Wednesday, 6 February 2019
Children's Rights: Motion [Private Members]
I acknowledge the contributions of all speakers to this discussion. We are reminded that 100 years ago Dáil Éireann committed to the imperatives of the Democratic Programme and the principles of justice and equality to support the development of all children and in order to ensure a fair start in early childhood.
We were asked to reiterate that commitment in a range of actions and initiatives across government.
The Labour Party motion, as tabled, spans a number of areas of government activity, including the well-being, education and development of children, child homelessness, citizenship, access to information for adopted people on their birth parents, equal parenting rights for same-sex couples, access to high quality and affordable childcare, access to a special needs assistant and support services and access to a primary education free of charge. The Opposition party motion calls on the Government to ensure no children will remain in homelessness, implement the affordable childcare scheme, provide free general practitioner, GP, care for all children under the age of 18 years, prepare and implement a comprehensive strategy to eliminate consistent child poverty and maternal deprivation and report to the Dáil on the implementation of the strategy.
My colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, set out the Government's response on each of these issues. She asked the House to commit strongly to the principle of ensuring a fair start for every child, underpinned by the principles of justice and equality. She called on us to endorse the objectives of the democratic programme of the First Dáil by supporting the development of all children and making provision for their physical, mental and spiritual well-being to alleviate poverty. I ask the House to do likewise. The Government is investing widely in services for children, particularly for those who are most vulnerable. This is evident, for example, in the increase of €107 million, or 8%, on the figure for 2018, in the 2019 Vote for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, a Department that was established on the initiative of the Government to put in place a unified framework for policy legislation and service provision across government for children and young people.
In the area of early learning the budget has been increased by 117% in the past four years. We recently published First 5, a whole-of-government strategy to improve the lives of babies and young children up to the age of five years and the lives of their families, which speaks directly to the aspirations set out in the democratic programme. We have committed to the introduction of the affordable childcare scheme as soon as the scheme's regulatory, administrative and ICT infrastructure is in place in October 2019. We have also committed to the establishment of a statutory scheme to facilitate all children who have been adopted to access as much information on their birth parents as possible.
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs reiterated, as do I, the need for a continued focus on reducing the rate of child poverty through a co-ordinated approach by Departments through the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures implementation infrastructure. This forms part of the overall work being co-ordinated by the Minister through the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures process. The Government is already committed to reporting regularly on the efforts made across government to tackle child poverty, based on the six priority actions contained in the whole-of-government paper Tackling Child Poverty published by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in 2017. It is also committed to reporting on the forthcoming poverty and social inclusion strategy which will be implemented by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection.
The Civil Registration Bill 2019 makes technical amendments that will facilitate the commencement of existing legislation to allow both partners in a same-sex female relationship who have undergone a donor assisted birth process to have their details printed on birth certificates. The provisions of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015, as well as the general scheme of the Assisted Human Reproduction Bill 2017, uphold the principle of equal recognition of same-sex and opposite-sex parents. Amendments approved by the Government to the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 will be included alongside the legislative provisions to introduce a new paid parental leave scheme which was announced as part of budget 2019. The proposed amendments will afford the same entitlements to adoptive leave and benefits to all couples who are married, cohabiting or in a civil partnership, irrespective of gender.
In the area of healthcare, the Government remains committed to the extension, in phases and subject to negotiations with GPs, of free GP care to those under the age of 18 years.
Ireland currently confers citizenship on any child born on the island of Ireland if one or both parents have been lawfully resident on the island of Ireland for three of the past four years. In general, we have less onerous requirements for the acquisition of citizenship when compared to fellow EU member states.
The Disability Act 2005 provides that any child suspected of having a disability and born on or after 1 June 2002 is entitled to an assessment of need to be conducted within a specific timeframe. Timely access to assessments and services for children with additional needs is of the utmost importance. The HSE has a number of initiatives in place to improve services for these children. Budget 2019 provides for 100 additional posts specifically to improve access to assessments of need and ensuing therapies.
The Department of Education and Skills' policy initiative, Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, is aimed at tackling educational disadvantage in primary and post-primary schools. The 2017 DEIS plan sets out the vision for future interventions in the critical area of educational disadvantage policy. A lot of good work is being done by the Department in supporting a range of interventions across the education spectrum, with the objective of achieving its vision for education to become a proven pathway to better opportunities for those in communities at risk of disadvantage and social exclusion.
The Government is also putting in place measures and supports to reduce school costs for parents. All schools must be sensitive to the financial pressures on parents in making decisions, not only on fees but on any matter that will have cost implications for parents such as uniforms and books. In that context, the Minister for Education and Skills has issued specific guidance to schools on the issue of costs and the need for schools to do everything possible to keep costs down for parents. Under the draft legislation on a parent and student charter, the Minister also intends that schools will be required to consult students and parents regularly on school costs and work to prevent costs from acting as a barrier to participation.
The Government's commitments in Rebuilding Ireland, its action plan for housing and homelessness, are designed to increase the overall supply of new homes to 25,000 per annum by 2020, deliver an additional 50,000 social housing units in 2021 and meet the housing needs of an additional 87,000 households through the housing assistance payment scheme and the rental accommodation scheme. Supporting households which experience homelessness is a priority for the Government. Budget 2019 increased the funding available to local authorities for the provision of homelessness services by more than 25% to €146 million. It is clear from the debate that Deputies share a commitment to improving the lives of children, particularly those who are most vulnerable. While there may be some differences between us on the approach to be taken, that does not dilute in any way our shared determination to pursue an ambitious, integrated, cross-government strategy to effect change. The breadth and depth of the actions outlined span numerous Departments and indicate that we are making progress. We must continue the work and in so doing honour the ambitions of the First Dáil.