Wednesday, 10 March 2004

Ceisteanna (63, 64, 65)

John Gormley

Ceist:

115 Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on the recently issued report, Families and Family Life in Ireland: Challenges for the Future. [7927/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael D. Higgins

Ceist:

122 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress made to date in her review of Government policy towards the family; when she expects the review to be completed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7807/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Eamon Gilmore

Ceist:

153 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on the recently published report, Families and Family Life in Ireland: Challenges for the Future, a thematic study of the issues that arose during the public consultative fora held in 2003; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7806/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to answer Questions Nos. 115, 122 and 153 together.

Families and family life are undergoing profound and rapid changes in Ireland. The main reasons include the increasing participation of women in employment, difficulties in reconciling work and family life, growing incidence of marital breakdown and lone parenthood generally, ageing of the population and the likely growth in the numbers of dependent elderly. It is against this background that I began, in May 2003, five years after publication of the report of the commission on the family, a nationwide consultation on the future development of family policy. The fora provided my officials and me with an opportunity to hear the views of a cross section of family members from different regions of the country and those who work with them, including public representatives. Their views were sought on the main challenges that confront families today, the effectiveness of Government policies and programmes in supporting families to meet these challenges and on what the priorities should be for strengthening families. The fora were a great success with almost 700 people participating in the discussions and workshops.

The report of the fora, Families and Family Life in Ireland: Challenges for the Future, puts on record and provides an analysis of the outcome of these discussions. It provides me with an invaluable cross section of views from every region of the country and greatly facilitates my consideration of the further development of the Government's strategy for strengthening families. It is particularly timely as this year we celebrate the United Nations 10th anniversary of the International Year of the Family, which will be marked by a worldwide focus on the challenges facing families in rapidly changing societies.

A key dimension of the year will be comparing experiences of family change in other countries and how they are meeting the challenges these changes pose. To facilitate exchanges on such experiences between EU member states, I have arranged for the Irish Presidency, with the support of the EU Commission, to host an international conference on 13 and 14 May entitled "Families, Change and European Social Policy". This conference will bring the latest research findings, ideas and policy developments on family issues to policy makers and other key personnel throughout the enlarged European Union.

The fora provided an opportunity to consult family members in every region of the country, who are the real experts on families and family life. I was determined to ensure that the fruits of these discussions and exchanges were professionally recorded and published and this has been achieved in the thematic report and the individual reports on each forum session. The thematic report is not just an important resource for drawing up the strategy, it is also a resource for wider consultation on the issues it addresses. It is my hope that public representatives, the social partners, NGOs, family resource centres, other Government Departments and interested parties and family members generally will use this report as a basis for further reflection on the challenges facing families in the period ahead and on how these challenges can be met.

Although the fora were held nationwide this report shows how many of the same themes were recurring. This includes, in particular, practical support for parents, increased quality child care places, supports for families caring for the elderly and other dependent persons and the increased provision of quality, affordable family counselling services. Public opinion, as it was voiced at the fora, seems to consider that future family policy should consist of at least two layers. The first is a general layer of support and assistance that would be available to all families, especially at critical junctures such as the birth of the first child. The second layer is more specialist in that it would address the added needs of particular families.

Drawing on the views and analysis emerging from this wide ranging consultation process, it is my intention, in consultation with all the relevant Departments and agencies, to have a clear, coherent and comprehensive strategy for family policy prepared by end 2004. This will be designed to address the profound changes for families and family life taking place and to identify priorities for strengthening families in the key contribution they make to the well being of their individual members and society as a whole.