Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2006 [Seanad]: Instruction to Committee.

I move:

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 guardian ad 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.

It is important this legislation is passed. Legislation often falls behind progress in society. Economic developments change society and we follow up with social legislation. Many people would never have imagined we would see most parents out working and 67,500 children would be in non-parental child care services. This is good legislation that continues the idea of child protection and children's rights, an ethos that we must develop even more if we are to keep up with social change. There was previously a dark side in how society looked after children and there were many scandals in the past.

We should wait for the independent report into this week's events in Wexford because it is not the idea to apportion blame. I am concerned, however, that no senior social worker was available to look at this case over the weekend. We would never contemplate a situation where there would be no GP available at night or on call or where the ambulance service would only be available from Monday to Friday. We cannot, therefore, contemplate an emergency service such as a senior social worker being unavailable to the Garda on weekends.

Mental health services have changed dramatically. I hesitated to comment on the events because I work as a GP and have had many interactions with social workers. There are times when we do not want to take a hard line approach because going in with all guns blazing could cause even more problems. It is often better to see if it is possible to work with the family to resolve issues. We should wait for the facts to emerge to see if anything could have been done in Monageer. I do not want the Garda to respond in a hard line way in future because that could be counterproductive.

It is imperative that the HSE put in place a policy at senior level of ensuring that senior social workers are available throughout the country if they are needed. I, as a general practitioner, cannot make the call as to whether children should be taken from a family. The Garda Síochána does not want a situation in which a garda with no training can decide to take children out of the family home. There would be uproar if that were to happen. It must be somebody who is professionally trained and who can stand over such decisions. I can make decisions on treating a patient at night and stand over such decisions if they are questioned at a later date. Similarly, in the situation we are debating, we need professional people in place who can stand over decisions and be answerable if the wrong call is made. That is the principle that will emerge from the independent report.

Legislation on the detention of people has changed quite dramatically. In the past it was too easy to sign what was called the pink form and have somebody admitted to a psychiatric institution against his or her will. The Mental Health Commission now allows patients to appeal committal orders within a two week period, and a number of committal orders have been overturned by the commission. There is another side to that coin. I have had the experience of having to wait a number of weeks before I could sign one of those forms even though there was serious concern about the patient. As the law stood it was not possible to sign the form in respect of involuntary admittance, although the form was eventually signed because the patient's condition deteriorated. In such situations there must be a balance. It is important, therefore, to have appropriate legislation. Bringing forward legislation is fine, but the Minister must also ensure there are people on the ground to carry out inspections of preschool and school facilities.

I wish to sound a note of caution. The people running these institutions will be informed to expect inspection by the HSE and that if they do not comply they could be fined or brought to court. It should be made clear also that they must ensure that the person carrying out the inspection has bona fide credentials, given that there have been attempts to abduct children from school yards or crèches. We must guard against such attempts by somebody impersonating a HSE inspector or a father who is no longer living with the family and wants to take the children away. One way of doing that would be to put in place a lo-call telephone number that the supervisor of the preschool or school facility can contact if there is any concern about the credentials of the person carrying out the inspection. In addition, anybody carrying out an inspection must inform the preschool or school supervisor what facilities are being inspected. Instead of being threatened with court or the Garda, a preschool or school supervisor who is not happy to allow somebody onto the premises could simply ring a designated number to confirm the person's authority to inspect the facility.

Politicians have no idea how family case conferences work. The Minister of State should give plenty of thought to this in the context of the child protection regime he is putting in place. Currently many case conferences do not fulfil their remit. In most cases the family's general practitioner does not turn up because such case conferences can take a long time or may be cancelled at short notice. Furthermore they are not accessible to the people who are most likely to have close interactions with the person involved. I have attended case conferences at which only administrative personnel from the health services were available to attend. The people on the ground, members of the Garda Síochána, school teachers, doctors, public health nurses are often unable to attend case conferences because of their duties, so that a huge amount of expertise is missed out on.

In setting up case conferences, provision should be made for written submissions from the front-line people if they are unable to attend in person and due weight should be given to their recommendations. These cases can be extremely difficult. Having dealt with many over the past decade, I can tell the House that they are as complex as any court case and that there is no such thing as a black and white outcome. That needs to be taken into account and adequate resources provided to back up the legislation we are putting in place today.

Unlike other Ministers who are handed legislation by their staff as they come to House and often do not know what they are talking about, the Minister of State takes his job very seriously and is genuine in his approach to children's rights.

I may quote the Deputy during the general election campaign.

I do not mind if the Minister of State quotes me. I give credit where credit is due. There is not a huge amount due to that side of the House but the Minister of State seems to have a clear commitment in the context of the legislation he brings forward in the House and that is to be commended. In any case, I wish him the best of luck in the general election.

I start by also paying tribute to the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan. His brief is quite a difficult one in the sense that it straddles a number of different Departments — Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Health and Children; and Education and Science. He has focused very well on issues relating to children and has done an excellent job.

I was rather surprised to hear that Ministers of State in Ireland are paid approximately the same salary as Condoleezza Rice. It seems a very generous payment. I had not been aware this was the case. In this instance, I wish the Minister of State well. He can be proud of his contributions to protecting children.

We are all very conscious in this debate of the background of the terrible events in Monageer and the failure to protect two small children who, along with their parents, have lost their lives. I support the Government's proposal to establish an inquiry. It must be a fully independent inquiry and we must learn from what happened. One of the issues that has come up in this tragedy, and in others, is the issue of out-of-hours emergency cover to meet the needs of families in crisis. The HSE has a serious obligation in that regard to provide uniform cover across the country.

We are having this debate because the amendments being put forward by the Minister are outside the Bill and stray very far from the original purpose of the Bill. There has been a tendency on the part of the Government to include matters at a very late stage. The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, has been known to do this. However, the Minister who takes prime place as a serial amender is the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. In this instance, we at least have an opportunity to debate these issues of considerable importance.

Some progress has been made on preschooling and child care provision but it must be ensured that children are at the centre of child care policy. I do not believe this is the case. The drive in the Government has been to get mothers out to work. The cost of housing has also forced them back into the workplace. While I specify mothers, obviously fathers have a very important role to play in child rearing. Families should be able to make their own choices as to how they rear their children. That choice, however, is very limited when economic factors determine the pattern of child care.

My Labour Party colleague, Deputy Wall, told me of a client of his who woke up at 5 o'clock one morning to the sound of singing. She discovered that the family next door were singing "happy birthday" to their three-year old. Dawn was the only chance they could celebrate the child's birthday because by the time they got home from work the child would be in bed. That tells us something about what is happening. We must reconsider the changes to child care. Policy must be shifted to an approach that offers parental choice, extends parental leave, provides flexibility in the workplace, particularly for women, and ensures there are possibilities for many parents.

The Labour Party recognises that preschool education is a very important part of a child's social and personal development. It can ensure the inequity in society is ameliorated and children are given the best possible opportunity to live up to their potential. That is why the Labour Party leader has made the commitment to provide one year of free preschool education to every child, should we be returned to Government.

I note the Minister's amendment on child care facilities relates to VAT. One complaint I receive from child care facility providers concerns commercial rates charged on their premises. It is worth noting that Deputies' constituency offices are exempt from commercial rates. The beneficence of the former Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, ensured this exemption. It seems a bit hard for people to understand why we should benefit and not child care facilities. I would be grateful if this could be clarified by the Minister of State.

Regulations and standards must be set to produce the best possible child care. However, it is rather bizarre that regulations apply to preschools when our primary schools, resourced by the State, have children occupying overcrowded classrooms, often with high pupil-teacher ratios, in substandard accommodation that belongs more to the Third World. Another issue that needs to be taken into account with primary schools is the lack of sport and physical activity facilities. It is bizarre that at a time of such prosperity the notion that a child should not run in the schoolyard persists in many schools. We have only one chance at childhood. It is a great pity the Government has been so disappointing in providing decent facilities for every child, particularly when there is an epidemic of obesity among children which is already causing considerable health risks. This failure to protect children needs to be addressed.

The proposal to provide for scrutiny on child care proceedings that will enable academic research is very valuable. Family law cases can often give insights into undercurrents in society. The experience in court can give us much information about the direction of public policy. I welcome that this can be progressed through the legislation. I have a client, whose marriage has broken up, who looks after his children but is not in good accommodation because the family home is occupied by his wife. He wants to buy a house but cannot do so because he cannot get the case into court that would determine the issues of property and custody. I thought I had helped him in this regard because the case was due in court in February. However, because another case overran, his case was not heard and he is back in limbo. The prime reason for this is a shortage of judges. Children, as well as their parents, in such cases are left in limbo when there is failure to provide speedy court hearings.

The role of the father cannot be diluted, whether he was in a married or unmarried relationship. We must ensure that the bond is reinforced as far as possible and practicable. This was raised by Senator Tuffy when this legislation was debated in the Seanad. I pay tribute to foster parents. Up to 84% of children in care are in foster care. Having children reared in a family setting makes an enormous difference. It protects children in a way that did not happen in the past when they were institutionalised and exploited to horrific degrees in some cases. I welcome the acceptance by the Minister of my amendment regarding people with a bona fide interest in a child. Hilary Rodham Clinton used the phrase, "It takes a village to raise a child." We need to recognise that outside of the parental circle, family and a wider community of people have an input into a child's life. Their concerns can be included when considering the best future for a child.

The Taoiseach made great play at his recent Ard-Fheis when he promised a constitutional referendum on children's rights. I was very impressed and thought he meant it. I was not sure what purpose it would serve but I believed it was a solid commitment. It seems to have disappeared like a will o' the wisp. The All-Party Committee on the Constitution made recommendations on the matter which the Labour Party supports. It will be up to another Government to deal with the issue of children's rights in the Constitution. If the Labour Party is in the next Government, I hope we will receive the same co-operation this Government received in developing a constitutional amendment on children's rights, as it is an important issue. I am not sure Fianna Fáil, in Opposition, has always done the right thing but I am sure with this new breed, we may see that change. I do not have much more to say on this other than to say we will support it.

Is the Deputy presuming the result of the election?

No. I started with the word "if". It was a long paragraph and the Minister of State must have nodded off in the middle of it. I do not blame him for that as I have done the same on occasion.

It was conditional.


A terrible tragedy has just occurred and others will occur unless we change the way we provide protection for children and supports. It is about protecting against abuse and the effects of mental illness. The wider community must have an understanding of those risks and dangers. If anything comes out of this tragedy which leads to a greater understanding of, and more discussion in the public arena about, mental illness, then it will have had some benefit. The undertaker in this case acted correctly. However, that understanding about risk must be developed. We must also be aware of the things which are not true of mental illness because often people's fears are groundless. A much greater awareness in the community and in our schools of mental illness needs to be developed.

We also need to see professionals in place. We cannot rely on gardaí, who are not social workers, to fill the place of social workers. That is not the way forward. Let us remember that the HSE is now a closed system and is not accountable. It does not have the checks and balances which the old health boards had and that places a far greater onus on all of us to ensure the lessons learned are applied.

I welcome the provisions of this legislation and the amendments. Amendment No. 5 which will amend section 29 of the Child Care Act 1991 is very welcome. We require accurate data if we are to deal with the situation. Even in other sectors of the health service, we do not have accurate data. We do not have accurate data in regard to stepdown facilities, as I discovered recently. Therefore, this is very welcome.

I wish to take up some of the points made by previous speakers. It is clear we are living in a very different era in regard to children's matters. The Minister of State and I grew up in an era when we had corporal punishment in our schools. It was widely accepted as a way of reprimanding children. It varied from school to school but it was dished out rather liberally in some of the schools I attended. Some individuals still feel the effects of that. In worst case scenarios, children were sent off to so-called "reformatory schools" in Daingean and beyond and, of course, the State paid a very heavy price, as did the individuals and their families.

We have moved from that era but we are now living in an era of consumerism, materialism and secularism, if one wishes to call it that, which has other consequences for, and effects on, children. I do not know if this Parliament is addressing those pressures in a meaningful way. This is also the era of individualisation where more and more mothers are going out into the workforce and, in many cases, they are being forced into it to help a depleted labour market. I do not know if we have addressed those issues properly. I believe the consequences of all these sudden changes will be felt later on.

We are living in an era where children lead more sedentary lifestyles. Children do not walk or cycle to school and spend time in front of Game Boy or listening to iPods. Will we have to face up to this later on? There is no question but that there is an obesity epidemic. I do not believe we are looking after our children in that regard. These issues are not being properly addressed. Alcohol consumption by parents is not being addressed by this House. There is a 40% increase in consumption. There are effects on children who learn about alcohol consumption from their parents. None of these issues have been properly addressed in our so-called "care for children". We are missing an opportunity. The amendments before the House make sense but there have been many missed opportunities. At some future stage, perhaps in the next Dáil, we should have a major debate on these matters.

I was surprised to note the proposed legislation on people considered unsafe to work with children had been dropped from the legislative programme and I raised the matter with the Taoiseach. As I understand it, the Taoiseach is now saying it will be considered in the context of a referendum. The matter was subsequently raised by Deputy Ó Caoláin. It is strange that such important legislation can fall by the wayside so easily. I would like to hear a proper explanation from the Minister of State with responsibility for children as to why this occurred.

I was a lone objector on the Order of Business——

I heard the Deputy.

——to the allocation of time. That was the sole focus of my disagreement with the provision to address this motion.

I welcome the Minister of State's introduction to this morning's discussion and the detail presented in regard to the effects of all the new amendments now presented. Recalling the Taoiseach's declaration of embarrassment yesterday, I will not add to the Minister of State's embarrassment at all the kudos heaped on him but instead I hope he will accept, in good faith, my point that earlier access to this would have been of great assistance to Members who wish to prepare properly for such a serious and important engagement.

I regret that. I circulated it to those who were at the committee debate. I appreciate it is hard for the Deputy to keep up to date with the various committees.

I am not a member of the committee and it is impossible. However, I am working on it and in the coming weeks, I hope to solve the problem. I believe the Minister of State knows the answer to that.

At the end of the day, this is all about implementation. The key to all of that is resources. I refer briefly to a number of points in the Minister of State's preamble, including the reference to the Central Statistics Office's quarterly national household survey in late 2002 which was published in July 2003. This represents the background information in regard to the proposal to address school age child care and those attending primary school. The figures cited are 67,500 families, of whom 62,600 represent a mother or guardian in employment but only 1,100 in education and a total of 125,000 primary school children receiving non-parental child care in after-school services. Given that the survey is now almost five years old, is there any updated information to give a clearer picture of the current situation?

I welcome the intent to allow for VAT exemption in respect of school-age child care services in line with the exemption that already applies to the pre-school child care services. This undoubtedly will have an echo of welcome throughout the sector.

The Minister of State referred to amendment No. 21 in relation to the provision of services by other than a relative or a sibling and the number of children where such care can be provided exempt from sections 51 to 57 being five children from different families, three of whom may be pre-school children. Will the Minister of State clarify whether in the current situation the number is three? This amendment proposes to extend the number.

That refers to pre-school children, but this proposal refers to after-school care.

I apologise. It is after-school care, but it is a mix of three pre-school children and five children in total. My understanding heretofore — perhaps the Minister of State will clarify whether this is correct — is that this represents a change on the current situation. The Minister of State will appreciate I have only had sight of this detail while sitting in the Chamber. My understanding is that the number had been limited to three. Maybe that does not represent a change, but perhaps the Minister of State will clarify that in his concluding remarks.

I refer to the correctly controlled access for the clear purpose of the preparation of a report on child care proceedings under the Child Care Act 1991, under which strict access rules and direction apply. The purpose and intent of amendment No. 5 is fully understandable under the Child Care Act, the absolute position of no information that would enable an identification of the child or any party to the proceedings being identified. This is an important amendment and I welcome the detail of it.

From a more informed position, given the sharing of all the detail, I see no difficulty with any of the amendments presented. I will continue my positive disposition to the Bill which I signalled from Second Stage.

This is the appropriate opportunity to ask about a recent newspaper article, written by Norah Gibbons, director of advocacy with Barnardos, in which she made a point about children involved in what she described as very difficult and contentious private law cases. This refers to my earlier point about implementation. Section 11 of the Children Act 1997 has not been implemented. She stated that this would allow courts an opportunity to get the views of a child through an independent guardian ad litem. That party would have the qualifications and experience and such a person would be available to all parties and subject to the rigours of the court process. What is the position in relation to section 11? How quickly will that be implemented? When will all the affected legislation with meritorious intent be fully implemented? Will the Minister of State assure the House on the complete and appropriate resourcing and the speed with which this can be done?

I thank Deputies for their broad welcome for this legislation. I trespassed outside the scope of the original Bill but I only trespassed in the same parent Act although I understand the facility had been overdrawn on other occasions and the Ceann Comhairle has now a much stricter regime in place as a result so I can plead that I may have fallen foul of it.

Deputies Twomey and McManus raised the question of the availability of senior social workers over weekends and of inter-agency arrangements where families are facing an emergency. Last summer following discussions between the HSE and my office, a national working group was established to review services and to make recommendations on the provision of an out-of-hours child protection service. This group includes representatives from the HSE, the Garda Síochána and Focus Ireland. It is expected to report soon and put forward a model for consistent and comprehensive out-of-hours service for children and families.

I agree with the tenor of what was said by Deputies Twomey and McManus on this subject with one caveat. Deputy Twomey suggested that the Garda Síochána has no role in this area. I worry when people say a body or an agency has no role. What is needed is an effective model of inter-agency co-operation where everyone understands what their roles are and which is accompanied by available services.

Deputy Twomey was anxious that the inspectors should have bona fide qualifications and I reiterate that the inspectors must be qualified under the relevant legislation. He also referred to the fact that family welfare conferences can be somewhat protracted and this has also been our experience.

I thank Deputy McManus and Deputy Twomey for their kind remarks. Deputy McManus again welcomed the independent inquiry which the Government proposes to establish as a result of the tragedy in County Wexford. She reminded us that we must learn from what has happened. She also raised the matter of emergency cover and I agree with her in that connection.

On the question of maternal leave, substantial progress was made in the lifetime of this Government on the extension of maternity leave. I agree with Deputy McManus that we need to consider not just maternity leave but also paternal leave in general and the option of more flexible working arrangements for parents in the context of rearing children. In the course of my work I visit a great number of crèches and I am glad to observe a decrease in demand for places for very young children under the age of 12 months. The extension of maternity benefit provisions has resulted in a reduction in demand for such places and this is a very welcome development. I have been shown the separate rooms designed to host these very young children and the demand for these places has declined in recent months.

I refer to the constitutional amendment in regard to children. The Government put forward its proposals and the view expressed by Labour and Fine Gael was that more time was needed to digest those proposals and engage in a debate on them. Deputy Howlin extended to the proposals a particularly warm welcome.

We will be obliged to address this matter in the next Dáil. In that context, Deputy Gormley referred to the legislation relating to persons working with children and why this is no longer to be found on the list of proposed legislation. If the amendment is passed, the form of that legislation will be much more radical in scope. That is an issue that will have to be teased out in the referendum discussions between the parties.

Deputy Gormley also stated that, where children are concerned, we live in a different era and Deputy Ó Caoláin stated that implementation is crucial in respect of all these matters. The Children Act 2001 will now come into force in its entirety. I am proud of that fact because when he introduced it, the then Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, stated that it would take seven to eight years to commence its provisions. However, I have managed to commence it during the lifetime of this Government.

The various resources have been put in place. A substantial increase in the allocation for the probation service was announced last week. Funding has been committed to the development of children detention schools, which will be the model for the detention of all offenders up to 18 years of age. St. Patrick's Institution has, therefore, received its final notice to quit. Arrangements have been put in place and the resources are in place to finalise the implementation of the Act. It is important that we proceed with the latter.

On school-age child care and the argument as to whether it should be three or five, three is currently the restriction in respect of those who are in preschool. However, now that we are bringing it into after-school care, the restriction will be three plus two. That will be the exemption from inspection under the relevant regulations that will be drawn up. I will arrange for my Department to supply Deputy Ó Caoláin with the information he requires on school-age child care and the statistical evidence we possess in respect of it. The Deputy is anxious to obtain an update on the 2002 position.

Deputy Ó Caoláin also referred to the mechanism under the 1997 Act, which has never been commenced and which envisaged the provision of guardians ad litem in family law cases. There is a facility under family law legislation to obtain a report from a social worker, and this is commonly done.

I have reservations regarding the commencement of the 1997 legislation. The practicality is that when we do commence it, it will represent yet another addition to the heavy burden of costs which couples and those who appear before the matrimonial courts are obliged to pay as part of the resolution of their disputes. That provision would, as Deputy Ó Caoláin pointed out, apply to private law proceedings in which the custody of a child was an issue and would provide that child with a separate voice in that regard. The court must be a separate voice for the child. I am not arguing against the principle in its entirety but we must be extremely careful not to inflate the costs incurred by those who appear before the matrimonial courts. I do not know whether other Deputies have experience of this matter but I am aware, from my constituency work, that high fees are quoted for people who appear to participate in cases where, for example, only custody is an issue. Extraordinary fees running to tens of thousands of euro are being charged. If guardians ad litem are inserted into the equation, the costs will increase.

I am not arguing against the principle of Deputy Ó Caoláin's suggestion, I am merely stating that we must be careful in terms of how we implement it. In that context, there are specific amendments in the Bill to provide for the regulation of guardians ad litem by the children’s services advisory board. This is a useful development because at present there is no basic statutory provision stating that one may regulate guardians ad litem, which is unsatisfactory. We have provided for representation from the Courts Service on this board in order that better protocols relating to the use of the guardian ad litem service can be developed. It is a well-established feature of, and must necessarily be present in, all child care cases. What Deputy Ó Caoláin touched upon, however, was its extension to the entire matrimonial area, which would have major implications. We did, as he pointed out, make provision in respect of it in 1997.

I have dealt with most of the issues raised and I thank the House for its attention.

Question put and agreed to.