That, pursuant to Standing Order 170, Standing Order 125 is modified to permit an instruction to the Committee to which the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2006 [Seanad] may be recommitted in respect of certain amendments, for which it has power to make provision in the Bill in relation to—
(a) amending Part VII of the Child Care Act 1991 to enable regulations to be made which will allow school age childcare services to be brought within the terms of that Part on the same basis as preschool child care services thus enabling providers of school age childcare services to avail of a VAT exemption as currently is the case for providers of pre-school child care services,
(b) amending the Child Care Act 1991 to allow for the attendance at and reporting of child care proceedings which are held in private under that Act in specified circumstances and by specified classes of person, and
(c) amending the Children Act 2001
(i) to change the name of the Special Residential Services Board to the Children Acts Advisory Board and to broaden the functions of that Board to become an enhanced advisory and enabling body whose functions would include, inter alia, providing advice on request to the Ministers for Health and Children and Justice, Equality and Law Reform on policy issues relating to the co-ordinated delivery of services under the Child Care Act 1991 and the Children Act 2001, and
(ii) to provide that the use of family welfare conferences which arise in the context of juvenile justice cases is practicable."
I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the House for allowing a debate on these issues, which are to be dealt with in the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2006. I had intended to introduce these important amendments on Committee Stage but was advised that they were outside the Bill's scope although they arise from the same primary legislation. I propose to introduce the amendments at this Stage.
I wish to set out the background to the changes to Part VII of the Child Care Act 1991. The availability of information on school age child care use in Ireland was greatly enhanced with the publication by the Central Statistics Office in July 2003 of its findings from the special module on child care conducted as part of the quarterly national household survey in late 2002. The survey showed that 67,500 families of primary school children were availing of non-parental child care for their children. Of these families, the mother or guardian in 62,600 families was in employment with only 1,100 mothers or guardians in education. On the basis of the data collated, it was estimated that approximately 125,000 primary school children receive non-parental child care. School age child care was identified as a priority under the EU co-funded Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme 2000-06 and continues to be a priority under the National Childcare Investment Programme 2006-10 under which a target has been set to create 5,000 additional after-school places.
Capital grant funding for child care facilities, formerly under the equal opportunities child care programme and now under the national child care investment programme, has been made available in a range of settings where school age child care is provided. These include full day care facilities which include out of school services as well as services that focus on out of school services. In many cases, school age services have been set up in the grounds of, or near to, local schools and, where spare capacity is identified within school premises, the grant funding can be used to renovate and upgrade these premises. The equal opportunities child care programme also provided staffing grants to child care services with a focus on disadvantage, including services providing school age services. Details of a new national child care investment programme staffing grant scheme, which will replace the equal opportunities child care programme from January 2008, are expected to be announced by mid 2007.
In order to ensure that child care services for school age children are exempt from VAT, the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Finance advise that a regulatory framework should be created under legislation which would permit the VAT exemption that currently applies to preschool child care services to apply to school age child care services. The amendments I am introducing amend Part VII of the Child Care Act 1991 to bring school age child care services within the terms of Part VII of the Act allowing for the making of regulations on the same basis under legislation as for preschool services.
These proposed Government amendments thus allow for the appropriate regulation of school age child care services and provide for a VAT exemption in providing that the Minister may make regulations as to school age services. These regulations may prescribe various specified requirements regarding premises, equipment and facilities so as to safeguard the well-being of children attending the service as well as providing for enforcement by the Health Service Executive. The conferral of the power to make regulations ensures that these services will become exempt. My successor will consider the appropriate form of these regulations. There are no draft regulations and regulations would only be drawn up after substantial consultation.
Amendment No. 13 will amend section 49 of the Child Care Act to include definitions of school age child and school age child care. Amendment No. 14 will amend section 50 of the Child Care Act to provide that the Minister may make regulations as to school age services and that the regulations may prescribe various specified requirements regarding premises, equipment and facilities as well as providing for enforcement by the Health Service Executive and for annual fees to be paid. This section also provides that such regulations may make provision for persons taking care of not more than five children of different families, of whom not more than three may be preschool children, in that person's home.
Amendment No. 15 will amend section 51 of the primary Act to provide for school age services to notify the Health Service Executive that they are carrying on or proposing to carry on a service and that such notification is given in a prescribed manner. Amendment No. 16 will amend section 52 of the Child Care Act to provide that every person carrying on a school age service must take reasonable measures to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of school age children attending the service. Amendment No. 17 will amend section 53 of the Child Care Act to provide that the Health Service Executive will visit each school age service from time to time to ensure the service provider is fulfilling the duties imposed by section 52.
Amendment No. 18 will amend section 55 of the Child Care Act to provide that where the Health Service Executive has received notification of a service it will be entitled to enter the premises and, where notification has not been received, it has the power to apply to the court to exercise such powers.
Amendment No. 19 will amend section 56 of the Child Care Act to provide that the HSE may provide school age services and regulations may be made by the Minister in respect of such services. Amendment No. 20 will amend section 57 of the Child Care Act to provide for offences under this new regime. Amendment No. 21 will amend section 58 of the Child Care Act to provide for exemption from the requirements of the legislation in the case of a person caring for children of relatives or a sibling group of children and to provide for an exemption for a person caring for not more than five children of different families, of whom not more than three may be preschool children, excluding that person's own children, in that person's home. That is the principal matter addressed by these amendments — the provision of VAT exemption for the providers of school age child care and the establishment of regulations to facilitate it.
The second matter addressed relates to reporting on child care proceedings. Amendment No. 5 amends section 29 of the Child Care Act 1991. That section provides that proceedings under that Act are heard in private. The amendment provides that certain specified classes of persons, including barristers and solicitors, both representing and authorised in writing by the Children Acts advisory board, following consultation with the Minister and those specified in regulations made by the Minister in consultation with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, may attend and have access to relevant documents and prepare a report for publication of child care proceedings under the Child Care Act 1991, subject to rules of court and any direction of the court hearing the case.
The attendance and publication of a report or a decision of proceedings is, however, subject to the report or decision containing no information which would enable a child to whom proceedings relate and any party to the proceedings to be identified. The court has a discretion where special circumstances apply in the particular case to direct for stated reasons that the person may not attend and report on the particular case. The section also provides that this is without prejudice to the other provisions of the 1991 Act.
This amendment will facilitate the compilation of reports on and analysis of child care proceedings. We need research in this area but cannot have any at present because of existing restrictions on the reporting and analysing of such cases. A similar provision was introduced for matrimonial proceedings under the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004. An excellent report was compiled by Dr. Carol Coulter in connection with the area some months ago. The proposed amendment strikes the right balance between the rights of persons involved in child care proceedings and the need to ensure these proceedings are opened up to as much scrutiny as possible.
Deputies will agree that the exercise by the HSE of its powers in child care is fraught with controversy and difficulty and the courts must make difficult decisions in this area. As these powers are vested in the courts and because the cases are in private, there is currently no effective scrutiny in this regard. It is important that we legislate for objective, academic research into these cases. We are not proposing the details of cases would be disclosed; this is analogous to what was done in family law proceedings. I propose a legislative basis for academic research to take place into these proceedings. That is important because we need to be reassured that proceedings are consistent in their character.
The Children Act 2001 provides that a court hearing criminal proceedings against a child may, where the court considers a welfare issue arises in respect of the child that may involve the Health Service Executive exercising its powers under the Act of 1991, apply for a care or supervision order to direct the executive to hold a family welfare conference in respect of the child for the executive to determine and to advise the court on what, if any, action the executive should take in respect of the child. The amendments provide that before a court directs the executive to hold a family welfare conference, the court must be satisfied in its view that it is practicable for the executive to hold such a conference having regard to the age of the child and his or her family or other circumstances.
The amendments also clarify that it will be for the Health Service Executive to apply for orders under the Child Care Act 1991 in respect of the child where this is appropriate following the family welfare conference. Amendment No. 23 will provide for the repeal of section 16 of the Children Act 2001 to the extent that it provides for the insertion of section 23D into the Child Care Act 1991.
These are the last outstanding provisions of the Children Act that have not been commenced and I intend, on the enactment of this legislation, to bring into operation these provisions so the entire Act will have been commenced by the conclusion in office of this Government.
The Special Residential Services Board was established on a statutory basis in November 2003. The board was set up because, when the 2001 Act was drawn up, the issue of who should take responsibility for the secure care and detention of children was dodged and divided between three Departments. As a result of amending legislation that I have introduced and commenced, there is a clear allocation of responsibility between the youth justice service and the HSE for the detention and securing of children. As a result, the Special Residential Services Board, which was established to co-ordinate the efforts of three Departments, no longer has such an important focus on that area. Nevertheless, it is valuable to have a board that advises on the Child Care Act 1991 and the Children Act 2001. This week's events reinforce the importance of having a board of specialists from all Departments who can advise the Minister on appropriate steps that must be taken.
The purpose of the amendments is to change the name, role and function of the board in line with overall Government policy on the formation and function of the office of the Minister of State with responsibility for children to be an enhanced advisory and enabling body. The various amendments, which are minor in character, change the name of the Special Residential Services Board to the Children Acts Advisory Board. The functions of the board under this amending provision will include advising the Ministers on policy issues relating to the co-ordinated delivery of services, including residential accommodation and support services to children; preparing and publishing criteria for the admission to a special care unit; publishing guidance on the qualifications, criteria for appointment, training and role of any guardianad litem appointed for children under the Act of 1991; and promoting enhanced inter-agency co-operation, including sharing information, under the Acts.
I thank the House for considering these matters and ask that the amendments be discussed as part of the Bill.