half years of this Government's term. In doing so I would like to pay tribute to the staff in my Department and the staff in the mediation service. The commitment and professionalism they bring to their work and their advocacy on behalf of customers will provide a major asset to the agency in developing its remit in family mediation. This legislation is a particularly important development for them.

Section 4(1) (c) of the Bill provides that the Family Support Agency will support, promote and develop the provision of marriage and relationships counselling services. Government grant aid for the provision of these services in the voluntary sector has been increased from £900,000 in 1997 when this Government came to office to £4.7 million in 2001. Members will know that this grant aid was transferred from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, as it was formerly known in the previous Administration.

There are now over 400 voluntary and community groups throughout the country providing marriage and relationship counselling, marriage preparation programmes, child counselling for children whose parents have separated and bereavement counselling and support services. A key objective for the Family Support Agency will be the development of a strong regional network of accessible counselling services for families as recommended by the Commission on the Family and as envisaged in the Government programme.

These are the messages from research that the Family Support Agency will take on board in developing its function to promote support for counselling services in partnership with the voluntary sector. Moreover, as a dedicated agency, the Family Support Agency with its own budget and expertise will be well placed to assist the voluntary counselling services in meeting new challenges, such as the growing professionalisation of the sector, the increasing emphasis on the high standards of training and qualification and the need for the development of models of best practice. The Family Support Agency, in section 4(1) (e), is being given a specific responsibility to support, promote and develop the family and community services resource centre programme at present being administered by my Department.

The family and community services resource centre programme has been singled out by Government in recent years for radical improvement and expansion. In 1997 there were ten centres. We made promises in the programme for Government to radically increase these numbers and there are currently 70 either up and running or have been approved for inclusion in the programme. We made a promise in the review of the Action Programme for the Millennium and the Government is committed to the establishment of 100 centres. The aim of the family and community resource centre programme is essentially to help combat disadvantage by strengthening the capacity of families to carry out their caring responsibilities. Services for lone parent families, young mothers and others in need of extra support can be provided. Initiatives to enhance the role of young fathers in the lives of their children, to enhance parenting skills and to promote the greater involvement of young men in the life of the community are also part of the programme for some centres. Family and community resource centres build on local neighbourhood solidarity, promote informal support networks and have links with schools and services in their locality.

The ethos of working with communities in an empowering way, fostering self-development and self-reliance informs the approach of many of the family resource centres in carrying out their work. In this way the centres can act as a first step to community participation for the most vulnerable and marginalised families. This ethos and approach will be valued in the new agency.

The Family Support Agency will be an important resource to the work of the centres enhancing the role and capacity of these local community initiatives in responding to families at neighbourhood level. The agency will work with the centres fostering their individuality and helping them to promote and develop their own ways of working within their communities. The agency will undertake research to better inform the development of policy services to promote family well being in the future. The families research programme which I introduced two years ago has proved to be highly successful in providing new information about families. Themes being researched include; the processes of family formation; children and parental separation; the effectiveness of counselling services, and the role of fathers in family life.

In recent days Deputies will have received "Grandparenthood in Modern Ireland" the result of the research study undertaken by Age Action Ireland under the programme. One or two Members who are grandparents had a problem with its cover but I had nothing to do with that. The study is most informative about the important supports provide by grandparents in the lives of families especially where children are concerned. When the research programme was set up I asked that the role of grandparenthood be investigated. This is very valuable research.

I am convinced of the need for more high quality research in this field to promote awareness about family issues and to underpin the development of appropriate policies and services which will be effective in promoting family well-being.

The agency is being given a function to provide information to the public about issues relating to marriage and relationships, family mediation, parenting and family responsibilities to support families in rearing their children. The research and information functions will underpin the agency's role in providing advice to me in family matters.

In carrying out its functions the Family Support Agency will have regard to Government policy, and in particular to social inclusion measures.

Section 10 provides for the membership of the agency which will comprise 12 members including a chairperson. the agency will include an officer of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, an elected member of the staff and persons who have relevant experience or expertise in matters relating to the agency's functions and responsibilities.

In particular, I consider that it will be necessary for the agency to include members with a special interest or expertise in areas such as mediation, counselling, the work of family and community centres, research, family law and parenting matters.

The Governments' legislative proposals for the Family Support Agency are designed to provide the comprehensive and coherent response that families today need. They will provide national and local voluntary organisations that work with families with the back-up and support they need in a dedicated new body. They will increase our knowledge and understanding of the issues facing families so that Government and all those with a shared interest in family well-being are better equipped to respond to the needs of families as we enter the new century.

It is vital that the State, the community, and families work together in the way envisaged in this agency so that better outcomes are achieved for families in today's changing world. The agency will be both an agent and a symbol of what is needed if we are to have a real "families first" approach.

I commend the Family Support Agency Bill to the House.

I welcome the Family Support Agency Bill. It comes at a time when Irish families are under a variety of strains. We would have thought the Celtic tiger would have supported many families but the strains and pressures on families today are very intense and, in many ways, have increased. Therefore, the provision of a family support agency and developing services for families, both professional and community and voluntary services, is of critical importance at this time. How we deliver those services to families is also critical. I wish to raise a number of points on how the Minister has gone about the Bill and how he envisages the agency developing. I hope the Minister will be able to take these comments on board either today or on Committee Stage when we examine the Bill in greater detail.

I pay tribute to the many hundreds of professional and voluntary staff in the local family resource centres who offer services to families often in difficult conditions without the resources needed. I pay tribute to the staff of the Minister's Department who have been involved in developing this new area in recent years and have worked hard in terms of delivering and developing these services. In recent years the development of family resource services has been impressive. It is an added access point for families in local communities to get help when they need it. The preventative services and the availability and knowledge of services are important to families so that when they face a crisis, whether personal, family, marital or parenting, they know where to go. They want to know that high quality services are available to them quickly. When talking about supports to families, one has to reflect on the pressures under which the health boards are working and the lack of trained personnel and the serious problems in the recruitment of care personnel and social workers, to provide these services. Many health boards are only able to react to crisis child abuse cases. We are aware of delays in responding to child abuse cases even as we speak. The question of finding the staff which the Minister envisages in this Bill is a key issue and one which he has to address along with the Ministers for Education and Science and Health and Children. A ministerial across Cabinet approach is needed to this issue of recruiting and training the staff to provide these services and training the volunteers. Imaginative ways of doing this will have to be found.

Austria has managed to recruit care workers by acknowledging this is a problem and by reaching out to those interested in training in this area. There are hundreds of young and older people, right across the age spectrum, who if they got the training and the experience would provide service to young persons and families. There will have to be more of this type of approach in Ireland so that we have people who can provide services to families at a time of need. The reality is that we do not have the personnel to deliver the services that families need. There is a crisis in this area. The Bill has to be set in the context of the real difficulty of getting volunteers and professional staff to provide the services that families need.

There is a crisis in this area. That was evident in the debate last night on the Disability Commissioner (No. 2) Bill when the Minister for Health and Children acknowledged the absolute crisis in terms of personnel whether speech therapists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists. We have not planned properly to have these professionals in place.

The other background against which the Minister introduces the Family Support Agency Bill is one where the Irish family is under pressure. Let us look at some statistics. The birth rate outside of marriage has been consistently rising. In 1960, 1.6% of births were outside of marriage, in 2000 the figure has risen to an all time high of 31%. The National Economic and Social Forum report on lone parents which was presented yesterday contained disturbing information. This report has to be examined carefully by the staff of the new Family Support Agency along with other work which Deputy Broughan and I have done in our own committee on this whole issue where we have discussed the pressures on lone parents. The National Economic and Social Forum report states that: "Lone parents are at particular risk of experiencing poverty and their educational achievements and rate of participation in the labour force are low. Almost half of lone parents in 1997 had only primary level education. They currently make up fewer than 2% of participants in mainstream training". What an extraordinary statistic at a time when we are talking about equality and access for everyone and distributing the benefits of the Celtic tiger equally.

The development of the Family Support Agency cannot be divorced from the reality of the experience of Irish families and Irish people today. From an equality perspective there is no doubt that in recent years Government resources have been used in an unequal manner and the needy and the marginalised have not been served well by the budgets of this Government. Every national and international report that analyses this topic arrives at the same conclusion that inequalities are growing at an alarming rate here, despite the wealth and the appearances. Inequalities are increasing and in terms of social policy we are choosing to go in the direction of less equality rather than more. What we are doing with our wealth is different from what other European countries have done. The Government, even for this budget, should take that on board. It is not good enough for Ministers to come to this House and reel off amounts of money. Policy direction is important and, if the Minister is serious about supporting families, the most marginalised and poorest families must get the financial support from the Government if they are to overcome disadvantage. The policy direction in the budgets and social policy generally must change from that of the past four years.

I will now quote statistics which impact on families and children. The level of affordable and available child care places in this country is the second lowest in the EU. How can we be serious about supporting families if we do not support basic child care. I was in Baldoyle two nights ago where 1,900 parents are waiting for child care places. What sort of support to parents is it if child care is so expensive that it is hardly worth their while trying to combine work and family, which is what most families are forced to do? One cannot talk about developing a family support agency if the related issue of child care is not tackled. I hope this issue will come within the remit of the Family Support Agency and that it will be able to link effectively with the agencies, groups, volunteers and professionals who are trying to support child care. At a time of unprecedented wealth, when the Government is telling us more and more money is being put into child care, the places are simply not available. There are probably fewer child care places available now than when the Government came into office. That is the reality because of the numbers of places being closed due to inspections.

I will give another statistic on women. The average weekly earnings for Irish women is 267 a week compared with 450 for men. The differential here is still enormous. What sort of pressure does that put on families? That equality issue must be tackled. When one considers these differentials, a single mother or father is bound to be at an extraordinary disadvantage when caring for their families. This issue must be examined carefully within the remit of the Family Support Agency.

In our Celtic economy, at 28%, we have the second highest rate of child poverty in the EU. At a time of unparalleled wealth, why is there such an issue in regard to child poverty? It is because we have not targeted effectively. Even as I speak, we do not have agreed targets between the social partners and the Government on eliminating child poverty. There are 759,000 people living below the poverty line, 322,000 of whom are children. That puts enormous pressure on families who face problematic child welfare issues, including difficulties about staying in the education system and accessing health care. I will not speak about health issues here but the lack of health services places enormous pressures on families.

Given these statistics it is clear that families are trying to exist under very stressful conditions. It is essential that families get adequate services and support from Government which will help them deal with these stresses. It is important that the services and supports reach vulnerable families at an early stage before problems become serious. Progress in school, the fact that we are still not identifying children with learning difficulties at an early stage, psychological problems and psychiatric illnesses and the fact that we are not getting those assessment services into primary schools early enough is causing enormous stress to families? One cannot talk about family supports in isolation. One must get services into primary school at an early stage so that we do not have to deal with more entrenched problems. Teachers say that the scale of problems they face in the classroom, the scale of special needs and the complexity of the problems children bring with them to school are very different from previous generations and needs a much more sophisticated and multi-disciplinary response. This is another issue to be undertaken by the Family Support Agency in terms of research and services.

The Family Support Agency Bill provides for a statutory body which will bring together many different family focused programmes under one umbrella organisation. On the face of it, it seems like a good move. It is certainly a correct decision to move some of the services from the Department into a statutory agency. However, this will not be without its problems. Some of the professional groups and the community centres who will come under this new agency have problems in terms of the manner in which this is being done in regard to consultation on the development of the Bill, a matter to which I will return later. They are concerned about their survival, ethos and identity under this new agency. I ask the Minister to consider these concerns and to reassure the House of the survival of the family mediation service and how it and the local family resource centres and community centres will operate under this new umbrella organisation.

The functions of the Family Support Agency include providing a family mediation service, supporting, promoting and developing the provision of marriage and relationship counselling services and family and community services, undertaking research on all these issues, providing a response to families and being a resource to the community. Those constitute a lot of functions for one agency to develop and promote. The agency must have the sophistication in its structure that allows all these things to happen. It must be democratic in its structure and reflect the different concerns and voices of the groups concerned. On the one hand, there will be a family mediation service with its professionally trained mediators and, on the other, community resource centres from the anti-poverty community development side, which is equally important. When the two are brought together there will be concerns about how the work of both will be complemented, supported and developed by the agency. It is important that we give time and consideration to that aspect which is why I question whether the structures outlined in the Bill adequately reflect the different strands?

I pay tribute to the family mediation service which has struggled for survival over the years. It faced a threat of abolition many years ago and barely survived. Anyone who knows the service will agree that the idea of family mediation for couples separating is brilliant, far preferable to having to go to court. If I have any criticism it is that the work of the family mediators is not yet widely enough known throughout the country. Given the degree of resort to the courts which many families are making and the numbers of separated and divorced people, I ask the Minister to seriously consider an information campaign on the family mediation service so that families are aware of its existence. It is expanding, which I welcome, but it needs to expand further. We need to consider whether people are being referred in adequate numbers. The numbers are relatively small in terms of the numbers who could use the service, even though they are increasing. I would like the Minister and the agency when it is set up to examine that issue.

Research is very important. There is no doubt we have provided far too many services without research or proper planning. This is true also in regard to family services. If we carry out the research and analyse the situation we would have a much better chance of bringing on board the type of resources families need.

Voluntary and community groups often feel they are left reinventing the wheel and are not getting sufficient information quickly enough, whether about grants, programmes or other ser vices they could develop. That the Family Support Agency will act as a resource for voluntary and community groups and will have a family-promoting well being goal is very important. It is similar to health issues whereby we do not do enough in regard to health promotion. Sometimes we focus too much on the crisis, and much the same applies to families. It is important to put in place community based early stage supports.

I welcome the Bill in principle but we need more detail as regards the specific role of each unit of the new agency and on the administrative functions of the umbrella agency. Under the Bill family resource centres will be extracted from the current community development support programme and brought under the new Family Support Agency. There are concerns on both sides in this regard, which I think are appreciated by the Minister and the staff of the Department, and I hope they will respond. It appears the new agency will focus mainly on family mediation and counselling services. Many family resource centres are concerned about the impact this will have on them and the work they have done over the past number of years. They are concerned the focus will change from a community development ethos to a professional service ethos. Without doubt we need both approaches, and I wonder how the Minister will ensure both develop and thrive under the new agency so services required by people in terms of individual professional help and of properly resourced anti-poverty measures will be addressed. On the other hand, the Family Mediation Service is gravely concerned as it does not feel it has been guaranteed it will remain as a distinct unit within the proposed agency. A balance must be struck between both perspectives and this ought to be enshrined in the Bill.

There is genuine concern about the lack of consultation by the Minister with family resource centres and family mediation centres on the establishment of the new agency. The centres feel frustrated that the Bill came out of the blue without any meaningful consultation by the Government. Why is this when the White Paper on voluntary activity says the Government is committed to consultation and to linking with people providing services? There is concern about the survival of both groups and about the lack of consultation in the development of the agency. Smaller agencies are worried about their inclusion in the programme, how they will benefit from it and how their expertise will be utilised. They fear the lack of consultation in advance of the Bill means the perspective of the family support agencies will be ignored and that the transferring of their responsibilities from an explicitly anti-poverty context to the mediation and counselling context of the Family Support Agency will weaken community development. I want the Minister to address this.

The Minister decided to transfer the family resource centres to the proposed Family Support Agency while at the same time stating that volun tary organisations have a right to be consulted about policy in relation to the design and delivery of services and programmes. Why do the almost 70 agencies throughout the country, a figure which will shortly rise to 100, feel they have been kept in the dark as regards their role within the new agency? What plans has the Minister to link effectively with them and reassure them about their future role within the new agency?

The representation on the board of one staff member is not enough and I ask the Minister to reconsider the structure of the board. If these concerns are to be adequately met it is important that the different strands of services and community development groups being merged in this agency have a voice at board level so they can more effectively influence the future direction of the agency. This is critical when bringing different groups together. We are supporting the Bill but it is very important that the groups feel adequately represented at the most senior level in the new agency. The structure and number on the board, which currently stands at 12, should be reconsidered and the number of places allocated to staff should be re-examined.

I hope the Minister will take on board this suggestion in a positive way as it will make a difference in terms of how the agency will work, deliver its services and meet the real concerns of those who deliver services to vulnerable families and individuals. The Minister has made quite an amount of play of consulting with people through the White Paper and in various other places and it is very disappointing this has not happened.

Are we guaranteeing that the Family Mediation Service will continue as it is currently structured, with its professional standards and with professional mediators and professional training? What guarantees are being given that this professional service will continue? It has proved to be very effective throughout the world and we should guarantee its continuance. I believe the legislation was to be called the Family Mediation Bill, but is now a more comprehensive Bill providing for a more comprehensive agency. I ask the Minister to reassure family mediators that their future in terms of delivering this vital and much needed service will continue. Who will be responsible for maintaining mediation service standards? Also, what will be the requirements for the post of chief executive officer?

The Bill is focused in the right direction, but it is important that the concerns I have raised are dealt with. Budget policy is one of the key ways to show the Government really means business in terms of supporting families and that services and money will be given to those who need them most. It is clear from the policy direction over the past four years that the Government has not decided to do this.

I welcome the Bill and compliment Deputy Fitzgerald who gave a well researched speech, who is passionate about the issues and who knows what she is talking about. I hope the largest representation on the board will be women, particularly mothers, as they have the necessary understanding, a point I have made on many occasions in the Dáil. Deputy Fitzgerald is correct in saying the Government has forgotten about the family. In China there is a rule that families can only have one child. There is no such rule in this country but, more seriously, people cannot have children here because there is no support for them. Over the past number of years, because of how well the economy is doing, both partners have to work. For example, a number of months ago a woman came to my clinic to discuss third level grants. The woman, who had a part-time job, had four children and her husband worked as a caretaker and was earning about £21,000. The four children were all in full-time education with the second child about to go to university, but the family could not qualify for a third level grant. The woman cried in my office as she said they had to pay for a mortgage and live on a day to day basis and could not afford to send the second child to college. She said she wished she did not have children because of the pressure she was under. She wanted to give the best to her children, but the State had put an obstacle in the way of that lovely family. The children were well able to go to third level, but the structure of grants was putting further pressure on the family.

I hope the agency, when established, will not deal solely with mediation as there is other work which it should do.

There are many problems with families at the moment. There has not been any support from the State for the family. Parents say there is support for everyone else except the family unit. This Bill is before us today because over the coming months there will be a great deal of talk about the family simply because we will have the abortion referendum. People will look to see what supports exist for the family. Parents tell me regularly there is no support.

In the lifetime of this Government, we allowed the licensing laws to change to allow more time for people to drink. I regret not having the courage to stand up to it. I listen to parents in my constituency office and at public meetings telling me we have done nothing about the two most serious problems in the country. I am talking about the abuse of alcohol and drugs by young people.

Parents are afraid; they have no place to go and they feel there is no help or professional support there for them. There is no point in the Government coming out with its big PR machine and by God we are paying well for it. I often criticise civil servants, but to be fair to them, they are part of the system and they do the best they can. I do not often praise them, but they do not get paid half as well as the consultants who come in to tell Ministers and Government what to do. When they have finished, a steering committee is set up to examine the consultants' report after paying millions of pounds for it. I hope that will not happen with this agency.

I hope we will not set up this agency and then fail to put the manpower and woman power into it. It will need professional resources. That is the one complaint about the implementation of all Acts passed by the Oireachtas. We have the best of intentions and we promise to do everything, but it does not work because the people, advice, help and support is not there. I hope this will not be another talking shop with more money wasted. I want to see this work because it is important that the family finally gets support and feels there is somebody there to advise, help and guide them. I hope there will be women and particularly mothers on this board who will understand the problems that exist and that their views will be taken into consideration.

Deputy Fitzgerald is correct in saying this Government has done nothing about the family. The Minister of State and I have clashed on many occasions over the simple issue of medical cards. Every child should have a medical card from birth to 18 years. A woman with three or four children contacted me yesterday. The income ceiling for the medical card is too low and is not realistic.

If we were serious about the family, something would be done. We are serious about the IDA and bringing companies to the country for jobs. We provide grant aid for them. Why can we not provide grant aid, support and help to the family? This support is most urgent when children are young and not in their early 20s when they are working. The pressure is on families when children are in full-time education and need the support. We should encourage people to have children rather than stopping them. That is what we are doing because people can no longer afford to have children. That is serious and it is not right.

This was the first ever Government that had sufficient money to deal with many of the social problems we have experienced for the past 20 years. However Deputy Fitzgerald is right in saying we did not target that money in the right direction. We have repeatedly talked about child care places for the past ten years, but nothing was done in the four budgets of this Government to deal with that very serious problem.

I hope this agency will work and will give the necessary support for families. I hope it will not be set up without ensuring the manpower and woman power is there to make it work.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this important Bill to set up the Family Support Agency. I often disagree profoundly with the thrust of Government policies as I did last night, when I had a serious encounter with the Minister, Deputy Mary

Wallace. Last night in a sense we were also talking about families.

One thing I commend the Government for is the stress it has put on the family by renaming the Department of Social Welfare as the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. In almost all EU states there is a specific department of the family, where there would be ongoing and detailed research of changing family patterns. There are important measures required to sustain the new types of families.

I also congratulate the family unit within the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs for the work it has done in recent years and which will now be promoted into an important statutory national agency. We should make sure we always have a Department where the family is highlighted regardless of the name. Some people say the name of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs is somewhat unwieldy. However it is important to stress the family in the name of the Department.

Even though we may have been very poor, most of us have warm and happy memories of our family backgrounds, our siblings, parents and grandparents. This continues to the present generation, where everybody tries to create a good atmosphere in their families. Perhaps that is why in our policies we sometimes take for granted the whole existence of this central institution, which is highlighted in the Constitution.

I welcome the general thrust of the Family Support Agency Bill. I am pleased the Government has decided to establish on a statutory basis a body that seeks to enhance the status, role and significance of the family in society. It seeks to address a number of very important issues, particularly the provision of a statutory Family Mediation Service, improved relationship and counselling services, the development of the statutory resource centre programme and enhancement of the dissemination of information about parenting and family responsibilities.

I am glad the Government has chosen to introduce legislation to address the numerous needs of families and married or unmarried couples especially relating to the issues of marriage or partnership breakdown, parenting and support for the institution of the family. It is long overdue and the Labour Party considers that agencies such as the Family Mediation Service should be placed on a full statutory basis, which confers on it a legal status and all the important trappings that go with that. It ensures that the Family Support Agency has recourse to all the necessary legal and financial channels of development.

I will put down a number of amendments on the next Stage, based on consultations that my party has had with many of the affected parties. Some key issues of family life should have been dealt with more comprehensively in the Bill. The title of the Bill is indicative of a commitment by the Government to ensure that the needs and demands of family life obtain a high status in legislation and the very name shows a commendable commitment to legislating for the support the State gives to the family in our highly individualistic and, at times, self-centred society.

The family as a social unit is sometimes overlooked or taken for granted. It may be that the perceived unimportance of marriage relationships and the increase in the number of couples living together as families has changed our concept of the traditional family as a sociological unit. In addition, the definition of the family unit is ever changing. The term "family" as we know it is no longer specifically confined to describing a married couple with a number of children. An increasing number of families fall outside that traditional definition but they are no less valid or important for that. We all have experience of our own families and through our work in our constituencies of dealing on a daily basis with various kinds of families so it is important that the changes in families in recent years – the formation of new family types and the decline in family size – are carefully researched. I am pleased, therefore, that the Bill puts the status of the family on a high platform.

In regard to the content of the Bill, in common with many other Deputies I received many representations from the existing family resource centres which are supported by the community development programme. There is widespread criticism, to which the Minister did not refer this morning, of the absence of any open consultation with the key stakeholders of the community development programme, including the national advisory committee, the community development projects, the family resource centres, core funded groups and regional and specialist support agencies. There is a widespread belief that none of those groups was involved in serious consultation in the lead up to the publication of this Bill. I have before me a number of amendments which propose giving some a choice to remain in the community programme or to come under the new Family Support Agency. That indicates to me that the ongoing dialogue with the Department, and particularly with the Minister because it is a ministerial decision, has broken down and that people believe that on an occasion which should be a day of celebration for this House, when we set up this important agency, they have not been consulted.

Section 9, for example, refers to strategic plans but I am informed that we already have a strategic planning process through the existing resource centre network and there appears to be no indication of what the Minister, Deputy D.Ahern, might do with the existing strategic planning development. There is a feeling, therefore, that there has been a failure to consult widely with the representative stakeholders in the family resource centres throughout the country.

This is not the first time the Minister, Deputy D.Ahern, has been guilty of poor political judgment Some months ago when the national anti-poverty plans were being transmitted to Brussels, there was widespread and sustained criticism of the Minister from all the key stakeholders, such as CORI, the Combat Poverty Agency and many other bodies, that he had not engaged in a sufficiently wide consultation process. All he did was take our national poverty plan, dress it up a little bit for the Europeans and post it off to Brussels. That was not good enough. Apparently this Minister is not the kind of Minister who engages in widespread consultation.

Criticism has also been expressed that there has not been any consultation in regard to all of the social inclusion commitments which were given to local family resource centres through the national development plan or through the many other Government initiatives – I mentioned the Combat Poverty Agency and the national anti-poverty strategy. I have a sheaf of requests from family resource centres throughout the country – I am sure Deputy Fitzgerald has them also – who do not believe there was sufficient consultation. It is fundamentally undemocratic that the Minister would not have examined these issues or that he would not have to get amendments, such as the one in section 4, from bodies who felt they were being discriminated against. That amendment proposes to give a fundamental choice to family resource centres as to whether they would transfer to the new support agency. I hope the Minister will come back to the House to address that matter and that he will not leave it to fester until we get to Committee Stage. We do not want to ram through legislation which does not draw on the valuable experience of the family resource network throughout the country with which I am very familiar in the Dublin North-East constituency, where we have a number of wonderful centres.

The primacy of the family in Irish society has always been of major importance to the Labour Party. At our party conference in Cork recently, numerous motions were passed dealing with family issues, and in particular poverty among families. One of the key issues we dealt with was paid parental leave. Our delegates from around the country felt there was no point in having parental leave when people will not be paid to take care of the necessary home duties. A previous speaker referred a great deal to motherhood but it is important that fathers and mothers bear equal responsibility for home duties. I often meet fathers who demand equal rights but who believe they have not been given the rights to which they are entitled through the courts system. We have an organisation on the northside called Parental Equality which is an organisation of fathers who believe that the pendulum has swung too far against the rights of men. These men want to fulfil their responsibilities to their children and should be allowed to do so. Fundamental issues such as paid parental leave, therefore, must be addressed.

Another criticism of the Bill is that there does not appear to have been much integration between, for example, the family friendly policies of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the family unit of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. I will return to that latter.

The issue of poverty among families has long been a source of concern to the Labour Party. In an indirect way the Bill will have an impact on families living in poverty in the sense that in many cases, poverty among families can be induced by changing family types, where one parent is left to bring up the children. When couples with or without children separate or divorce, the non-breadwinner of the couple can feel the financial pinch of the break-up and in that sense the Bill, by seeking to enhance family mediation services, will hopefully contribute to eroding poverty among families, particularly women who have separated from their partners or husbands. That should not, however, take from the overall Government strategy on tackling poverty but it may be a significant factor in that strategy.

One of the most interesting pieces of research on poverty among families was produced recently by the Combat Poverty Agency which referred to targeting poverty. It drew attention to the fact that international data show clearly that Ireland ranks among the most unequal societies and the poorest 10% of families have just 3.4% of disposable income. The most profound impact on families is above the EU norm and the poverty gap widens for children, where the Irish rate of child poverty is significantly above the rest of the EU.

There are major issues to be addressed in relation to the impact of poverty on families. Recent studies show that one-parent families, women in particular, have a high probability of living in poverty. Between 17% and 29% of families headed by a woman were below the 50% poverty line. The risk of poverty for families headed by a woman has risen by a factor of six since 1981 so there are major issues to be addressed in relation to the whole area of families living in poverty, particularly the different types of families. There have been many other studies, such as Open Your Eyes to Child Poverty, which indicate that 12% of our children live in consistent poverty with perhaps one-fifth living in relative poverty. On that basis many families are in a continual state of crisis in trying to make ends meet. Other family research confirms this. I recently attended the presentation to stakeholders and Deputies of a fine report by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, entitled One Long Struggle. It provides a detailed study of low income families and graphically illustrates the problems encountered by them, including limited diet, especially for children, clothing and continuous debt. The Government has been strongly criticised for introducing the special savings scheme while making no allowances for low income families.

If I was in Government one of my ambitions would be to co-ordinate all Departments. In the past four and a half years the family unit in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs has not liaised properly with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. A fundamental conclusion of the Vincentian partnership report is that families headed by a woman can be lifted out of poverty if she gets work on a community employment scheme. Many women have access to such schemes. My party leader, Deputy Quinn, introduced the SES scheme, which has done much to bring people into employment and the workforce but the Tánaiste and Minster for Enterprise, Trade and Employment decided unilaterally to abolish the community employment system. This has meant that in schools and colleges women have been told they will be unable to continue their work as secretaries and caretakers because there are insufficient funds in the new system initiated by the Minster for Education and Science. Ultimately, this means families will be poorer as a result of a lack of cohesion between the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

On the question of poverty in the family, I hope the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs will take serious action on the issue of indexation and levels of income. Ultimately, the amount of money in one's pocket is a key determinant of one's lifestyle. The Vincentian partnership report points out that a family of two, incorporating a mother or father and child, should have a minimum of £200 per week, which is considerably more than the amount provided by the Minister. It also points out that a single person should have a minimum of £145 per week, almost double the supplementary welfare basic allowance of £84.50.

There appears to be rampant inflation in foodstuffs. The price of basic foods, such as cold meat, referred to in the Vincentian partnership report and on which many people depend, has increased by 100%. The tactic of major chain stores and supermarkets appears to be to increase prices ahead of the introduction of the euro on 1 January after which they will be able to claim they have not increased prices. The rip-off is happening now and the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment is aware of it. It is placing families in a very vulnerable position. The budget must provide a compensatory mechanism to deal with families in crisis who are suffering.

The Government prides itself on the fact that it has addressed the needs of senior citizen families and that it has reached its target of a basic income of £100 per week. However, that is far removed from the basic target of 34% of average earnings, set by the senior citizens' parliament, which would mean a basic contributory pension of at least £125 per week. Among its research functions I hope the new support agency will pay close attention to this issue.

Section 4.1 seeks to put the family mediation service on a statutory basis. The mediation service has done vital work for many years. It seeks to help couples work out the terms of their separation in a way that best suits their needs and it has proved very effective in helping many couples negotiate a consensual and informed agreement. Hitherto, family mediation services have been provided largely on a voluntary basis where groups, such as the Catholic agency, Accord, have offered couples with relationship difficulties a suitable and welcome forum within which to air their grievances and seek to rebuild their relationship. For too long this enormously important facility has received little or no support or investment by the State. This failure by the State has created a gap that needs to be filled and the Bill, I hope, is a key means by which this can happen.

There is a need to provide existing marriage and family support services with additional resources and support. The adage, "a problem shared is a problem halved" springs to mind and it might be an appropriate motto for the organisations engaged in the provision of these facilities. In many instances the discussion of difficulties and crises can make a significant contribution to their resolution. The Minister referred to recently published statistics which indicate that many couples see marriage mediation services as an attractive means to assist them in their difficulties. I referred to figures produced last month which show that last year, 1,125 couples sought help from the mediation services. I was pleased to learn that over half of those who completed the mediation process reached agreement on their terms of separation but I was a little disheartened to note that perhaps only 8% of those who availed of the service decided to continue with their married life.

It is also worrying that the number of couples using the service is increasing steadily, although the floodgates for divorce, predicted by the anti-right to divorce lobbyists in previous debates, has not occurred. People have behaved in a reasonably responsible manner, although the figures indicate that society is changing. There is, therefore, a need to provide a good family mediation service on a statutory basis. On 9 September, the Minister said he intends to aid the prevention of marital breakdown where possible through continuing major investment in and expansion of the counselling services. The Bill needs to provide substantial financial resources if we are to see success in this area.

Section 4(1)(f) provides that the agency shall undertake or commission research. Until recently there has been very little by way of research into Irish families and family and marital relationships. This observation was made by the Commission on the Family and it called for more research in this area. There is a need to examine the changed composition and structure of families and the nature of family life. I hope new research conducted under the terms of the legislation will take account of this important area. For too long the various research programmes and studies in the area have been confined to universities and work by voluntary agencies, all of which is enormously valuable and important. I have already referred to the Vincentian partnership report.

There is also a need to ensure these legislative provisions are backed up by adequate and rel evant information to bring together the various studies. For example, under the terms of the family research programme announced by the Minister in 1999, 13 research programmes were funded and many of those have been completed. The Minister said some grandparents were a little upset that more youthful grandparents were not featured. Grandparents can vary in age. "Grandparenthood" by one of my constituents, Dr. Francesca Lundstron, is a fine social study. That is an important area. Dr. Lundstron concludes that grandmothers have more in common with their daughters' families and grandfathers could do more caring. My constituency experience points to the opposite. Grandfathers, particularly those who are retired, often spend a great deal of time caring for their grandchildren. That probably was the norm when generations lived under the one roof in the past, but today children mainly grow up in two households, their parents and their grandparents, which is an interesting development highlighted by Dr. Lundstron.

I congratulate the family unit, the research programme and the author of that report. It provides much food for thought and highlights the importance of this area, which we have noticed over the years. Much more economic research should be carried out on families.

When preparing a policy document on carers and carer families recently for my party, I discovered there was not a national database of carers and carer families. It is only three of four years ago since a national database was set up of families with children or adults with a disability. There is a dearth of statistics and research in this area. A good start has been made in this Bill and I commend the officials on their work on it. More resources need to be put into this area.

I look forward to hearing more from the Minister on Committee Stage about the provision of information on relationships education, parenting issues and family responsibilities. There is some aspirational language in section 4(1) and that rhetoric must be followed up by real and pragmatic results.

I am sure every representative would like more emphasis to be placed on fatherhood. In the past the full burden of rearing children fell on mothers. It is important boys should be educated – there have been some developments in this area – about the major responsibilities of fatherhood and that it will not be acceptable for young men not to take those responsibilities seriously. That would be a major change I would favour. This Bill is a step to developing that area.

I would like the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, on which area I was spokesperson, and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs to liaise more closely. The family friendly work practices literature we received from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment does not seem to interact closely with the family section, which will become the Family Support Agency, of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. I would like that agency to take a pro-active role in promoting good work practices. I accept we are not a good advertisement for good work practices. We were here last night until nearly 10 p.m. We do not have practical, normal sitting hours for the Dáil and committees that enable Members to enjoy a normal family life. That has been a criticism of European parliaments. Our sister party, the Labour Party, in the Swedish Parliament has consistently found it difficult to get young people to stand for election because of the adverse impact of parliamentary work on family life. That is one example of scores of jobs that do not have family friendly work hours. Other such jobs include jobs in restaurants, late night entertainment and women working late night shifts in factories. Legislation on workers' rights and the need for employers to adopt a more flexible approach to the work place are issues in which this agency should become involved.

The membership of the agency, as set out in section 10, will be critical to its success and effectiveness. Its membership must be as representative as possible of the various bodies and agencies involved in the provision of social services to couples and families. The Minister may have erred on the side of having too small a membership to encourage more efficient operation of the agency. It is important that all stakeholders in this area should be well represented.

With those caveats, I welcome the Bill. The Labour Party will table amendments to it on Committee Stage.

I welcome the Bill. I compliment the Department officials on the manner in which they deal with questions relative to the Department and the degree of efficiency applied to the task of replying to the queries raised. The Department has changed significantly in recent years to one that is pro-active in the delivery of services and the imparting of information on people's entitlement to benefit. Coupled with that, the role of the Department has expanded. The number of family resource centres has increased from ten in 1997 to 70 today. That in itself creates pressure on the Department. The Minister and his officials have been pro-active in imparting information, in explaining where the money is being spent and in their support of the policies the Department is pursuing at national level. Many other Departments who spend sizeable amounts of money could learn from the example of this Department. The manner in which this Department has developed and evolved is a credit to the officials and the Minister and an example to all.

In the context of this Bill it is worthwhile considering the background to the establishment of the family resource centres. The officials, the policy makers and the Minister may have had one view as to how they would evolve and the role they would play in our society, but from my experience of my local family resource centre they have taken on a life of their own. They have empowered people to become more involved in the policy making process and in the development of their communities, which has been perhaps the most significant development here in the past decade.

Family resource centres have replaced many activities in community that were provided by community centres in the old style or by small corner shops which, for local communities, acted as the touchstone for what was happening within those communities. One found out news there, what was happening locally, understood the impact of national events or national policy and exchanged views on a localised level. Due to the major change that has taken place in the past ten years that aspect of society is dying out. That is why the family resource centres have become so central to the lives of small communities.

They have taken on two different roles. Urban centres, such as the family resource centres located in the Fr. McGrath Centre in Kilkenny city, are part and parcel of marginalised communities. They have availed of every scheme the Department has put before them. They have ensured that those schemes worked to the full benefit, not just of the scheme itself in terms of drawing down the finance to support it, but also in the context of developing the local community and having a positive impact on it. Courses such as home economics in family resource centres may sound very basic, but they have changed people's lives. The introduction of information and communications technology and the courses based on that aspect of our lives have had a major impact on breaking the cycle within marginalised communities. It has empowered people to educate themselves, with the co-operation of FÁS in providing software, other agencies providing hardware and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs providing the centres and the direction.

The courses are available to all and are being taken up by a huge number of people, not just within in the centre I am speaking of, but beyond. The after-school projects at these centres have further added to the value of the centres and added to the breaking of the cycle. Young people can now participate in their homework projects while being assisted by qualified and interested people. They are no longer going to school without homework. They go confident that it is done and confident that they are playing an equal part in the school's programme to those who are being cared for at home's less marginalised. It provides a net. It has given confidence to communities everywhere to know they have a positive role to play in society. The family resource centres have provided the net where these people have established their basic training and have established the confidence they need to move on. That is the key to the success of the family resource centres. They are people focused and they are working.

Skills are also being provided to the elderly. I am glad to see the document before us today about grandparenthood and the involvement of grandparents in the development and support mechanisms for families. They too have been given a very positive role and their skills have not gone to waste after retirement. They have applied themselves within the family resource centres to homework clubs and school projects among other things. They have a role and they contribute positively and tangibly, without cost to the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs in the long-term, to the local community. They make this possible and make a difference to young people who until now have found themselves marginalised and sidelined in terms of developments.

Men's groups and women's groups are also funded through family resource centres and have made a huge difference. People in a marginalised area sharing the same problem have found within these resource centres others like them with whom they can share their views, concerns and, perhaps, solutions. They are benefiting all.

Tackling poverty is a part of all that I have spoken about. If we break that cycle, which these resource centres are doing, we tackle poverty. That is real family support. I do not want what has been achieved through the establishment and funding of family resource centres to be ignored. That could not have been achieved had it not been for partnership and the empowerment of the community. There was an understanding among the agencies and those who ran the centres. It was almost driven from the bottom up. The communities found their feet. They demanded the programmes that have been put in place and they helped to develop and sustain them and with imagination they have created something beyond the expectation of the originators of the idea.

Partnership is critical and it is of absolute importance that those who currently represent the family resource centres are taken on board in any consultation between the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and the new Family Support Agency.

Criticism has been directed at the Minister and the Department that, to a degree, such a consultation process was not followed. People who deliver the services and are part and parcel of the family resource centres have not been brought on board from the very beginning. They have come to my clinics and many other Deputies have heard framework and other representatives say that they had not been as involved in the process as they would have liked.

I know the Minister and the officials and I know how this works. I have no doubt that during the Second Stage debate on this Bill and on Committee Stage, there will be ongoing opportunity for them to articulate their views and, in the background with officials, for consultation to take place. For the family resource centres to continue their success we must ensure that the ethos of social inclusion, or that element of the family resource centre ethos must be maintained.

We must not lose sight of the kernel of the success story that are the family resource centres. They are successful because they are community driven, they are totally committed to social inclusion and they have brought communities on board. Therefore, consultation and an acknowledgment of the past is absolutely necessary.

The new process contained in the Family Support Agency Bill, 2001, centres largely on issues not currently at the core of resource centre activity. The Bill speaks to family support. I agree with the content of the Bill and I agree with what the Minister is trying to achieve. I simply ask that it be made part of what the resource centres are currently engaged in and does not create a more professional and complex manner of family support without engaging with and understanding the people who are part and parcel of the centres.

The Minister's script says that support families promote continuity and stability in family life and prevent marital breakdown. Marital breakdown is a serious problem and there is a real need to continue the support of families and to keep the resource centres on board. Supporting those experiencing marital difficulties should be seen as another arm of the family resource centre. We should not begin to change the ethos and we should not begin to change the success story. The Family Support Agency is to provide a family mediation service to support, promote and develop the provision of marriage and relationships counselling services and family support services. It will support, promote and develop the family and community services resource centre programme. If that is worthwhile and if we are able to marry what is already there with what we are trying to achieve in this Bill we will have achieved something exceptional. It can be done, but strong professional direction is required along with consultation. According to the Bill, the board will provide that professional approach, but in doing so it will be required to reflect the work already done by the family resource centre.

I note that the third change called for in the framework document is that a minimum of three places on the board of the new agency be reserved for nominees or representatives of the family resource centres. That can be achieved and it will be a positive thing in the ongoing development of the services envisaged by this Bill and in terms of marrying those services to those already provided. The second request in the framework document is that the community development and social inclusion focus of the family resource centres be safeguarded. I have already dealt with that. It is a positive point to make. I have asked that we do not overlook that ethos in the family resource centre. We should discuss the extension of the service to include what is required in the Bill and ensure that people involved in family resource centres can draw upon the professional advice of the board in an equitable manner. There should not be a board dictating the policy, but one that respects the structure of family resource centres.

The third request of the framework document deals with that issue. The second highlights the fact that there is a need to include in the Bill a focus on social inclusion.

The first request in the framework document requires that each family resource centre is given the choice to either stay with the CDSP or go to the family support agency, depending on its individual circumstances and work focus. I do not agree with that. What is being suggested in the Bill by the Minister is excellent. It is a suggestion that must come with the package that exists within the family resource centres. One should not be seen as competing with the other. It should be seen as a total package to strengthen the support for families.

In the documentation, it says "families first". If families are first, then the resource centres, coupled with this new approach within the family support agency, must be taken together. There cannot be a choice. Otherwise, there will be a two-stranded approach to the delivery of services and, over the period of time during which this Bill is implemented, there will probably be a better structure within the family support agency and the family resource centres than in those that might opt out of it. If consultation were to take place on the issues that are emerging at this stage, then the request in the first item would not be followed by them. What the Minister is trying to achieve, in conjunction with the consultation process for which I am asking, will lead to the emergence of a better package for all. If everyone stays focused on the need to deliver better services to families, then items numbers two and three would be adhered to within the framework document and item number one will have been dealt with.

The amount of money being spent on the services stands to the credit of the Government because the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs seems to be able to produce very imaginative programmes, which tackle directly the marginalisation of families requiring support and direction. It is able to match the policies with the appropriate amount of funding. The amount of money that has been spent on the resource centres and on supports for families has been staggering. The Government, the Minister and his officials deserve credit for achieving this.

I referred in some detail to the centres, mainly urban ones, but there are now rural-based family resource centres. They have different requirements. Some of the programmes being implemented in those centres need to be tailored to ensure that, for example, a woman left in the home with the family, who wants to visit the resource centre and engage with other home makers, can do so. There should be flexible schemes to ensure they get the required funding for child support and care. The family resource centres should be able to facilitate that kind of activity as well. Increasingly, we find that men are becoming the home makers, so there is a greater need for the scheme to be flexible.

I support the Bill. In the context of our debate on the Bill, we should seek some space and consult those who are concerned because it is of great value to society the way it stands.

The introduction of the Family Support Agency Bill, 2001, is a good move, which I support. I listened to some horrific stories on Tuesday recounted by people on the Joe Duffy programme. The stress, pressure, trauma, and conviction evident in their relaying of stories of abuse and violence wreaked upon them in their childhood make one wonder what kind of society we are actually breeding.

In my teenage years in the West of Ireland, the ferocity and cruelty wreaked upon families and children have left a scar that will last for their entire lives.

I am familiar, as is the Minister of State, Dr. Moffatt, with the work of the family life services people in the family resource centre in Castlebar. The Roman Catholic Church has taken a hefty beating in recent years over revelations of what took place in religious institutions etc. When one considers the court cases that have been publicised concerning the worst type of sexual perversion, the implications of violence in the home and the consequences of severe drinking and depression, one wonders what kind of family circumstances today's schoolchildren leave in the morning and return to in the evening, if they return at all.

The backing up of family resource centres by this new agency serves as an important attempt to create a fairer society, a fairer Ireland where everybody can have the opportunity to develop to their full potential. The agency is welcome and will provide for a new beginning in terms of family support services and develop on what has preceded it.

Voluntary bodies have always looked for support and grants, originally to the Department of Social Welfare, and in latter years to the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. The system evolved over the years. The nature of contact with the Department and whoever was running it may have had a bearing on the amount of grant aid given to any voluntary group.

The setting up of the agency now provides an opportunity to have a really level playing pitch with regard to funding across the various voluntary agencies. When one examines the lists of grant aid, granted for whatever reason – I am not implying anything – some causes appear to be more favoured than others. The planned provisions for the agency do not make specific recommendations regarding the involvement of representation from non-governmental or voluntary organisations. There appears to be a gap in this regard, which the Bill should address. There should be clarity as to the nature of the representations that can and should be made, and clarity regarding how the views and requirements of non-governmental and voluntary groups should be married to the agency and the work it will do. Will the Minister explain how voluntary bodies are to be involved in the planning process referred to in the Bill? Will he also explain how it is expected that relevant, standardised information on service provision and statistics will be established? How is that to be put in place so that everyone can understand what is going on and can obtain the facts and figures?

From reading the Bill, it appears that, while there is an obvious emphasis on the intention to help prevent marital breakdown in the first instance, the focus of energy and funding may well flow to the core agency service of mediation. Will the Minister explain the checks and balances which will be put in place to demonstrate and ensure there will be an even spread of resources for voluntary counselling and family support services? These are important elements of the support for families in general. As the new agency being set up will take over the functions held within the Department and will have grant aid to disburse and dispense, it should be made perfectly clear when it is set up how it is intended and will be demonstrated that there will be fairness and equality in the distribution of that assistance for voluntary counselling and family support service groups.

I do not see any reference in the Bill, in so far as the functions of the agency are concerned, to the necessity to harness the energy and vision of the established non-governmental bodies working in this area. That should be a central and core responsibility of the new agency. These services grew and developed from an initiative, idea, understanding and perception that something needed to be done about a problem. Many of the facilities available in resource centres have been built from personal interaction around a problem. Representatives from all sides of the House meet people who have life stories to tell and life problems with which to grapple. It is from that understanding and interaction that solutions can be put forward. That is why the range of activities carried out in family resource centres is broad and well meaning. I would like that there would be clarity and fairness for agencies and an understanding that their energies and vision of what they do should be channelled into the core of the agency.

The Bill has probably been drafted based on reports submitted by family resource centres about the fields of activities in which they work. However, I have checked with a number throughout the country and there does not appear to have been any great consultation between the voluntary groups and the Department. There may well be a reason for that. It may be that the Department is happy, based on reports submitted by the voluntary organisations and the family resource centres, that the work they do is satisfactory or whatever. However, I would have thought that, in the drafting of a Bill to transfer these responsibilities to a new agency, and as the Department has heretofore funded many of the resource centres and voluntary organisations, the very least it should have done was have direct consultations with the centres and organisations.

In such consultations the Department could have said it was transferring responsibility for this area to a new agency and that the role of the organisations and centres would no longer be with the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs but with a new family support agency group. The Department could have asked for the views of the organisations and groups on it, how they would have liked to have been associated, how they would have seen the agency affecting them and so on. There does not appear to have been any great consultation. Will the Minister comment on that? There may well be a perfectly valid explanation for it, such as the Department being perfectly happy with what is going on. I would have thought consultation of that nature would have been important.

I read the annual report for 2000 of the family resource centre in Castlebar, Cúram Clainne. The reasons for referral to the services within the resource centre indicate the nature of society and what people must cope with. Among the reasons are marital problems, family problems, relationship difficulties, separation, domestic violence, bereavement, anxiety, depression, stress, trauma, parenting, past abuse, adolescent issues, eating disorders, emotional problems in children and anger. When one speaks to many of the professionals working in the field, no more than with personal relationships in Deputies' clinics, one can understand and must know from first hand experience that many of these people have to cope with an element from the list of reasons for referral I have just given.

I find that people do not have time to talk in the way they used to. When I grew up, Ireland was a more inward-looking country, but people seemed to have time to talk and visit. While there were many bad things about society then, at least there was contact between people and families. There was, as Deputy Broughan said, a strong involvement of grandparents on both sides with children which carried on the link with our tradition, culture and heritage. Young couples today have the crucifixion of a large mortgage and travel long distances to work. They work full days to arrive home in the evenings very tired with no time for interaction with the community where they live. This continues until their children go to school and it is only then that there is any involvement. We live in a very different world.

While the Catholic Church has taken a ferocious hammering, people's views towards Christianity and spirituality seem to have changed. They want in a time of great uncertainty, more so now than ever, to have some solid handle to hang on to, whatever form that might take. That is their business. With all the pressure on people's lives and emotions and the stress of modern liv ing, the family support agency and family resource centres will become increasingly important in future.

I did not realise the range of activities in which the centres involve themselves until I spoke to them about it. I was very impressed with the professionalism, efficiency and care that professionals working in the family resource centre with which I am familiar demonstrated to people with whom they came in contact.

There is little else to be said. The centres exist because people have problems. I am not sure how many local radio stations carry programmes about the range of services available but they are a powerful medium and could be used in a more streamlined sense to promote the centres. That would draw more people into the centres thereby creating a demand for even more funding but people need that kind of encouragement to open up and express their problems so that they can be assisted in attempts to find a solution.

The setting up of an agency is a good move and I support it. There should be clarity on consultation and a level playing pitch should be introduced for all the voluntary bodies involved. The core agency services of mediation should not be over financed to the detriment of other services. Everybody should have equal access to services. These services are about people and their lives and are an attempt to bring improvements. The people we meet in the course of any week are just a microcosm of the ills, traumas and pressures of our society. In the setting up of this family support agency family resource units and voluntary organisations need to be open to new ideas and initiatives. I am sure the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Ahern, will see to it that it is properly funded and that further expansion will happen if required.

The establishment of a new statutory body known as the Family Support Agency is an important element of this Government's work programme to help prevent marriage breakdown. This is a caring Government intent on putting in place initiatives and policies to help tackle and solve social problems. It has been in office since July 1997. Since then pensions have increased by 36% and the level of child benefit has more than doubled. The overall budget available for social welfare measures has been increased by 36% although unemployment has fallen to its lowest levels in modern history. The budget this year for social welfare spending stands at £6.1 billion. The old age contributory pension has been increased from £78 in 1997 to £106 in 2001. The level of carer's benefit stands at more than £96 per month while the annual respite care grant has been increased to more than £400. Carers looking after more than one person will receive a respite care grant of £800. In the most recent budget there was a change in the means test for the carer's allowance which will ensure that an extra 5,000 persons will qualify for benefit.

The free schemes programme has been extended to everybody over the age of 70 regardless of income or who lives with them. This includes free electricity, gas and television and telephone allowances. An entitlement to free medical cards has also been included in the scheme. Tax relief will now be available to individuals in respect of medical expenses incurred on behalf of a dependent relative. The Government has substantially increased the level of spending for voluntary organisations and employment supports for people with disabilities have also improved. Special attention has been given to promoting educational measures that target early school leavers and adult literacy courses are being promoted at every opportunity.

Much of the credit for the implementation of the schemes outlined must go to the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Ahern, and his officials. They have worked tirelessly to ensure progress has been made across a range of social welfare initiatives. The Minister's enthusiasm for improving social welfare initiatives has been matched by the equal commitment of the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance.

This Bill setting up the new family support agency is a key element in the Government's programme to prevent marriage breakdown. The Government has ensured an increase in the level of funding for family counselling and mediation services. Grants for family counselling services have increased from £900,000 in 1997 to £4.8 million today. The family mediation service has been expanded from two centres in 1997 to eleven centres today. This means we have ensured that our family mediation service operates on a nationwide basis. The number of people availing of family mediation has increased from 250 in 1997 to more than 1,200 in the year 2000. Investment in this service has quadrupled from £300,000 in 1997 to more than £1.3 million today. There has also been a substantial increase in the number of family and community centres.

The family support agency will include these key elements. It will help prevent marriage breakdown, support ongoing parenting relationships for children, provide more local support for families, develop the family and community resources centre programme and greater research relating to family issues and responsibilities will be undertaken. It is intended that the family resource agency will provide a comprehensive and coherent response for families who need these services. The family resource centre will act as a resource for voluntary and community groups and for others involved in promoting family wellbeing.

Subject to the Minister's consent, the centre will be in a position to provide financial assistance to voluntary bodies providing key family and mediation services and to administer such schemes. Section 7 enables the agency to set the criteria, terms, conditions and provisions of this financial assistance. Provision is made to enable the agency to request of an applicant such information as it may require and to enable it to refuse or withdraw financial assistance if such information is not supplied. Section 9 requires the agency to prepare and submit to the Minister, at regular intervals, strategic plans relating to its objectives and strategies and provides for laying such plans before the Oireachtas.

The agency will comprise 12 members including a chairperson who shall be appointed by the Minister. One officer of the Minister will be appointed and one member shall be elected. Ordinary members will have experience or expertise in matters relating to the agency's functions. The term of office shall be for three years. There will also be a chief executive to manage and carry out the agency's administration and business.

Section 13 enables the agency to set up committees to assist and advise it in the performance of its functions. Section 15 provides that it may appoint persons to the staff organisation, subject to the terms and conditions of employment that it may determine with the consent and approval of the Minister for Finance. It will be up to the chief executive to assign the duties of the staff and the agency will have regard to any arrangements for conciliation and arbitration when determining the terms and conditions of employment. Some staff will be transferred from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and such staff will not receive a lesser scale of pay or be given less beneficial terms or conditions than they were previously entitled to. Section 17 requires the agency to make a scheme or schemes for granting superannuation benefits to, or in respect of, staff members, including the chief executive as it sees fit. Such benefits are defined for the purposes of this section. Such scheme or schemes shall be subject to the approval of the Minister for Finance and shall be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Where a member of staff was, immediately prior to his or her transfer, an established civil servant, the terms and conditions of superannuation benefits granted under the scheme made by the agency shall not be less favourable than those previously applied.

Sections 19 and 20 relate to the normal rules of disclosure if a conflict of interest were to arise when any contracts are given out, while section 21 prohibits the disclosure of confidential information obtained while performing, or having performed, duties as a member of the agency or an employee in any capacity such as staff, committee member, consultant or adviser to the agency. Section 24 enables the agency to borrow money for the purpose of providing current or capital expenditure subject to the conditions laid down by the Minister for Finance. Sections 25 and 26 contain standard provisions relating to the accounts and auditing arrangements. The agency must lay before the Oireachtas an annual report.

The Family Support Agency brings together the main programmes and pro-family services developed since 1997, for which the Government allocated £12 million in the Estimates of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. It will bring together the main programmes and aims designed to help prevent marriage breakdown, to support ongoing parental relationships for children and to promote local family support. These are all strong policies of the Government. The agency will provide a family mediation service as well as supporting and promoting key counselling services. As the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, said when he launched this Bill, the agency will be "vital in order to encourage continuity and stability in family relationships. It will provide much needed support for couples when their marriages break up." I am confident the agency will be a success. It will be overseen by a board whose members will have due expertise and experience in the fields of mediation, counselling, family law and parenting.

This Bill, which provides for the establishment of a statutory body to be known as the Family Support Agency, is potentially a very useful Bill in so far as the building up of community development is concerned. There is a great future in that aspect and I will return to it. I hope the new agency will attempt to find out what has gone wrong in community life. The community life that I knew not many years ago, not just in rural Ireland but in the cities, has begun to crumble and no one knows why. It has nothing to do with a liberal society, but so many families yearn to live in a happier environment, yet are unable to do so. This agency can fund research resulting in the development of programmes to rebuild the stability of family and community life. I assume the new agency will be concerned with the continuity of stability in family life in so far as is possible to prevent marriage breakdown.

The building bricks of a supportive community environment are important. A local community can be a lonely place for a young couple, and those not so young. They may be surrounded by people but feel isolated. Many young married couples, who go to live in other areas, tell me this. Such isolation will return to haunt them years later. When a crisis hits, they do not know who to turn to and so do not have the important local helping hand. That is why it was once said, especially in rural areas, that a person's grandparents or next door neighbours were their best friends. That has not changed.

On a lighter note, the Minister of State's senior colleague spoke earlier today of the new report on grandparenthood in modern Ireland. Someone said that the cover photograph did not reflect real grandparents. I became one myself two months ago and hope that if my photograph is taken I look younger than that. I will return to the role of the extended family.

I hope the agency's activities will be widely advertised and particularly to newly married couples. They will understand that it is part of something bigger that reflects their way of life in every action every day. A large percentage of our young people have second or third level education. It was said that one of our society's ills was the low level of "education" and this was a root cause of social problems. Education does not seem to have affected this. I welcome developments in education and it is a compliment to all Governments that even in the worst of times we ensured educational progress. It is one of the reasons we have high employment, but on the issue before us, there is no correlation between education and what occurs inside our houses. This has been analysed by researchers. I do not know what factors caused this as it should not happen at a time when we never had better educational facilities and opportunities available. We must look much further than that. One is likely to see huge pressure and problems of an emotional kind in households that are highly educated as well as those where there has been less education. I am not saying that education is everything, obviously it is not, however, my hope for this Bill is that the emotional problems that now beset so many young couples, married or otherwise, will be tackled. If we cannot find the basis of the problems they will not be solved no matter how many resource centres there are.

Many people have said to me in my position as a local politician that they link much of today's unhappiness, marital breakdown, unease and hardship – often borne by women – to the excessive use of alcohol. That is not the only reason but it is certainly a root cause of many problems. When we have more resource centres around the country we will have to concentrate more investment on young people if we wish to tackle this issue. It will not come cheap. I have noticed over the years that if one wants a good service in either the professional or voluntary arena, standards must be high and targets achievable if objectives are to be met. When family life is analysed, if that is possible, the programmes that will then be put in place will tackle the root causes of many of these problems.

The abuse of drugs and alcohol is rampant in Ireland. It used to be said that when poverty comes in the door, love goes out the window. Many people have high mortgages, car and other repayments, and when such pressures are mixed with a drink problem, it is extraordinarily difficult to provide help. There is help out there, although its availability is more limited than I would like. Thankfully, I know people who have beaten this particular trap. I know people who were in the depths of despair but because of good counselling have come around and lead a normal life. Such headline stories give local resource groups the confidence to keep going. Those at the coalface, helping others to deal with these problems, are only human and they need successes to help them carry on.

The great strength of the family resource centres is that they are locally based. I have had a long interest over the years in the family mediation service. I remember when legislation to set up the service was brought through the House a good number of years ago. It has always been a hugely important service in that it removed the need for court proceedings and much of the bitterness and legal expense involved in marital breakdown. In these cases it is often only the lawyers who win. It is a very professional service but it is not widely known or used anymore. I have only heard of its use on a few occasions. I hope that its integration into this new agency will give it a higher profile locally. It has a relatively high profile in Dublin but if one asked ten people in Tuam or Ballinasloe what facilities the family mediation service provided, few would know.

Family resource centres are in a better position due to their local base. There is a huge voluntary, local commitment to them and I take my cap off to the men and women involved in these centres. They carry out an all-embracing range of activities and use to good effect the resources the Government, particularly the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, provides. That is what these centres should be doing.

The new agency, through its influence with the local resource centres, will have to use local radio and the local press to greater effect. For all of us, there are occasions in life when the clouds are a little darker and it is sometimes difficult to see a way out. It is important that there is a helping hand available or a beacon of light to turn to. I look forward to the day when marriage problems can be dealt with locally by an agency that respects confidence and is staffed by people of humanity. Above all, it is important that there are successes so that people recognise that the agency is worth a try. The referral rate to the centres should be higher than it is.

It may not be politically correct to say it, but the pre-marriage courses held by the Roman Catholic Church over the years have had very positive effects, despite the Church having taken a terrible battering in recent years. I pay tribute to that work. The principle behind the Church's efforts was certainly right. One must spend four years in university to get a degree in engineering. Many of those getting married, who have decided to spend their lives together, would be lucky to spend four hours on a pre-marriage course. If they could get away with it, they would spend no time on such a course.

Despite the excellent work of youth organisations such as Foróige and the excellent counselling available, we appear to be losing the battle. This agency, while it will not cure all our ills, will act as a dynamo for the system and will energise the concept of ensuring that services are available to those most in need.

I am aware that much was wrong in the past with community life, but there was a high degree of stability. The concept of a babysitter did not exist, but there was always access to grandparents and other relatives for a young couple. While it may have created a bit of a row at times, it provided a valuable network of family support. One would hope that the expertise provided by the extended family would not be lost. In many societies throughout the world the extended family has sometimes been used to an even greater extent.

While times and economic circumstances may change, the relationship between parents and their children is a constant. It is all about trust and helping each other in the best and worst of times. Parents ultimately hope to provide their children with the confidence to overcome the problems they encounter in life. The problems of the past have been replaced by other problems today, but there are fundamental principles which do not change. That is the reason some aspects of the Bill appeal to me.

We have to get a grip on the alcohol problem. I have always believed that if parents cannot control their children or are unaware of their whereabouts late at night, then it is hard to expect the State to be over concerned about them. As part of my job, I often come back from meetings late at night and observe young people, sometimes under the influence of drink, with no lift home from discos ten or 12 miles away. In the best possible world there should not be any reason for them to be at risk, but one would have to ask the question of the type of parental control there can be in such circumstances. I am not referring to 17 or 18 year olds, but to 13 and 14 year olds. Recently there was an extension of the licensing laws and whether it was right or wrong remains to be seen. If one accepts the concept of parental responsibility, then the pubs could be left open all night, but that does not conform to the reality we observe.

I hope the new agency succeeds as it has much work to do. I look forward to a future where there are happier families in circumstances that they otherwise might not have been in but for this legislation.

Fáiltím go hiomlán roimh an mBille seo, the Family Support Agency Bill, mar creidim go láidir gur féidir linn cabhrú, ní amháin le clainne na tíre ach leis na páistí, agus tríd na páistí gur féidir linn cabhrú leis an gcomhluadar ar fad.

In recent years, and probably only in recent years, we have acknowledged and recognised the need for proper family structures and systems throughout the country. This has been recognised in a number of different documents and reports. It has also been recognised in the last four years in regard to policy and expenditure. The Government policy document and its review highlighted the importance of the family in family support as did the Commission on the Family's substantive document which contained many recommendations.

In a practical sense, the national development plan has ensured through investment we will be supporting families in myriad ways by allocating substantial amounts of money for child care, community and family support and youth services. All these help families either directly or indirectly and in helping families they are also helping society in general. Also of help are the guidelines for the help and protection of children and the increase in the family support projects, the family support centres and the various programmes for parenting and so on which exist throughout the country.

The Bill fits in very neatly with the national children's strategy and the vision it sets out for our children. This acknowledges that children are important in their own right, but as well as that they have to be supported in the context of their family. The vision contemplates an Ireland where children are respected as young citizens with a valued contribution to make in a voice of their own and where all children are cherished and supported by family and the wider society while they enjoy a fulfilling childhood and realise their potential.

When speaking about family this includes the broader society. My interest in this is, obviously, in relation to children. However, in doing so it is extremely difficult to define what family support is, because there is no real definition of the term. It incorporates a broad range of services provided by statutory agencies throughout the country as well as by voluntary agencies. It refers to the welfare of children, the support of couples and is something on which we seem to have focused particularly in disadvantaged areas. It is an umbrella term with many dimensions. When referring to family support there are different target groups: couples, mothers, fathers and toddlers, each of them separately and each as part of a unit. There are also different professionals involved in family support such as public health nurses, social workers, child care workers and youth or family workers.

There are different services which might also need to be employed, ones which may be of a therapeutic nature, focused on child development services such as psychological or psychiatric problems etc., but they all fit in under this umbrella. They might be dealing with short or long-term counselling. Different problems may have to be addressed in the context of family support such as parenting problems or family conflict or breakdown, child neglect, relationships within the family or external relationships. There are different approaches to how family support can be addressed, whether it is home based, community based, or revolves around a centre or involves the wider family. There are a number of different dimensions to what constitutes family support and because there are so many aspects to it we are forced to look at those who are delivering the service and how it should be best co-ordinated. The establishment of a Family Support Agency on a statutory basis will provide the structure to support, promote and develop the provision of family support services particularly marriage and relationships counselling, child counselling, bereavement support services, etc. It will also support and promote the development of the centres. We welcome the expansion of these centres and hope to see more of them throughout the country. It can also provide information on marriage preparation, parenting and so on. By working with the different groups involved with families and children, such as the statutory and voluntary groups, it can ensure by being a dedicated agency that it is responding to the different needs. Recognising that family support cannot be defined – and it would be difficult to define "a family" these days – the one thing we are definite about is that it is useful to support families. This has been recognised in a number of different documents and in much different research.

The Commission on the Family set out in its document in 1996 a fundamental reason for supporting family life. It states: "The experience of family living is the single greatest influence on an individual's life. It is in the family context that a person's basic emotional needs for security, belongingness, support and intimacy are satisfied." The Constitution recognises the importance of the family and guarantees to protect the family because it is the necessary basis of our social order and because it is indispensable to the welfare of the nation and the State. We know from the perspective of international research that everybody benefits when the family is strong.

Kieran McKeown has carried out much research about what works for family support services and in the context of our springboard family support projects has published guides and documents, one of which is A Guide to what works in Family Support Services for vulnerable families. He outlined substantial evidence which shows that individuals, especially children, are harmed when the family is not caring and nurturing. He also points out that children develop emotional and behavioural problems when they witness conflict between their parents, that of these children 20%-25% develop long-term difficulties. It is welcome that the Family Mediation Service will target families where there is conflict. Where families are willing to seek help it will benefit not only the couple but their children. He also recognises where there is family breakdown that not only the children but adults suffer. He recognises that family breakdown is often associated with a deterioration in physical and mental health as well as a declining standard of living, that marital distress is associated with depression in women and with poor physical health in men. There is substantial evidence to show it is important to use all the resources possible to support couples, parents and families.

I referred earlier to the national children's strategy. I shall speak on the Family Mediation Service in the context of the national children's strategy. Deputies will be aware we undertook a major public consultation in preparing the national children's strategy, a consultation which involved children and adults. What was striking from the adults' submission was that 40% of the submissions referred to family support needs. They referred to supporting and encouraging parents and families. They also highlighted the importance of this not only in our obligations as a Government or as a country but in fulfilling our international obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Articles 5 and 18 of which refer to support for parents. Article 18 specifically states: "States shall render appropriate assistance to parents and legal guardians in the performance of their child rearing responsibilities and shall ensure the development of institutions, facilities and services for the care of children". We are going a long way down the road with our family support services and the development of the Family Support Agency in meeting our obligations under the United Nations convention.

The submissions to the national children's strategy call for more parenting programmes nationwide, beginning with ante natal care. The submissions sought the availability of family resource centres throughout the country and acknowledged the work of those centres. It is important not only from our perspective but from the perspective of families and parents that they recognise the value of these centres. The submissions and the consultations recognised that while all families must be supported, separated and divorced parents have particular needs and should have access to counselling. The development of parenting and relationship skills was crucial.

The Family Support Agency Bill answers the needs of those who made submissions to and participated in the consultations and who said they wanted more information about mediation. For many years people were reluctant to admit what went on behind closed doors and that there was a difficulty. We have moved beyond that stage. That people are open about the breakdown in relationships and about the need for support means we have to respond to that need. It is important to link in to community support and that the family is not treated in isolation.

One of the quotes from the consultation process is that: "Parents find it increasingly difficult to parent effectively. They do not have the support structures to call on within extended family. Supports should be available at all stages to empower parents to maintain a family environment where children can be nurtured and encouraged to reach their potential". This is coming from parents who want to be able to avail of the support systems. They also recognise that having the help would ensure that both individuals and families access help earlier and with less resistance when and if a more serious need should arise later in life. Parents and families recognise that problems and difficulties arise but if they have the skills at an early stage and are aware that support is available, that will enable them to deal with those problems later.

I am looking at the Family Support Agency in the context of children. What struck me most forcibly in the development of the national children's strategy was that, without exception, every child said their families were the most important people in their lives. That is the focus of the national children's strategy and of the Family Support Agency. There is a lovely quotation from a child who said: "I want that every child is loved like I am loved". Not every parent feels they have within them the support and the strength to give the love to their child that they want to. They do have it within them; they just need to be encouraged to bring it forward. Alternatively, there was a quote from a child who said: "It would be good if the parents were nicer". It is not that that child needs support but that family and the parents need support.

Children recognised how important their families were and also the wider family. They even recognised that, where they were living with only one parent, the other parent was important also. The most striking comment I have come across was from a child who was writing on a chart her contribution to the strategy. She wrote: "My father is the most important person in my life". It was unusual in that where normally one parent is mentioned, it tends to be the mother. I asked the child why her father was the most important person in her life, to which she replied: "I don't know my father, that is why he is important to me". Our attitude to families and to family support must be to include and support fathers particularly those who may not have everyday access to their children. It is only by supporting the family unit and structure that we can help the children. It also indicates the importance of mediation at the early stages when perhaps couples could be helped to avoid a breakdown in the family structure.

Obviously, it is not enough for me to talk just about what parents want. What is twice as important is what we set out to do for them in the national children's strategy. A very specific target and goal of the national children's strategy is the statement that all children need the support of family and community. One of the key objectives is that children will have the opportunity to experience the qualities of family life. Family support and the family mediation agency fits in really well with what we are aiming to do in the national children's strategy. We recognise that the importance of a good experience of family life for children cannot be stressed sufficiently. We recognise that family life is changing, there are different economic conditions, a diversity in the types of families and so on which require a variety of responses. Change will be part of family life and with that change will come various challenges and difficulties. There are a number of families in those circumstances who deserve support and to be encouraged to seek that support.

A number of objectives are set out to address the needs of children and families. I am pleased that part of our implementation of the strategy is the setting up of the family mediation service. Not only will this service be established but parenting programmes will be made available to all parents, with a special emphasis on the needs of fathers and lone parents, etc. The family mediation service will be established on a statutory basis. The national children's strategy is not one of those strategies that sits on a desk because less than nine months on the different Departments – I commend in particular the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs – are meeting their obligations under the strategy to respond to the needs of children.

It has already been stated here that parents and parenting are often taken for granted, and they are. People with no preparation and no training run into difficulties which is why some of the issues mentioned are important. I might also link in those other family groups and family support organisations who do such tremendous work. These include voluntary groups such as Life Start and Home Start who help, in particular, young mothers in isolated areas who need guidance and the support of a group to cope with ordinary everyday activities. I might also mention the springboard projects which are a Government initiative of family support. There are 17 of these projects targeted at particular families and children revolving around a centre. We recognise that family support is effective. We must support parents and families in the broader context with co-ordinated measures to eliminate poverty and unemployment and to tackle educational disadvantage. We recognise there are strengths within every family which family support must draw out. We must restore hope in families, help them to rebuild their social networks and cultivate the capacity within them to survive adversity.

Family support must be flexible and adaptable. The first page of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina reads, “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion”. We can help families but because their problems are different we must do so in a diversity of ways. Family support can restore hope because families have the strength and resources within them. However, we should take every measure possible to support such families and their children.

I am pleased to speak on this important Family Support Agency Bill. The new agency is welcome and may provide an opportunity for a new beginning in the area of family support services, which is needed. I compliment the Minister of State on her speech which includes great vision from the point of view of getting the agency up and running and providing a service. The family mediation service was set up on a pilot basis in 1985. At that time there were two services in Dublin and Limerick. These services were extended to Athlone, Castlebar, Cork, Dundalk, Galway, Tralee and Wexford and I am anxious to have the service extended to Sligo. I already brought this matter to the Minister's attention.

In regard to the mediation services, it may be difficult for couples to travel in one car to Galway which is 90 miles away. It is important that the service is accessible to the people of Sligo where there is a huge need for it. While a service is available in Castlebar and Galway, there is no service available in the north west region. I appeal to the Minister of State to consider setting up a family mediation service in Sligo.

The Bill provides for the establishment of a statutory body known as the Family Support Agency. This will bring together the main programmes designed to help prevent marital breakdown, to support ongoing parenting relationships for children and to promote local support for families. What is also very important is equal rights for both parents. I have been contacted by a number of constituents who say that following separation fathers have little access to their children, an issue which the Minister of State addressed in her speech. The people who are affected most are the children who are overlooked in some instances.

Voluntary bodies have traditionally looked to the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs for grant aid. This has evolved over the years and given the setting up of the agency there is a new opportunity to establish a level playing field with regard to funding for various voluntary agencies. It is important that the fund is properly targeted and not just redirected from the Department into a new agency. I hope the Bill will involve more change than the setting up of a statutory body because just moving the pieces on a chess board will not solve the problem. The agency should have a new focus. The lack of representation from non-Government or voluntary organisations is a gap in the Bill. It is important when setting up a new agency to listen clearly to organisations such as the resource centre in Sligo which offers valuable counselling and advice services.

There is the family life centre based in Sligo, the drop-in listening service, the mediation service and the free legal aid advice centre which is doing great work. Another important service is the budgeting service which is very effective. Managing money is an area of concern which can lead to many problems in the home. Previous speakers referred to the value of this budgeting service, which is free and confidential, in advising people how to spend money.

The main aim of the service is to assist people in dealing with existing debt and to help them to manage their finances. This is an important service which is funded by the Department. Services such as the mediation service, the free legal aid services and so on should be promoted. While the service has been expanded and relocated it should also be promoted. Some 1,225 couples sought help from the family mediation service last year, bringing the number of couples who used the service in the past four years to 3,159. Only half of those who completed the mediation process reached agreement on all aspects of their separation, while 8% agreed to return to married life. The number of couples making use of the free service, which helps couples address all issues on which they need to make decisions, has increased from 250 in 1997. The figures show year on year increases in attendance by couples since and indicate the support available and required. The service has grown dramatically. A trained mediator helps couples reach agreement on various issues. One must be very careful in terms of entitlement to the service and how people can avail of it.

A conference on family support evaluation last year in Galway highlighted the need for increased family support services and more extensive research into the methods of support which make the most difference to families. The conference heard that in Galway there are 22 family support projects in 2001. Co-ordination between the services is necessary.

The establishment of a family support agency is very important. Section 1 sets out the definitions of terms used while section 3 provides for the establishment of a family support agency and the corporate rights and responsibilities of the new body. It is very important that children are included, and there should be a clear definition of equality of rights of parents and their role in terms of rearing their children. The New Zealand model is very much in advance of this Bill in many areas. As was said, happy families are very important, and the conflict and breakdown of a family unit results in great uncertainty for children during the formative years.

As a dedicated agency the family support agency, with its own budget and expertise, will be well placed to assist the voluntary counselling services in meeting new challenges, such as the growing professionalism of the sector, the increased emphasis on the highest standards of training and qualification and the need for the development of models of best practice. In its review of An Action Programme for the Millennium the Government is committed to the establishment of 100 centres, and it is important this is expanded and developed. Services for lone parents, young mothers and others in need of additional support should be provided. Enhancement of the role of young fathers in terms of their children and their parenting skills and promoting the greater involvement of young men in the life of the community should also be addressed as part of the programme.

Mediation is the buzz word in problem solving throughout the world, be it in international disputes, marriage breakdown or bullying in schools. It is an enlightened form of negotiation which works by bringing the competing individuals or groups together with a trained mediator who helps them find their own solutions. It has gained ground in Ireland, with a new Diploma in Mediation Studies being offered in UCD. This one year part-time course is for those interested in developing a career in mediation or who use mediation skills as part of their work. In New Zealand mediation is used as part of the restorative justice system through recognising the rights of crime victims and keeping young people out of prison. Cases involving juveniles may be diverted from youth courts to a conference involving family, victim, offender and mediator. Instead of prosecution there may be an agreed plan of action which might include an apology, a curfew, community work and victim reparation. Court proceedings are withdrawn if the plan is carried out. The Irish Penal Reform Trust feels the system could work here. The Children Bill, 1996 incorporated some of these concepts in proposing the family group conference should be a key part in the juvenile justice system. In Australia schools have developed a system of mediation which trains pupils as classroom mediators with a focus on bullying. As well as resolving disputes the approach offers young people new skills and another way of responding to problems. Mediation is very important in the context of family support.

Funding should be accessible in every county. Up to now the Department has provided different types of funding. The Bill will give equal rights to voluntary groups working with State bodies to provide an array of services in a very effective manner. It involves State bodies, private enterprise and the voluntary sector. Establishing the agency is important, but unless it gets a new direction and focus it could quite easily become part of the existing establishment. The family support agency brings together the pro-family services developed since 1997, for which the Government has allocated up to £12 million in 2001. The Bill will involve the transfer of responsibilities for these programmes and services from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs to the new agency. It will also involve the appropriate transfer of funding, and in this context it is important that increased funding is provided.

It is a large Bill dealing with the functions of the agency, policy directives, membership, etc. It should involve voluntary groups which have successfully developed agencies. While the main emphasis is the attempt to prevent marriage breakdown, it would appear the focus, energy and need for funding may flow to the core agency service of mediation. A balance must be achieved to ensure an even spread of resources for voluntary, counselling and family support services.

In the functions of the agency the necessity of harnessing the energy and vision of the established NGOs working in the area is not mentioned. A core responsibility of such an agency should be to involve NGOs, and this has been omitted from the Bill.

There has been no consultation with existing family resource centres. In Sligo we are very fortunate to have an excellent family resource centre. It was a major omission that there was no consultation with this group in setting up the Family Support Agency. It is outrageous and a major oversight that during the formation of this Bill we have seen the exclusion of people who have done outstanding work to date. I hope when it comes to funding there will be consultation with the Sligo Family Resource Centre.

We do not need lip service. When speaking last night on the Fine Gael Private Members' Bill relating to a disabilities ombudsman, the Minister, Deputy Martin, said we needed not just a legislative framework, but that it was also necessary to put the appropriate structures in place. What has happened with this Bill is a contradiction of what he said yesterday. This Bill is merely a re-run of what is already in existence in the Department without any financial support or vision to address the needs that are evident in every county.

For some time I have sought a family mediation service for Sligo and I am very disappointed that this has not been granted. Currently, couples have to travel more than 90 miles to Galway and this journey is generally made in two cars given that travelling in one car would present its own problems to people in need of a mediation service.

The concept of the Bill is good, but it is little more than lip service. We have missed an opportunity for a new beginning. I hope when a chief executive is appointed to this agency he will have the vision to provide for a new beginning in the area of family support.

Up to 100,000 couples have received legal separations in recent years. There are significant numbers of one parent families. Mediation is very important, but reform of child support services is crucial particularly in the north-west. The rate of births to teenage girls is also of concern. It is unacceptable that we have seen recent incidents in the courts where juveniles have needed residential care, but none was available.

Social workers have done outstanding work and carers give great support to the family at less than the minimum wage. The Government needs to review the means testing of carers. Today we are talking about the Family Support Agency; this incorporates grandparents also. In many cases families are not entitled to have a carer appointed to a grandparent. Support for the family in essential repair grants, disabled persons grants, etc. are also very important.

I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, to address why senior citizens in Sligo are unable to draw disabled persons grants and essential repairs grants. Let us hope this Bill will be a new start. I ask the Minister to consider setting up a mediation service in Sligo.

I welcome this Bill and the setting up of the Family Support Agency. It is a key step in the Government's "family first" approach, designed to put families at the centre of all its policies. Support for the stability of family life, the prevention of marriage breakdown and addressing the effects of divorce on families are all very important and were key commitments given by the Government and I am glad to see them being fulfilled.

I thought the last speaker was somewhat disingenuous and I contrast his contribution with that of Deputy Broughan this morning, who was full of praise for the work being done by the family affairs unit in the Department. He more or less admitted and possibly even apologised for the hullabaloo, which members of his party made in 1997 when the name of the old Department of Social Welfare was changed and expanded.

That was a clearly thought out policy decision to change the emphasis and give recognition to the developing role of the family affairs unit in the Department. At the time many politicians were very negative and critical. They said things at the time they might not be proud of now. They felt the emphasis was on changing the name on the headed paper rather than realising that it was a defined policy.

I compliment the Minister on getting funds into the family affairs unit since then and I pay particular tribute to the staff of that unit. As chairperson of the Oireachtas Committee on Social, Community and Family Affairs, I have met staff from that unit both at committee meetings and at various public fora. I am always very impressed with the enthusiasm, energy and commitment they have for the job. It seems more like a labour of love than a job to them.

We have been very fortunate to get funds into the unit and have the staff that have driven it on. I hope with the setting up of this new agency, we will not try to re-invent the wheel and start from square one again. I hope the expertise built up in the Department will be a central part of the new agency.

There has been much talk about divorce in recent years. Sadly, it is necessary in some cases. Some people have portrayed it as the cure to all evils and ills in society; it certainly is not. While it may be necessary on occasions, it can often leave many problems in its wake. Society in general and the environment in which we live have changed dramatically in recent years. Previous speakers referred to grandparents. In the past, in rural and city areas, particularly in the older suburbs of Dublin, people had their wider family around them but changes in society mean that many people now live miles from any relative. Generally, family units are smaller. Parents, grandparents and others who might help are not as available as they were in the past. That is not just true of families. I recently attended a function to honour people who gave years of service as volunteers in different walks of life. We have all been involved in such work at different levels, be it supporting the needy, sports organisations, trade union and political groups or whatever. While life has improved in recent years, many people are busy making money, running in all directions and taking their eyes off the ball – helping their families or those in the wider community has sadly gone by the wayside. That has been recognised, and the unit in the Department has been far-seeing in the past few years. Obviously when the new agency is established the shackles of the Department might be less restrictive.

Deputy Perry referred to missed opportunities and new beginnings but that work started a few years ago. This is merely giving a legal format to a new agency and I hope it will blossom further when it is set up as an agency in its own right with its own legal remit.

We do a great deal for families, but we can never do enough. I am not talking just about the marginalised, disadvantaged or dysfunctional families that need help. We have seen in more recent times ordinary, middle-class families who appeared to be getting on with their lives, but nobody really knows what goes on inside the four walls of a house. It is only when a tragedy occurs, be it an abduction or some other event, that people begin to analyse and reflect on the pressures faced by families. It is good that we are taking action to help people at all levels and not just when problems arises. We are great at throwing money at a problem when the horse has bolted but if we are to deal with these issues properly, they need ongoing attention.

The major economic progress we have made in recent years has allowed us to do much good, including the increase in child benefit last year and the increases promised for the next two years. I particularly welcome the tax allowance for carers as part of the tax individualisation measure of some years ago which caused a hullabaloo. However, while many of those measures are worthwhile, there has been a push, probably because of our economic growth, for both parents to work outside the home. People should have a choice but it should always be their choice. State agencies should not be seen to come down strongly on one side. We can implement these measures in the short-term but it may take years, particularly if they affect children, for the problems to manifest themselves. What might seem a good idea at the outset can often end up costing the State a fortune in the longer term.

The family mediation service is central to this new agency and to the family affairs section. The staff in the family mediation service do a wonderful job in providing a free, professional and confidential service. The legal profession has been dealing with the sad cases of marital breakdown and divorce in recent years but the people in that profession often act like vultures gathering to pick up the pieces following a disaster.

Hear, hear.

The way they have conducted business in these sad cases is not something of which anyone could be proud. They have created as many injustices as they have resolved and there is an increasing view that the decisions of courts, particularly in terms of the way men are treated, are unfair.

By way of an aside, I recently knocked on a door in my constituency and a man answered it whose marriage had broken down. I do not know his political persuasions but he told me he would not vote for me. I began to probe a little to find out the reason.

He must have heard about the Deputy.

No, it was not personal to me. It was basically because I was a man.

That is worse.

In his view men no longer stand up for other men. The only hope, as he saw it, was the second generation of women who had come through the women's liberation period. He believed men were afraid to stand up for other men and, even though I was not going to get his vote, I listened to him and it was difficult to dismiss what he was saying. I did not tell my constituency colleague where he lived; she might have made a rapid visit to him.

That was a wise decision.

I am pleased the family mediation service tries to encourage both parents to be involved in the ongoing parenting arrangements. I would like the new agency to push that approach and ensure that ethos is the norm because up to now the courts have set the model, but the model is wrong. It was probably set in a time when women were very badly treated in society and it was felt that we had to discriminate strongly on one side rather than the other. That is the wrong model now. Both parents should have equal involvement in the parenting of children because one cannot maintain a relationship with one's child by meeting him or her for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. It is usual now for the woman to get sole custody of the children. I know there is sole custody, sole legal custody and physical custody but it would be far better if the new agency promoted joint parenting as the way forward. I am glad the Department and the proposed agency will develop this aspect. The family affairs unit and the mediation service do not advertise strongly enough the good work they are doing. I hope the new agency will be launched with a strong advertising campaign. People who suddenly encounter marriage problems often do not know where to turn and there is a need to make more widely known the information pack covering the family affairs unit.

There is also a need to do more than provide services at the point of marriage breakdown. Services should be provided to help those in ongoing relationships and to look after children, both in relationships and after marriages have broken down. A great deal extra can be done on parenting issues. Some, especially men, walk away from their responsibilities. Insufficient resources are provided for this aspect. I recently spoke to a man who is adopting a child and it became apparent that an extraordinary number of social worker hours are being allocated to this aspect while little heed is paid to children born into other relationships where the parents are unaware of their responsibilities. Much work is done in this area but it does not help many of those who need it, or it helps them when it is too late.

School teachers say they can identify problem children in the classroom when they are seven or eight years old. Many of us could identify them the night after they are conceived because some of the problems can be signalled and many such children have no hope from the outset. It is very well to wait until a person has a big problem at the age of ten or 14 years but it could be dealt with much more effectively and economically if interventions were made at an earlier stage.

Counselling and voluntary groups, be they involved in bereavement, marriage counselling or whatever, are doing good work and are getting grants from the Department. The agency will have to monitor the professionalism of these groups and ongoing training and supervision will be necessary. Sometimes the statutory establishment of an agency can make it too professional and can lead to the voluntary aspect of groups involved in this area being forgotten. I hope that does not happen.

Child care became a central issue a few years ago and the service became almost too professional. Millions of pounds have been spent on it. I do not suggest that standards should be ignored – there is a need for them – but I hope the agency will build on what is available. The family affairs unit has fostered and promoted many of the activities in this area and I am sure it can be developed. However, there is a need to develop the professional side while keeping on board the voluntary aspect.

The Commission on the Family addressed the cost of legal difficulties. It is like health, on which billions is spent treating the sick while little is spent on preventative measures. I welcome the establishment of the new agency. Much good work is happening under the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and by other agencies. The local authority in my area has established social support units which work with families and give them time and attention. Those in the family affairs unit know what needs to be done and I hope they will get funding and political support to develop the agency to its fullest.

I welcome the introduction of a new agency under this legislation. If the aspirational intentions of the Bill are brought into fruition it would be a very important step in eliminating the difficulties in society. We are all aware of the work of the voluntary agencies and the sections under the Departments of Social, Community and Family Affairs, Health and Children and Education and Science.

Regrettably, however, there is nothing in the Bill that will co-ordinate and refocus efforts to deliver a better service. Deputies on the Government side of the House, including the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Hanafin, who quoted Tolstoy, have uttered platitudes. It is clear that despite the wonderful aspirations of the Minister, the reality encountered by those who must use the services is very different. Anything that can be done to deliver services that are intended to be an improvement to those who must resort to them would be welcome. I hope the intentions behind the agency will come to fruition.

The Bill refers to the preparation of strategic plans and to undertaking research requested by the Minister. From a reading of the list of this agency's functions, can we truly say that passing these responsibilities to it is not a ploy by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and other Departments and agencies that have come on board in this instance, to delay matters and to avoid criticism of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs for not taking on these responsibilities? The Minister has said this area is no longer his responsibility, that we are targeting the wrong person.

In saying we want more research and reports on the needs in this area, it must be amply clear to everybody that where stress is a major factor contributing to family and marriage breakdown in this modern society, the underlying common denominator is poverty. That together with other conditions, be they drink or drug related or other difficulties, all come down to there having been a degree of poverty somewhere along the line. If we do not tackle poverty in the initial stages, irrespective of what agency is set up or how many professional people are involved in attempting to deliver a service, it will fail because poverty is the root cause of what is at stake here.

I have a leaflet from an advice centre that provides many services. On reading it in detail, one would note its aspirational jargon and clichés and realise how difficult it is for any family, parents, children or any social workers with the best of intentions to get access to these services for people who are in difficulty. This centre seeks to create an all-gain settlement in the case of family mediation. It seeks to ensure that those involved will negotiate their own agreement. It seeks to increase co-operation, create an all-gain settlement, avoid going to court and to reduce bitterness. Those aspirations are well intentioned but how far are they off the mark? What can any agency do to prevent that? Deputy Noel Ahern mentioned that when either or both partners are forced to go to their legal representative in the case of a marriage breakdown, they will finish up in the courts. A couple are lucky if they can have their case dealt with in the confines of a family court, but any court is cold comfort to those involved. It is a distressing, stressful situation for the partners involved, regardless of which way the case goes. Is there one settlement in all of the cases settled in the past ten years that we can say was an all-gain one? I presume an "all-gain settlement" means that both partners of the divide will go home satisfied, all having gained, but that does not happen. If there are children involved, how can anybody say that they gain from a family break-up?

I spent 25 years in a school observing children who were victims, for want of a better word, of marriage breakdowns. From a cursory glance at them one could see the stress in their faces and realise they were living under pressure. Irrespective of what agencies might support them, all one could hope is that they could minimise the effects of family break-up. How can they do that for such children when there is no recognition among their classmates or wider peer group of the difficulties they are experiencing? There is no recognition of how such children can be helped or any support within what is a vicious educational circle. By "vicious" I mean that there is a competitive atmosphere where each child vies for success. I do not know that there is any agency, such as that which is proposed in this Bill, that can help. We can tinker around at the edges of the problem by way of providing support.

Even within the school support mechanism what professional personnel are available to a child who manifests these difficulties, and who will pick up on them? Nobody, unless perhaps a caring teacher and, thankfully, we have such teachers in the employ of the Department of Education and Science. Such a child would be lucky if he or she were to meet a caring teacher, whether at primary, secondary of even third level where even greater difficulties manifest themselves, who would take their needs on board, counsel them or direct them towards some agency, or support them in some way. Such situations are the seeds of problems with children who drop out of education and of their vulnerability to rot in our society. What can we do? What would this agency do? Can the Minister say it would respond positively to this type of crisis? If it could, I would welcome it, but I fear that will not happen.

Free legal aid is another service provided by advice centres. Every year a group of solicitors become involved in delivering the free legal aid service and they derive a considerable income from it because they provide a professional service. To where must people from rural Ireland go to gain access to free legal aid? In County Galway, one has to go to Galway city or Athlone. No ordinary solicitor's practice will take on the delivery of free legal aid. They do not want to provide it and who can blame them because it is more remunerative for them to be involved in private practice. Unless this new agency will provide a free legal aid service, for many in rural Ireland gaining access to it is pie in the sky. There is no response to that need at present. If any representative from my constituency wants to obtain free legal aid for a constituent, he or she would have to go to Galway city and wait for an appointment. We must accept that many of those with cases that require an urgent response cannot gain access to such a response. If this new agency could improve such access, its establishment would be worthwhile, but I doubt if that would be the case.

Advice centres provide a drop-in listening service, which is a valuable one. People in a crisis want someone to listen to them. What time can voluntary groups or professionals in such centres provide to listen to the problems of others? It is minimal and totally insufficient. I am not sure what this Bill, when enacted, will do to provide for such a service.

The Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs has changed from the uncaring attitude adopted by many in the past to a positive attitude adopted regarding the delivery of services to those who request applications for various schemes. Thank God the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs has moved away from that and is capable of human responses. I was dealing with a case yesterday of a young 24 year old constituent of mine. He has been at home unable to work since last July when he had a nervous breakdown. He went home to his parents and would not under any circumstances, no matter how much encouragment he received, go out to seek medical services. He would not go to the social welfare office to seek financial help. His mother processed an application as best she could with the help of social welfare officers on the ground. From last July until yesterday the application lay dormant. I phoned Longford and to the credit of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs the response of the officer was instant, satisfactory and apologetic as to the lack of understanding of the circumstances. That exemplifies the Department's human face and its humane response. That officer is an excellent face for the Department, which must be commended.

The other side of that is the family income support scheme. It is a very worthy scheme, but few benefit from it to a worthwhile extent. There is much trauma to be gone through to find the necessary documentation for proofs. There are rules and regulations. I do not advocate throwing them aside. They have to be in place in any scheme, but the scheme in question certainly needs revamping in order to help and support the very great number of people who will be the responsibility of this new agency. Agencies involved in marriage counselling, marriage break up and family support are involved in the things that count. They help to hold together families that are very often in crisis. That crisis has been brought about by many ordinary and individual events in daily living. That is the difficulty. It would be very difficult to bring all those threads together to resolve things.

The farm assist scheme was brought in because of the low income of many family farms and we all welcomed it. In a parliamentary question put down in the last session, I asked the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development to give me the statistics on the scheme's implementation in Galway, where it was difficult to establish the incidence of it. I was told they had vague ideas of the number of applicants there were, but not of the number of recipients. That occurred in the context of the sure knowledge that many farming families are below the poverty line and earn less than the average industrial wage. There should have been a response. The scheme exists on paper, there is a series of application forms and promotional leaflets, but it is a useless exercise. It must be looked at again. If the Department does so it will see that it is really the dole in another guise. It is unemployment assistance. If this agency shakes that up and responds positively to the needs of people on the ground, we can resolve many of the social ills.

Family break-up is occurring to a greater and greater extent. Today, as Members of the Oireachtas, we have all received a booklet from the Law Society of Ireland. Its members are the practitioners in this area and it is a report on their efforts. It is entitled Nullity of Marriage: A Case for Reform. That is a matter for another Department, but marriage breakdown and divorce create the problems being dealt with here. The agency to be put in place should be co-ordinated and focused on that to deliver its service. It is important that the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Moffat, gets his colleague, the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, to tackle the problem the Law Society of Ireland has brought so forcefully to our attention. It would eliminate many of the problems that are there. The concept of nullity is one thing. It is down the road from problems that are occurring. Defining it and dealing with it under divorce legislation may be the way to go. The matter needs urgent attention.

I hate to be negative. If this agency draws together the voluntary groups and other statutory agencies and sifts out, slowly but surely, the difficulties that can be remedied without huge expenditure, additional expense is not the problem. It is a question of delivering a service and of making it accessible. That access is not there at the moment.

I have been trying to find the right word to express my reaction to this Bill but I have not found it yet. I hazard the guess that were the late Deputies John Kelly and Brian Lenihan here they could aptly describe it. Deputy Lenihan would have called it a quango. He invented that word to cover the establishment of a multi-faceted body or group with countless functions, some of which were contradictory, to take over the functions previously bestowed on a Minister. That group would then have full authority. That is exactly what this agency is. I hope that is not true, but it bears full resemblance to a brand new quango and that is the last thing we want.

I fully support the notion of a family support agency and the need to provide the multiplicity of services required to support the family in the modern world given the various pressures of daily life. There are a number of agencies which already have responsibility for the same stratum of society but they do not to co-ordinate their efforts. The argument will be put forward that this agency will co-ordinate their efforts but it will not. Unless the health and social services come within the ambit of a single agency with direct control this is a waste of time. That is unfortunate.

Let us assume that a system is decided upon which there will be an exchange of views. This makes me laugh. I have been around this House for a few years, though not as many as the Ceann Comhairle, for which I congratulate him. I have seen where services have failed miserably to co-operate with each other when delivering services to the community.

There are now many more pressures facing families and individuals that ever before. There is peer pressure, which forces everybody along a narrow corridor where everybody competes with everybody else and where some are pushed to the side and are sometimes forgotten. Nobody wants to pick up the pieces.

All the employees of the services without exception seem to go home at 5 p.m. and it is then left to the public representatives to carry the burden over the weekend and throughout the rest of the 24 hour day. It is strange but that is the way it works. I have seen no evidence to the contrary and I do not think there is anything in this particular legislation that will change it.

I am not saying there are not some people who are totally dedicated and take their responsibilities seriously and have success in doing so. Unfortunately, as in every other business, there are many others who, from day to day, take their roles less seriously and somebody else has to cover for them. There are more problems that require the services envisaged within the ambit of this Bill emerging today than ever before. Sadly I fear this will be the case ten years after the service has been introduced.

In a previous incarnation, I spent considerable time as a member of a health board, with which the Minister of State will be quite familiar. I spent considerable time as a member of a local authority. To my discredit, I spent no time as a member of a VEC so I missed out on my education. However, I know that within those areas exist all the services that are now supposed to be available to support the family and household and to give advice readily. They do not work. They are not co-ordinating, co-operating, linking, interfacing, relying on each other or supplying each other with information. In some cases, even the Garda liaison service is providing services which, to me, would fall more aptly within the ambit of the health board.

The theory is that there is insufficient staff at health board level. I recently received a letter from a senior social worker indicating the lack of staff and the consequent inability to do the job. That must be addressed. There is no point having the service in position unless it functions. If one removes a link in the chain, the chain will not work afterwards. I cannot understand why we seem to have lost our focus when dealing with the workings of the system. We seem to think that it must be changed ultimately and that a bigger, more auspicious and more highly paid group must be brought in to do a better job. That is not necessarily the case.

Unfortunately, from past experience, there is ample evidence to show that when the support services were initiated, such as those envisaged in this legislation, they worked. Everybody knew what they were supposed to do, where everybody else was and to whom they should report in the event of certain occurrences. It is not as easy now, unfortunately. Has anybody here ever tried to make contact with some of the services in an emergency? If a real emergency materialises, what happens? Where does one go? Will the Family Support Agency, when it comes into being, be able to respond? Will it be able to respond to the events that take place on a daily basis or will there be nobody available if something happens on a weekend? Will the job be left to somebody else? On a bank holiday weekend, will everything come to a halt?

The social problems that have come to the fore in recent times do not work to a particular timetable. Such problems do not exist only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. They exist thereafter, often to a greater extent. There seems to be nobody anywhere who can address that. The times at which families are most vulnerable and most in need of support are the times that there are no services available. They are gone. I do not know if the system will work; I will be very surprised if it does.

We, in the House, cannot question the agency after it is set up. The Minister will have no responsibility to the House. I am sure Ministers sitting in their offices will say "Isn't that wonderful. We do not have to answer to anybody here any more." Once a year, there will be a report and Ministers will say in reply to Deputies' queries and parliamentary questions that the information is available in the Oireachtas Library. Of course it is available in the Oireachtas Library, but we do not ask the Oireachtas Library. We ask the Minster who is supposed to be responsible and have the necessary information at his or her disposal. If we wanted to go to the Oireachtas Library or Law Library for information, we would naturally go there. It should be possible to obtain information from Ministers and it used to be possible. I have no doubt that, after the setting up of the agency, along the lines that I think it will be set up, we will be able to get less and less information. That is a big drawback and a retrograde step.

The Deputy is correct in saying that.

Incidentally, the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs is sponsoring the Bill but the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children is in the House delivering the Bill. Maybe I am slipping in my old age, but I do not know why the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children has responsibility for the legislation of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, which is now before the House.

Co-operation is the name of the game.

I am glad to hear that co-operation is the name of the game because in my time raising questions on the Adjournment of this House, the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs was not first in for that. As a matter of fact, he relied on other Ministers to do his work for him. I hope that, in the future, the co-operation we have not seen to date will manifest itself and we will be able to look across the House at the Minister responsible for introducing the legislation and we will know that when we ask him questions, he will be there to answer them and have direct responsibility for the legislation he promotes.

The most serious danger of all, which I find very worrying, is that the legislation will fall between two stools and that we, the Members of this House, and the various other public representatives throughout the State will be subjected to one Department saying it is not really its responsibility and that it is the responsibility of some other Department – the Departments of Health and Children, Education and Science or Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The legislation in question has all the hallmarks of legislation that will encounter such difficulties. If that happens, we will create a serious problem. We recall the quango described by the late Deputy Brian Lenihan – in fact, it does not do justice to the name at all and the name does not do justice to the scenario that will unfold.

Will the architects of the legislation look seriously at the degree to which it will be operational, if and when it does become so? Will they ensure that there will be a degree of co-ordination and co-operation between the various statutory bodies that have responsibility under the general areas referred to in the Bill? If not, will they ensure that some agency will at least be able to raise a hand and suggest a way to proceed? If the various bodies take separate routes and each claims responsibility for its own particular area to the exclusion of everything else, then a serious deficiency will manifest itself in the not too distant future.

At a time when there is a need for the kind of back-up services envisaged in the explanatory memorandum that accompanies the Bill, and for what I think is the rationale of the Bill, it is imperative that the agency be a success. If not, all we will be left with is more needless expenditure. We cannot afford that.

Debate adjourned.