Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 13 Feb 2013

Vol. 792 No. 2

Priority Questions

Early Years Strategy Publication

Robert Troy


1. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs when she will publish the early years strategy; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7478/13]

My Department is developing a new children and young people's policy framework which will set out high level goals for both my own and other Departments for the next five years. The policy framework is expected to be published in mid-2013 and will build on Our Children - Their Lives, Ireland's first children's strategy which was published in 2000. This is relevant to the early years strategy, as the strategy is one of three, more detailed strategies which will be developed under the framework.

The early years strategy which will be Ireland's first ever national strategy focused on the early years is under development. It is expected to be completed and published later this year. It is expected that it will cover a range of issues affecting children in their first years of life such as child health and well-being, parenting and family support, learning and development, play and recreation and early childhood care and education. The strategy will further recognise and highlight the economic imperative and benefits accruing from targeted investment in interventions in the early years. While we previously relied on American research, we now have our own Irish research, as well as international research which highlight the benefits of investment in children in their early years.

Some of the key issues to be addressed in the strategy include the further development of early childhood care and education programmes; the need to enhance quality provision, curricular support and workforce capacity in the early years services. The question of training standards and support for those working in early childhood care and education has been highlighted by the working group. The strategy will also address the support and regulation of the childminding sector. The Deputy has tabled a question on this subject. The strategy will also examine the future development of early intervention, therapeutic and family support services to support young children and their parents.

We will bring together the research I have mentioned such as the research conducted for the study of growing up in Ireland. The strategy will also be informed by the evaluations from the prevention and early intervention projects, PEIP. We have funded this research and the results are available for the three Dublin areas of Ballymun, Darndale and Tallaght.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The major programme of institutional change under way, including the establishment of the child and family support agency, will also be taken into account. The results of a public consultation, undertaken as part of the development of the children and young people policy framework, are being analysed and will inform both the framework and the early years strategy.

I have appointed an expert advisory group, chaired by Dr. Eilis Hennessy, head of the school of psychology at UCD, to advise on the preparation of the strategy. The group comprises external experts from a range of specialties, including paediatrics, early childhood care and education, child protection and public health nursing, and is continuing to meet on a regular basis. I have met the expert advisory group on a number of occasions, most recently on 21 January, and I am very satisfied with the progress being made in developing Ireland's first early years strategy.

Fianna Fáil welcomes and supports the establishment of the expert advisory group and the Minister's commitment to develop a national early years strategy which is the first of its kind. The strategy should support families bringing up children, identify the services they require and cover all aspects of children's experience such as health, education, family support and care. I refer to the delay in publication of the strategy. On 25 January 2012 the Minister announced that her Department would develop an early years strategy. On 6 March 2012 the strategy was approved by the Government and the Minister announced that it would be completed by the end of 2012. On 21 April 2012 the details of the expert group were announced and on 18 June the Minister hosted the first meeting of the group. Last December, when the strategy should have been published, the Minister said she expected it to be completed in the first half of 2013. There seems to be a theme to the Minister's ministry; she is fond of announcing but not good at following through. The child and family support agency was announced last year, but we are still waiting for the legislation. The legislation dealing with Children First was announced last year, but we are still waiting for it. What is the reason for the delay? Will the strategy be published in the first or second half of the year? Will the Minister comment on reports that there is deep discontent in the expert advisory group about its level of input into the strategy? How many meetings have been held by the group since its initial meeting in June last year? Will it submit a document to the Department prior to the formal publication of the strategy?

I am very pleased to say a great deal of work has been done by the expert group I appointed and which is chaired by Dr. Eilis Hennessy, the head of the school of psychology at UCD. I reject absolutely the Deputy's remarks about implementation. This is the first strategy of its kind and we have had a series of meetings to examine very important issues. I am very pleased to say the members of the group are working in a voluntary capacity and can confirm that a report will be published this year. I am very grateful to the members of the group for their work. I had a meeting with the group on 21 January to see a presentation on parenting programmes which are very important. Funding has been provided for a range of groups around the country which are carrying out very valuable work in providing parenting supports and courses. However, we need a national policy. It is clear that in the areas for which I have responsibility very often there has not been a national policy. This is the first ever national early years strategy and the work involved is ongoing. Future meetings are planned. I believe the group is quite satisfied with its input into the strategy. A number of formal presentations have been made and early meetings held. The group will be giving consideration to publication of its report and ensuring its priorities are reflected. It will be a most useful report and I envisage it will be published in the first half of the year.

I too compliment the group. I am pleased to note its members are working in a voluntary capacity. Will the Minister categorically refute the claim that there is discontent within the group? Will she confirm that the views of its members are being considered and that a document will be submitted to her Department and considered? Does she blame me for being sceptical? At the outset she stated the report would be published by the end of 2012. We are now in February 2013 and today she is unable to give a definitive timeframe for publication of the report. I ask her to correct this in the House today.

I established and selected such an expert group which represents a wide area. It includes people from local family resource centres, Barnardos, the DIT, child care committees and Childminding Ireland. I brought the group together in order to hear and take note of their expert views and experiences. The views of its members will certainly be taken on board. The reason for having an expert group on childhood early years is to hear its views on what should be our policy in this regard. The work has been broader than what was envisaged at the beginning of the process. I am very satisfied that the group is working very hard on the report, as are my own departmental staff, and the work is progressing satisfactorily. The input of the expert group will be part and parcel of the report to be published. This will be the first ever early years strategy.

Child and Family Agency Establishment

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin


2. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs when she expects to publish the facilitating legislation for the establishment of the child and family support agency; the anticipated date on which the child and family support agency will be established; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7444/13]

I am firmly committed to the transformation of Ireland’s child and family services and, in this context, the establishment as a priority of the new child and family support agency. The agency, on its establishment, will assume full statutory responsibility for a range of child and family services currently provided by three separate agencies, namely, the HSE, the Family Support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board.

Last July I published the report of the task force on the establishment of the child and family support agency. Following consideration of the task force’s detailed recommendations, in November the Government approved the general scheme and heads of the Child and Family Support Agency Bill. Drafting of the legislation necessary to establish the agency in line with the general scheme is at an advanced stage. This will be very comprehensive legislation, providing as it does for subsuming functions from three separate agencies and assigning very onerous responsibilities relating to the care and protection of children and the promotion of their welfare. Subject to finalisation and approval by the Government, it is my intention to present the legislation to the Oireachtas during the current term.

I thank the Deputy for his support in respect of the establishment of the new agency. A precise date in respect of its establishment will be set when consideration of the legislation by the Oireachtas has advanced. While the legislative process is under way, all necessary organisational preparations will continue in parallel. It is important not to underestimate the scale of the work which must be done in terms of setting up the agency or the level of change that will be involved. We want a carefully planned approach to be adopted in respect of such large-scale change within this crucial area of the public service.

When established, the agency will constitute one of the largest public bodies in the State and will have a staff of over 4,000 and a budget of over €550 million. This is one of the largest and most ambitious public sector reform projects being undertaken by the Government. A number of significant milestones have already been achieved. These include the separation of children and family services within the HSE from other health and personal social services and a national change programme. In addition, an industrial relations, IR, process is under way and I thank those involved with this because they have resolved many of the issues which have inevitably arisen along the way. Furthermore, the development of dedicated children and families responsibility and accountability at area, regional and national management team levels is ongoing. Much of what will be reflected in the legislation has already been done and many of the systems that will have to be put in place either have been or are currently being developed. A team is working on these matters at present. I will certainly provide the Deputy with further details on the other aspects of the work which have been progressed.

The content of the Minister's reply has not changed very much since the previous occasion on which we addressed this issue. She is quite correct in stating that I remain fully supportive of the new agency. I look forward to it commencing operations. However, as she indicated in the previous reply she gave last July, almost eight months ago, the purpose of the task force's report was to inform the preparation of legislation in respect of all the areas to which she referred. These include bringing together the roles played by three separate agencies, namely, the HSE, the Family Support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board, under a single entity, which is a huge undertaking.

We are halfway through February and the Minister indicated that the Bill will be forthcoming during the current term. Does this mean it will be published prior to Easter? It is extremely important that we should have sight of the legislation. Many of the stakeholders involved are continually inquiring with Deputies as to the exact position and there is huge concern among them as to the future of the various component parts that are going to be brought together under one agency. Would it be possible for the Minister to publish the heads of the child and family support agency Bill? She indicated that the Cabinet has agreed the heads and that the preparation and publication of the legislation is to be prioritised. Will she publish the heads of the Bill? The previous Government committed to doing so during the years when Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach. Publishing the heads would be of assistance.

Will the Minister address the position with regard to the board of the new agency, particularly in light of the continuing concerns of the 106 family resource centres, FRCs, throughout the country and the Family Resource Centre National Forum's current representation in the context of the Family Support Agency? Is she in a position to provide an assurance that the entities to which I refer will continue to be represented on the board of the child and family support agency when it is established?

There is a huge amount of work being done in respect of the finalisation of the legislation. In view of the fact that we are close to completion, I am of the view that it would be preferable to publish the legislation in full. I appreciate the response of the staff involved to date. Last month we issued personal letters to almost 4,000 staff informing them of the plans to establish the new agency. It is intended that their employment will transfer upon establishment. A communication and information exercise is taking place in respect of all of the staff who will be involved with the new agency. I appreciate that they want the agency to be formally established through legislation. We are doing everything possible to ensure that the legislation will be brought before the House as soon as possible.

The Deputy will appreciate the scale of both the legislation and the work involved. As outlined, this is one of the largest public sector reform projects with which the Government is engaged. There is a need to get matters right. For example, we must ensure that the necessary financial systems will be ready and available to allow the agency to do its work. This is just one of a number of elements involved. Quite an amount of work has already been done. The senior management team has been recruited and negotiations with staff and unions are ongoing. The reform project in this area is being driven forward strongly by the CEO of the child and family support agency. A number or areas, including the reform of residential care, are being considered in this regard. There will be a need for national campaigns on a number of issues. In addition, reform is taking place in respect of data management. The latter was a major issue in the past, particularly as it was not possible to obtain consistent data. All of the background work is being done in respect of this matter, which is an absolute priority within my Department. As already highlighted, the scale of the work involved is very large. However, that work is being done and I hope the legislation will be brought before the House this term.

If any further delay were to occur, I would be obliged to resubmit to the Minister my plea to the effect that the heads of the Bill should be published. I do not believe that doing so would in any way inhibit progress relating to the preparation of the legislation. It is my view that publishing the heads of Bills is good practice in all instances. I argued the matter with the previous Administration which, in principle at least, acceded to my request in terms of publication.

In the context of my question regarding the board of the new child and family support agency, the Minister did not refer to the position of the FRCs or the Family Resource Centre National Forum's representation within the current structure. Is she in a position to provide any certainty with regard to whether this important strata of service and support for families and children throughout the country at present will continue to be represented? There are four very fine FRCs in my constituency for which I have the highest regard and which I support. I will actually be visiting one of the centres - that which is located in Clones - on Monday next for its open day. Is the Minister in a position to provide an assurance that, in the context of the new arrangements, the existing level of board representation will continue and that the ethos and culture of FRCs and the programme of work they have already adopted will be maintained?

From the beginning of our discussions in respect of the establishment of the new agency, I made it clear that I consider the provision of family support to be an absolutely critical part of the new agency's work. Equally, it is clear that child protection is a priority. In order to ensure that child protection systems operate effectively, the efforts of the family resource centres and others who work in providing support to families and children throughout the country will continue to be required. Expertise in this area will certainly be reflected in the composition of the new board. Gordon Jeyes and I are absolutely committed to ensuring that the ethos relating to family support will continue to be a key aspect of the new agency's work. If one wants child protection to operate effectively, then the necessary family support services must be in place. I will ensure that the board of the new agency will have available to it the necessary expertise relating to family support.

We have expertise in family support services that will continue to influence, but at ministerial and management level there is a clear understanding that the ethos of resource centres and family support services will be reflected in the management structure of the new agency and at board level. It will extend to having managers with responsibility for family support services throughout the country.

Adoption Legislation

Joan Collins


3. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs further to Parliamentary Question No. 90 of 15 May 2012, when she reported that work was under way preparing a proposed adoption (information and tracing) Bill and that the Bill was part of the legislative programme for 2012, which she intended to bring forward during 2012, if she will state the reason the Bill was not brought forward during 2012; and the progress made during the nine months since May 2012. [7571/13]

Work is continuing in the preparation of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill which will provide for a structured and regulated approach to providing access to adoption information and facililtate contact for those affected by adoption, including in circumstances where an adoption order was not effected. It is intended that the Bill will provide for the Adoption Authority to have access to all adoption records. The Bill will provide for a national index of adoption records to be maintained by the Adoption Authority containing information on the whereabouts of all known adoption records located within the State. Currently, they are located in many settings. It is envisaged that only the Adoption Authority, the Health Service Executive and accredited bodies will hold adoption records and that the Adoption Authority will have overall charge of these records. Much concern has been expressed that the records are held in many places. The Bill will ensure they are gathered together.

It is also intended that the Bill will provide for placing the National Contact Preference Register which is on a voluntary basis on a statutory basis. The purpose of the register is to allow persons affected by adoption to register their names with a view to receiving information on a person from whom they have been separated as a result of adoption and will allow for the registering of a preference as to whether they want to have contact with that person.

A national tracing service will be established, the operation of which will be subject to guidelines which will be set out in regulations. It is intended that the tracing service will be made available to adopted persons, birth parents and relatives, with the Adoption Authority having overarching responsibility for the service.

It is intended that prior to the release of adoption information, counselling will be offered by the Adoption Authority, the HSE or an accredited body to an adopted person, a birth parent or an adoptive parent if, in the opinion of the Adoption Authority, the HSE or an accredited body, such counselling would be beneficial in the circumstances or if such counselling is requested by the applicant seeking adoption information.

Consideration of the legal and policy issues involved is ongoing and once these have been satisfactorily resolved, I intend to seek Government approval to publish the heads of the Bill. It is my intention to bring the Bill before the Houses of the Oireachtas in 2013.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Complex issues have arisen during the course of preparation of the Bill, including the criteria for balancing an adopted person's right to information on his or her identity against a birth parent's right to privacy. My view is that persons affected by adoption should be provided with as much information as possible within permissible constitutional boundaries.

As other Deputies mentioned, the question arises about the length of time it is taking for these issues to be processed. We tabled a question in May 2012, the reply to which indicated that the work was under way and that the heads of the Bill would be published in 2012, but nine months later we are still waiting for the Bill to be brought forward. I do not know whether the Minister saw the report in the newspapers on 13 January on people's testimonies, including on the experiences of Phil Lynott's mother and others in trying to trace their parents. This is not good enough. Since 1975 people in Britain have had access to their birth certificates, yet 40 years on people here are still waiting for that opportunity, about which they are very stressed. Their parents are getting older and they want to find them. Unfortunately, in some cases, they have passed on. I hope the heads of the Bill will be introduced in this term.

I take the point the Deputy is making. This issue has been ignored for decades, but I am determined to put an end to this. My view continues to be that an adopted person over the age of 18 years should have an unrestricted right to attain a copy of his or her birth certificate and that an adopted person under 18 years should have a qualified right, perhaps subject to the consent of his or her adoptive parents. However, unlike in the United Kingdom, serious constitutional issues arise. There is strong advice from a previous Attorney General that because of the constitutional position of the family, in respect of open access to birth certificates for adopted persons, constitutional difficulties arise. What I want to do and what I am discussing with the Attorney General is to bring forward legislation that will give scope to adopted persons to track their records and have access to as much of the information as possible, but I will be limited in what I can do by constitutional constraints. The current Attorney General has been examining these issues also and advises me on these constitutional limitations. We are in a different situation from that in the North of Ireland or elsewhere in the United Kingdom, which we must keep in mind. I want to bring forward legislation as strong as I possibly can make it, but the judgment in a Supreme Court case in the 1980s made it very clear that the mother's right to privacy would have to be balanced against the adopted person's right to know.

Obviously, the constitutional issue has to be addressed, but the National Adoption Contact Preference Register is available-----

-----to try to put the framework in place for those persons who do not want their information to be given out. However, it is important that individuals should have access to their parental history, including their medical history and so on. There should not be a delay in bringing forward the general legislation the Minister wants to introduce; it should be brought forward quickly. Does she envisage that because of the constitutional problems the issue could continue for longer or less robust legislation may be brought forward this year?

It is my intention that the legislation will be brought forward this year. I do not have any doubt about this, but I am alerting the Deputy to the constitutional difficulties inherent in producing the legislation. Obviously, I will bring forward the strongest possible legislation, but there are clear constitutional constraints. Having access to medical records is critical, but whether this can be provided for, within the confines of the Constitution, remains to be seen. It is extremely difficult, given the constitutional position on the family, to have the open access to information the Deputy desires and to which adoptive persons ought to have access. It is a complex issue, but work is being done on the legislation which I will bring to the House. Last week I met a number of people who, unfortunately, had been the victims of illegal registrations. That is another serious issue we must address.

Early Years Strategy Publication

Robert Troy


4. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to update the regulation of child care and childminding; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7479/13]

Work on the development of the early years strategy is under way and the approach I am taking has received Government approval. I want an innovative and dynamic blueprint for the development of Ireland’s early years sector and a coherent approach to seeking to do the very best for children and young people. A broad range of issues is being examined by the early years group. I want to see very high standards in the early years sector, as I am sure the Deputy does, both in terms of care and the curriculum. The issue of quality provision is one with which the group is concerned.

One of the specific issues of policy I have identified for consideration in the preparation of the new strategy is the future role and regulation of the childminding sector, already an important component of early childhood care and education. Pre-school services are subject to the Child Care (Pre-School Services) (No.2) Regulations 2006, as provided for under the Child Care Act 1991. Services providing care for children who have not yet commenced primary school are required to notify the pre-school inspectorate. The services covered include full-time, part-time and sessional services, as well as childminders who are taking care of more than three pre-school children from different families in the childminder’s home.

There are a number of ways of supporting childminders. The national guidelines for childminders, compiled by the national childcare co-ordinating committee, are very helpful for childminders who seek support. In 2011 over 1,200 services were notified voluntarily and work to encourage voluntary notification and the active involvement of childminders in training and information activities continues. The take-up represents only a very small proportion of the number of childminders in the country. Therefore, further work is to be done.

The child care regulations set the minimum standards with which services are legally required to comply. The issue of childminding will be examined by the early years group and I look forward to hearing its recommendations. Last year I restored the grant of €1,000 for childminders which had been cut in 2011. It is a question of quality provision by the childminder. The grant was helpful and to enable the childminder to invest in materials, for example, and enhance the activity of children in his or her care. It will be available in 2013 also.

Some 50,000 children are cared for by childminders every day. The Minister alluded to the fact that the vast majority of the childminders are exempt from regulation and operate without any supervision or support. It is unacceptable that most childminders are exempt from inspection, child protection legislation and Garda vetting. Will the Minister commit to amending the Child Care Act 1991 to ensure that all paid childminders will be subject to regulation and inspection? We are still waiting to see in the Oireachtas the Children First legislation, whose heads were published in the middle of last year. Can the Minister give us a commitment that it will include all paid childminders? Could she state definitively when this important Bill will be dealt with in the Oireachtas?

Childminders were not included in the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill, whose heads, incidentally, were published at the same time as those of the Children First legislation. It has passed through the Houses. One wonders why it was prioritised over the Children First Bill. Are childminders to be excluded from the Children First legislation? Will the Minister consider making the regulatory requirements for childminders the equivalent of those for centre-based services while reflecting that most childminders are self-employed?

It is not correct to state there has been no support for childminders. Clearly, a decision was taken to exempt childminders who are looking after fewer than three children. I take it from the Deputy's question that he and his party support the regulation of childminders and babysitters. Very different views have been expressed on this by parents. Many parents want to make their own decisions on whether they want a particular individual minding their child. There are many different views on the question of State intervention in the decision by parents. It is a question of what is in the best interest of the child. I want to see the best supports possible put in place for childminders.

The question of the type of regulation that is most suitable is one that requires serious consideration. Some countries have opted for very heavy regulation in this area while others have opted for none at all. In Ireland, we have encouraged childminders to register voluntarily. We have given them tax relief on earnings and have set up supports for them in the form of the local child care committees. It is interesting that only 1,200 have registered. This is an area on which we need to focus more to ensure women minding children in their homes feel supported, if they are seeking support, and have expertise available to them. Parents will become increasingly interested in more regulation in this area given some of the recent incidents about which we have heard, although not so much in Ireland. Clearly, this is an area of concern. We must strike a balance in the regulation and this is why I have asked the early-years group to examine the matter. I include Childminding Ireland, with which I have had much contact.

The point raised by the Deputy is certainly one we need to examine. We will need to examine carefully the precise form of regulation and its depth. Many parents have expressed the view that they do not want to see heavy regulation as they believe regulation should be left to parents themselves. We will examine the matter. The early-years group is doing so and I look forward to seeing the recommendations it brings forward. I take it that the Deputy is proposing regulation of the entire sector.

The Minister is trying to put words in my mouth. The type of regulation is key and we need to debate it. When we have a debate, I will make my party's position thereon known. I am not talking about increased State intervention, as the Minister knows, but about the fact that 50,000 children are minded by childminders who are not subject to child protection legislation or Garda vetting. The vetting legislation passed through the House last year and childminders were exempt from it. I asked the Minister quite clearly why this was the case. I asked her whether she will commit to amending the Child Care Act 1991 and to ensuring that childminders will be included in the Children First legislation to guarantee that childminders, be they minding one, two or three children, will be fit to practise, vetted by the Garda and adhere to the highest standards of child protection legislation.

There is a key question to be considered. As the Deputy stated, it is a question of the type of regulation. Nobody in the country is exempt from reporting under the Children First guidelines. Childminders, given the work they do, have a serious obligation to report concerns in regard to child protection. If a parent has concerns about the childminder, the Children First guidelines clearly apply, irrespective of whether they are on a statutory basis. The Deputy's point begs the question as to whether every childminder in the country should be subject to vetting. This is part of what needs to be examined. The Deputy is proposing that every childminder should be subject to vetting. As I stated, I have asked the early-years group to examine this to determine whether it is the best way forward.

I absolutely agree that the central point concerns the protection of children. To date, families and parents have been making the decision privately as to who should mind their child. The question of the State's role in the vetting of the childminder is one that has not been on the table to date. It has not been examined over the past 12 years. However, I have asked the early-years group to examine the matter and report to me on what it believes appropriate regulation to be. Some argue that light-touch regulation is required because families are making decisions on who should mind their child and they believe the State should not be interfering unduly. This is certainly an area that requires examination. Of course, child protection issues are central and must be so.

It is a case of what type of regulation, if any, should apply. The question of vetting is one for the group to examine. It will revert to me with some recommendations and I will be happy to discuss the issue on the floor of the House when it does so.

Adoption Legislation

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin


5. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs when she intends publishing the adoption (amendment) Bill to give legislative effect to the changes promised in the children's rights constitutional amendment passed by referendum last November; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7445/13]

The general scheme and heads of the proposed adoption (amendment) Bill were published in September 2012 in conjunction with the referendum proposal to inform the public of proposed changes to adoption law envisaged if the constitutional amendment was approved.

The Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children was established in 2007 to examine the proposals to introduce a constitutional amendment on children and to make recommendations, as appropriate.

The final report of that committee recommended, with regard to adoption, that legislation should be introduced to provide for the adoption of any child, whether from a marital or non-marital family, where the parents of that child have failed in their responsibility to that child for such a period of time as may be prescribed by law, and where adoption is considered to be in the best interests of the child. The report also recommended that provision be made by law for voluntary placement for adoption and the adoption of any child.

The adoption (amendment) Bill 2013 proposes to make important changes to adoption law to provide the option of adoption for a child who has been placed in long-term foster care. The provisions of the proposed Bill will amend the Adoption Act 2010 to provide for the non-voluntary adoption of a child where his or her parents have failed in their duty towards that child. The draft Bill will change the criteria, applicable under section 54 of the 2010 Act, under which the High Court may authorise the making of an adoption order without parental consent in the case of a child who is in the care of prospective adopters and where that child’s parents have failed in their parental duty to the child. The proposed legislation is not intended to provide that a child who has contact with and a strong beneficial relationship with his or her birth parents and wider family may be adopted, unless that child's parents have voluntarily placed the child for adoption and have consented to the adoption order being made in respect of the child.

It is my intention to bring the adoption (amendment) Bill before the Houses of the Oireachtas as soon as possible following the conclusion of all proceedings and processes relevant to the referendum. In addition to the provisions included in the draft Bill, my Department is separately examining further possible changes to the Adoption Act 2010.

It is over three months since the electorate passed the children's referendum, on 10 November last. I would have hoped that by now we would have seen the publication of the necessary amending legislation to give effect to the wishes of the people in the new Article 42A.2.2°, which requires the State to put laws in place allowing for the adoption of any child, regardless of whether the parents are married to each other, where the conditions are clear and specified that the parents have failed in their duty towards the child for a period of time and where the best interests of the child require that adoption take place. That period of time is as yet unspecified. It is to be specified in law, so will the Minister clarify what is being considered in that respect? Article 42A.3 requires that laws must be passed to allow for any child to be adopted by being voluntarily placed for adoption by the parent or parents. These are important changes which the electorate supported and passed by a substantial majority last November. It is critical that this legislation is equally prioritised and fast-tracked, like the legislation I discussed earlier relating to the child and family support agency. Will the Minister give a more precise indication of how long she expects the continued preparatory work to take? That might be helpful.

The Minister indicated that consideration is being given to other areas which have not been clear heretofore. In fact, I highlighted to the Minister prior to the referendum some aspects of concern in adoption law that were not being provided for in the proposals put to the electorate in the constitutional amendment. Could she elaborate on what she is referring to and whether there is any linkage with the adoption (tracing and information) Bill which Deputy Joan Collins highlighted? Is there a link between what was proposed or planned in that regard and the current consideration of the proposed adoption (amendment) Bill?

I published this legislation last year. I considered it important that the public be aware, in advance of the referendum, of the changes we would be introducing in respect of adoption. The Deputy asked about the period of time. Under the draft Bill, children will have to be at least 18 months in the care of those who apply to adopt them. Parents will have to have failed in their duty towards the child for three years and have no reasonable prospect of resuming care of the child. I will remain true in the legislation to the provisional legislation I published before the referendum. I made it clear at the time that we would hold faith with the electorate and the legislation that was published, and that is what we will bring to the House. However, we might take the opportunity of the introduction of an adoption Bill to the House to deal with some issues that must be dealt with at present - for example, with regard to declarations. Following the signing of the Hague Convention, inter-country adoption has become much more complex in this country, given the need to have bilateral arrangements with countries that have not signed the convention. This has led to a very difficult situation for couples who wish to adopt, particularly from Russia, Ethiopia and a number of other countries. Ireland is one of the few countries that have such strict adoption legislation. Our legislation provides that there has to be a bilateral agreement with countries that have not signed the Hague Convention. Some other countries did not go down that route, but we did. It means we are left in a situation in which we have had to negotiate some very difficult bilateral agreements if adoptions are to continue, particularly from the countries I mentioned. If there are some issues I can deal with in this legislation, such as the one relating to declaration, I will take that opportunity. The declarations of couples will run out later this year, but because of the signing of the Hague Convention and the subsequent delays, the adoptions that those couples might have envisaged taking place have not taken place. We must address the issue of the timeframe of the declarations and I might take the opportunity of this legislation to do that when the proceedings are complete and it is brought before the House.

There is no connection to the legislation Deputy Joan Collins mentioned. That is separate legislation to provide for the tracing service.

The provisional legislation published prior to the referendum was very straightforward. It was within the confines of what I once again put on the record of the House in my first question. Why we cannot proceed to address that three months later concerns me. Regarding the other matters the Minister is hoping to address in tandem with this legislation, what further delay will that cause in allowing the Houses of the Oireachtas to give effect to the views of the electorate as expressed on 10 November last? I would be disappointed, rather than concerned, if there were any further delay in giving effect to what was a historic decision and one that all opinion in this House fully and fulsomely supported.

The Deputy knows my commitment to the issues raised in the referendum and the importance of this adoption legislation. As soon as all the proceedings and processes relevant to the referendum are completed, I will bring the legislation to the House as quickly as possible. Clearly, my Department has a number of significant reforms under way and there is a heavy workload relating to legislation, including the referendum last year, the establishment of the new agency and the legislation we have been discussing. I emphasise that a huge amount of work has been completed on this legislation.