Children (Amendment) Bill 2015 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil]: Report and Final Stages

This is a Seanad Bill which has been amended by the Dáil. In accordance with Standing Order 118, it is deemed to have passed its First, Second and Third Stages in the Seanad and placed on the Order Paper for Report Stage. On the question, "That the Bill be received for final consideration," the Minister may explain the purpose of the amendments made by the Dáil. This is looked upon as the report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. For Senators' convenience, I have arranged for the printing and circulation of the amendments. I have also circulated the proposed groupings of amendments. The Minister will deal separately with the subject matter of each related group of amendments. A Senator may contribute only once on each grouping. I remind Senators that the only matters which may be discussed are the amendments made by the Dáil.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be received for final consideration."

I call on the Minister to speak on the subject matter of the first group of amendments.

Amendment No. 1 proposes to substitute the words "what other" for "whether another" in the proposed new section 88A(2) of the Children Act, as contained in section 6 of the Bill. The purpose of section 88A is to introduce a new power to transfer children between remand centres, where the remand centre to which the child is being transferred caters for that class of child or where the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs considers that the transfer is necessary in the interests of the good governance of remand centres.

Section 88A(2), as drafted, requires the Minister to consult the director or board of management of both remand centres involved in the proposed transfer "so as to ascertain whether the transfer would be in the child's best interests, or if the transfer would not be in the child's best interests, whether another course of action should be adopted in respect of the child". The use of the words "whether another" was intended to lead to consideration of other options for the child, in a situation where the proposed transfer would not be in the child's best interests. I am advised that if a transfer is not approved by the Minister, other courses of action would be considered depending on the individual circumstances.

In the course of considering draft opposition amendments on the Bill at Committee stage in Dáil Éireann, I raised the issue of the substitution of "what other" for "whether another" in the proposed new section 88A(2) with the Office of the Attorney General. I was advised that the inclusion of the phrase "what other", which has the effect of narrowing the Minister's position to deciding what other course of action should be adopted if the transfer would not be in the best interests of the child, rather than "whether another" would be appropriate in this case. This is the basis on which I bring forward amendment No. 1.

As there is nobody offering on that issue, I ask the Minister to proceed and speak on the subject matter of the amendments in group 2.

Amendment No. 2 proposes to insert the words "in language that is appropriate to the age and level of understanding of the child" into section 143(2) of the Act.

Section 143(2) already provides that where a court proposes to impose a period of detention on a child, it shall give its reasons for doing so in open court. It should be noted that the amendment proposed to section 143 is in Part 9 of the Children Act providing for the powers of courts in relation to child offenders. Part 9 of the Children Act falls within the remit of the Minister for Justice and Equality. We have close co-operation on criminal justice matters relating to children.

I have consulted the Minister for Justice and Equality on the proposed amendment to provide that where a court imposes a period of detention on a child, it shall give its reasons for doing so in open court in language that is appropriate to the age and level of understanding of the child. It is important that where a lengthy period of detention is imposed on a child, the child fully understands the reasons for it.

The amendment to section 143 will provide safeguards in terms of the reasons being stated in open court in age-appropriate language in the case of all children appearing before a court who have a period of detention imposed upon them by a court. This amendment will ensure consistency with the amendments that have previously been adopted in this House and in Dáil Éireann on section 149 of the Children Act 2001, as contained in section 9 of the Bill.

I welcome the Minister and his officials and commend them for bringing these amendments that ensure clarity. That is the benefit of a Bill going through both Houses and being returned here for consideration. I fully support the amendment.

I call the Minister to speak on the amendments in group 3.

Amendment No. 3 which I proposed will provide for an amendment to section 201A(7) of the Bill. The amendment proposed relates to an important issue regarding an explanation to the child of the processes and procedures to be followed where there is an adverse finding of a disciplinary breach only without the imposition of a sanction. The amendment will provide that the director will inform the child of the provisions relating to a petition to the Minister where a finding of a disciplinary breach has been made regardless of whether a sanction is imposed. It will also provide that the director will inform the child of the appeal procedure to an appeal tribunal where a sanction of forfeiture of remission is made.

I support this amendment and all of the amendments tabled. The group 2 amendments came out of the debate in the Seanad on the Bill. The Minister is making the Bill consistent and I thank him once again for accepting my amendment in the Seanad.

I wholeheartedly support the Bill. The amalgamation of the three detention schools on the Oberstown site into one legal entity is essential for the success of the child detention system. I look forward to the publication of the prison Bill which will facilitate the complete closure of St. Patrick's Institution.

On the amendment, ending the detention of children in the adult prison system in Ireland is a most significant improvement, albeit long overdue, in the promotion and protection of children's rights in Ireland. However, the change of policy whereby those aged 16 and 17 years are being remanded and committed to the new facility will not be without its challenges. In fact, they are pre-empted in numerous places in the St. Patrick's Institution visiting committee report for 2014.

The reality is that the new cohort, particularly those aged 17 years, are physically bigger, present with more challenging behaviour and are detained on more serious charges. It would be useful if we tracked trends and changes in the profile of offences children are being placed on remand and committed for detention. I understand the changing dynamic between staff and the younger children in the units because of this increase in the age cohort whereby they cannot be seen to be complying with or buying into the programme. I refer to the influence of the 17 year old on the younger child and they are from the same area. There are issues in that regard of which we need to be mindful. I believe we need a risk assessment, with specific and ongoing training for staff to deal with these new challenges. I am using the opportunity presented by the amendment to reiterate my concerns. What the Minister is doing is excellent, but I advise him to ask for a risk assessment on this new challenge.

Question put and agreed to.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I compliment the Minister on bringing the Bill forward. My party was concerned about children who were on remand but not convicted mixing with other children who had been convicted and that an effort be made to try to separate them in Oberstown. I look forward to the visit to Oberstown. Perhaps it has happened already.

I was not told of it. It was kind of them to notify me that it was happening. I was not invited on the trip to Oberstown.

I invited the Senator's party colleagues on the committee.

Senator Terry Leyden might be deviating slightly.

I am the Fianna Fáil spokesman on children. That would not stop the Minister and I visiting there together.

The Joint Committee on Health and Children visited the Oberstown site and all parties were represented.

I commend the Minister for the Bill. It is a heavy burden to carry that we need this detention facility because it means we have failed children in so many ways, but the reality is we need it. What the Minister is doing in creating the one site is important. We need to ensure the policy of detention as a last resort goes through, but I have faith in the Minister.

As I stated, I have concerns about the age cohort and the need to look at the impact. We all need to be open about this. That is where we have failed children in every other aspect where they end up in Oberstown. These are the most challenging and most difficult cases that any of us would face individually but while it is welcome to have them all together on the one campus, we need to be mindful of the challenges that will present. As legislators, we need to be ready to deal with these challenges and the policy issues.

I join my colleagues in complimenting the Minister on successfully steering this legislation through the Houses of the Oireachtas.

It is a difficult topic. The Bill is designed in the best interests of children. It is unfortunate that we must resort to detaining children, but that is a reality. Thankfully, we will have it at one location. I can see the challenges and difficulties highlighted by Senator Jillian van Turnhout. These are something of which we must be conscious. From our own communities we will all be aware of children in the 16 and 17 year age group with serious challenging behaviour. I certainly have concerns for younger children in detention. We must strive to ensure it is as a last resort that any child is in detention. Much child-centred legislation has been brought through these Houses since the formation of the Government four and a half years ago.

Earlier today we passed a very significant Bill, the Children First Bill, which has been designed to ensure children are safe and protected and that we have processes and procedures in place to deal with difficulties that children encounter. I compliment the Minister on the Children (Amendment) Bill and urge him to keep his eye on the issues referred to by Senators Jillian van Turnhout and Terry Leyden and me in order that younger children will be well protected in such institutions.

I thank the Minister and his officials for their hard work, which I appreciate. I thank Members in both Houses who contributed to the Bill. As my colleagues have stated, it is a positive step forward. Senator Jillian van Turnhout pointed out that there are and always will be challenges. We can work together once we are aware that there are challenges. The considerable difference between younger children and older children of 16 or 17 yeras is a particular concern of mine. This legislation represents a very positive step for young children. As my colleagues have stated, it is unfortunate but a fact of life that we need the centre in question.

I thank the Minister and his officials for the work they have done in this area. I was part of the delegation that went to Oberstown. By visiting an institution, one can see the challenges everyone faces. The best thing we can all learn in this process is that prevention is better than trying to provide a cure after the event. While this legislation goes a long way towards dealing with the issue, we need to ensure we have adequate procedures in place at a very early stage to deal with children who are going down the wrong road and getting involved in criminal activity. I thank the Minister and all the staff involved in drafting the legislation.

I thank all the Senators for their very constructive approach and comments. The amendment process in both Houses has helped to improve the Bill.

All 16-year-olds who need to be detained are to be in Oberstown from 2016. We have been moving incrementally towards this point. This is a very important Bill. It will end the legislative process required to ensure children no longer end up in adult prisons. That was a real challenge and issue for us. One of the big problems in Oberstown was that some children were coming back to that campus from the prison system and bringing with them knowledge that we might prefer they did not have. It was quite disruptive, considering the ethos of rehabilitation and education in Oberstown. Therefore, I really welcome the development today. I thank everybody for his or her support. I reassure Senators that this is dynamic. As Senator Mary Moran stated, it will continue to evolve and there will be new challenges. We will continually learn more and refine the process as we learn.

With regard to Senator Jillian van Turnhout's concerns about 17-year-olds being bigger physically than young children, very often the younger children can be more problematic than the older children. Age is no guarantee of physical prowess either. There are, of course, many issues that result in children finding themselves in positions in which the courts have no option but to send them into detention and some of these issues spring from mental health problems that have not been addressed or family crises and circumstances that might have been avoided had there been earlier intervention. We are examining the whole range of community facilities and supports to ensure detention is truly the last resort. Detention centres are not places we want children to be if we can avoid it. I hope there will never be any need to expand the current capacity of the institution as we focus on ensuring that children who find themselves in trouble or receive the supports they need in the community.

Again, I thank Senators for their support. I am very glad that the Bill is to be passed.

I thank the Minister and hope he has a nice summer break.

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 2.05 p.m. and resumed at 2.35 p.m.