Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

12:00 pm

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children, Department of Health and Children; Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

recognises the many difficulties and challenges which face young people in Ireland today;

notes the important initiatives and ongoing developments in the following areas:

addressing issues pertaining to alcohol-related harm;

preventing drug misuse;

promoting good nutrition and combating obesity;

promotion of healthier lifestyles;

provision of sports facilities;

mental health awareness and suicide prevention programmes;

sexual health awareness;

youth work;

youth justice;

increasing youth participation;

providing opportunities for recreation;

affirms the importance of consulting with young people on matters of public policy which affect them; and

welcomes the growth of this practice amongst public bodies in the development of services and facilities for young people.

As Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children with responsibility for children, I am delighted to have the opportunity to move this motion on young people and to outline to Members how the Government has made a significant and valuable contribution to improving the level of supports and services for young people in Ireland today.

During the course of this debate, Members will hear from my colleagues about a range of initiatives and developments across a number of Departments which favourably impact on improving the lives of young people. For my part, I will concentrate on those initiatives falling withinthe ambit of the Office of the Minister for Children.

The Government announced an expanded role for the Office of the Minister for Children in December 2005. The effect of the decision was to provide for the bringing together of a range of policy matters related to children and young people under a single umbrella within the Office of the Minister for Children, commonly referred to as the OMC.

One of the key roles of the Office of the Minister for Children is to support the implementation of the national children's strategy which applies to children and young people up to the age of 18. The national children's strategy, Our Children — Their Lives, was published by the Government in 2000 following widespread consultation with the full range of stakeholders and, for the first time in Ireland, with children and young people themselves. The strategy covers a ten year period, from 2000 to 2010, and draws together the challenges facing young people in Ireland in all aspects of their lives and commits Departments and agencies to a range of objectives to address these issues.

The Government pledges its support for the strategy's three national goals. Goal 1 is that children and young people will have a voice in matters which affect them and their views will be given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity. Goal 2 is that children and young people's lives will be better understood and Goal 3 states that children and young people will receive quality supports and services.

I will concentrate on those actions and strategies pursued by my office to support the achievement of these goals. Under Goal 1, the national children's strategy acknowledges children and young people as citizens with a contribution to make to social and political life. The Government recognises its duty to empower young people to participate in issues affecting their lives.

The OMC takes the lead role in managing delivery of Goal 1 and ensuring the development and improvement of structures such as Dáil na nÓg and Comhairle na nÓg to enable participation by young people. It also undertakes specific participation projects in partnership with statutory bodies, Departments and non-government organisations and provides advice and support on young people's participation. The Office of the Minister for Children is fully committed to ensuring that young people who are hard to reach are included in participation structures and projects.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I do not wish to interrupt the Minister unduly. Will his speech be distributed?

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children, Department of Health and Children; Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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It should be, yes. I apologise to Deputy Shatter.

I am pleased to state that during the past five years, the OMC has become a centre of excellence for participation by young people in decision making and champions the importance of giving young people a voice with regard to other Departments, State agencies and non-government organisations.

In recent years, my office conducted consultations with young people on a number of issues of national importance, including involving children and young people in the appointment of the Ombudsman for Children, the development of the national recreation policy, the taskforce on active citizenship, the age of consent for sexual activity and the development of the Irish youth justice strategy.

Comhairle na nÓg are youth councils established under the national children's strategy in all 34 city and county development board areas of the country. They give young people a voice at local level and an opportunity to influence local policy and planning. Young people are elected to Dáil na nÓg through their local Comhairle na nÓg.

The effective development of Comhairle na nÓg is cited in Towards 2016, as a key innovative Government measure and will be one of the major priorities of my office during the next ten years. During 2006, the OMC established an implementation group to develop and improve the operation of Comhairle na nÓg throughout the country. Proposals from the implementation group have been approved and a funding and enhancement strategy aimed at developing good practice and building capacity has been put in place, with additional funding of €400,000 allocated to this measure this year. To date, 30 out of the 34 Comhairle na nÓg have applied for funding under this scheme. An independent evaluation process for the scheme has been put in place by my office.

During 2008, the implementation group will develop a five-year strategic plan for Comhairle na nÓg and establish a national steering committee to oversee delivery of that plan. Local steering groups will also be established, with strong links to the children's services committee once they are in place.

Dáil na nÓg is the national parliament for young people aged 12 to 18 years and takes place once a year. A consortium comprising the National Youth Council of Ireland, Foróige and Youth Work Ireland hold the contract to run Dáil na nÓg from 2006 to 2008, in co-operation with the Office of the Minister for Children. It is widely acknowledged that Dáil na nÓg has gone from strength to strength since its inception in 2001. Successive independent evaluations of Dáil na nÓg have informed the implementation of changes and improvements over the years.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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It is an extraordinary discourtesy to the House that at this stage the Minister of State's speech has not been distributed.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children, Department of Health and Children; Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I have asked my colleague to check why it was not brought down.

Dáil na nÓg 2007 met on 17 February. The two themes selected by the delegates were road safety and attitudes towards young people. Each Comhairle na nÓg elected one delegate to the Dáil na nÓg council to follow up the recommendations from Dáil na nÓg 2007. The work of the Dáil na nÓg council is jointly managed and supported by the OMC and the National Youth Council of Ireland. The council conducts research into the main recommendations from Dáil na nÓg and meets with key policy-makers with a view to implementing change for young people in these areas.

As part of its research into road safety, two Dáil na nÓg councillors attended the first UN road safety week in April, the theme of which was young road users. Another two councillors attended the World Health Organisation children's environmental health intergovernmental meeting and youth assembly in Vienna in June as part of the Irish Government delegation. The young councillors will make presentations on their findings to the Road Safety Authority, the Garda Síochána and the Oireachtas Committee on Transport to put forward recommendations on road safety education courses, vehicle safety measures and road safety legislation. They will meet with the Community Transportation Association of Ireland to offer feedback on its work on rural transportation and infrastructure.

The councillors are also working on the negative stereotyping of teenagers by the media, which was one of the major issues raised at Dáil na nÓg 2007. The young councillors conducted comprehensive research into newspaper coverage of the celebrations of junior certificate results. They will make presentations to the Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, the National Union of Journalists and newspaper, television and radio editors. They have also written an article for The Irish Times which will appear next week.

I had the opportunity to meet with the group when it was discussing road safety and media coverage. I was extremely impressed with the commitment and knowledge of its members and the urgency they attached to their deliberations, particularly with regard to media coverage and their anxiety to ensure this age cohort receives better coverage from the broadcast and print media than it has in recent years.

The delegates at Dáil na nÓg 2006 voted as their top priority the establishment of a website for teenagers providing information on activities, facilities, clubs and youth entertainment. In response to this demand, my office is in the process of completing construction and development of www.teenspace.ie, a national website on activities and facilities for young people. The site will go live in March 2008. Dáil na nÓg councillors and young people from my office's children and young people's forum have been involved at all stages in developing the site. Site branding and content will be linked to Teenspace, the national recreation policy for young people, which was launched in September 2007.

Effective student councils in second-level schools are cited in Towards 2016 as an innovative Government measure. My office is collaborating with the Department of Education and Science in overseeing the running of the new student council support service recommended in the final report of the student council working group established, chaired and managed by my office. Eleven second-level students aged between 13 and 17 were involved in this working group, marking a milestone in public policy making.

In a related initiative, my office has collaborated with the curriculum development unit in funding the development of a civic social and political education teaching and learning resource entitled Giving Children and Young People a Voice. This resource promotes the right of children and young people to a voice in matters that affect their lives under the National Children's Strategy and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It incorporates information about Dáil na nÓg and Comhairle na nÓg, and their potential links with student councils. The establishment or improvement of student councils is the main focus of the resource, which is currently being printed and will become the basis for the work of the student council support service.

In keeping with international good practice on involving children and young people in decision making, the office's children and young people's forum, CYPF, was established in 2004 to advise on issues of concern to children and young people. The forum includes 25 young people aged between 12 and 18 from all parts of the country who were nominated to the CYPF through Comhairle na nÓg and organisations representing hard to reach children and young people. The CYPF has been an invaluable resource for the office. Its members have been consulted on, or involved with, many initiatives including design and content of the national recreation policy, development of student council resources, health service provision for teenagers, the mid-term review of the national children's strategy, co-facilitating and organising national consultations with teenagers on alcohol misuse, development of aspects of the office website, www.omc.gov.ie and tender evaluation for relevant projects. Many organisations have consulted the CYPF, including the HSE, the Crisis Pregnancy Agency, the growing up in Ireland study team and the Irish Health Service Accreditation Board.

In February 2007, the then Minister with responsibility for children announced that a series of consultation workshops would be held with teenagers to seek their views on solutions to alcohol misuse by teenagers. This was in recognition that if alcohol misuse is to be addressed, young people will have to be part of the solution. Research in this area, such as the European school survey project on alcohol and other drugs and the health behaviour of school-going children, shows that binge drinking is a problem among many teenagers in Ireland and that Irish teenagers have a very high rate of alcohol consumption. In October, 257 young people between the ages of 12 and 18 years took part in a national consultation on alcohol misuse in five locations around the country. The response to the invitation to participate was overwhelming, which indicates a significant interest in youth participation and the issue of alcohol abuse. The consultations were framed to seek young people's views on the solutions to alcohol misuse. The CYPF was directly involved in the preparation, collection, analysis and compilation of information arising from the consultation. A report of these consultations is currently being prepared by my office. I had an opportunity to attend a consultation which took place in Dublin and was impressed at the level of participation and the significance attached by participants to the issue.

My office is firmly committed to improving young people's lives through research. Work undertaken in my office is based on goal No. 2 of the national children's strategy. The objectives of the programme are to build a more coherent understanding of children and young people's development and needs among those working with them, to develop an evidenced-based approach to decision making at all levels down to the point of delivery, to improve the communication, production and dissemination of research and information and to improve evaluation and monitoring of services.

I was delighted to launch Teenspace, the national recreation policy for young people, last September. This was the first time any Government brought forward a comprehensive policy about young people's recreational needs. The policy reflects in concrete terms our commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the national children's strategy. Essentially, the policy provides a strategic framework for the promotion of positive recreational opportunities aimed principally at young people aged 12 to 18 and includes seven core objectives. Each objective incorporates a series of corresponding actions for priority implementation by the various Departments and agencies which have a crucial role to play in delivery within the overall framework of the national policy.

There is no doubt that recreation is an essential childhood experience which enriches young people's lives. In the past, we often assumed that opportunities for these activities simply existed. However, the major changes experienced by this country in recent decades mean we can no longer make that assumption. Young people have been explaining to us the reasons we have not been getting it right. We need to understand that the way young people spend their free time has a major impact on their development, socialisation and future lives. Benefits of recreation include promoting self-esteem, well-being, freedom and independence; providing chances to let off steam and have fun; helping young people to be healthy and active; improving problem-solving capabilities; and a better perception of quality of life.

The national children's strategy identified the need for more opportunities for community based play, leisure and cultural activities. There has been considerable public investment in recreational activities in recent years. I welcome the funding provided by the Government and commend the many voluntary organisations which are actively involved in providing recreational and sporting facilities for people of all age groups.

The national recreational policy for young people is not merely about advancing new initiatives. It also involves a more integrated and strategic approach to investments already being made. The Government and many providers are aware that we can achieve more from existing funding streams if we collaborate across agencies in a more structured way. There is no doubt the policies and actions being pursued by my office will have an immense impact on the provision of better services and improved outcomes for young people. I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies on this motion.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I move amendmentNo. 1:

To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:

"calls on the Government to submit to Dáil Éireann, within one month, a comprehensive plan of action which will deal with the many difficulties and challenges faced by young people in Ireland today, set out firm completion dates for action, measurable performance targets and assign responsibility to specific Ministers and Ministers of State."

I regard this motion as a gross abuse of Parliament. It will have no impact of any description on any issue that genuinely affects young people. Essentially, this intellectually bankrupt and exhausted Government, which is bereft of ideas and incapable of producing legislation, is conjuring up a motion to fill the entirety of today's business because the alternative was to simply adjourn the House. This motion clearly indicates that, after more than ten years in office, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats have passed their sell-by date. They are engaged in a cynical act of gesture politics. It also represents the final surrender of the Green Party to the Fianna Fáil mentality. The Green Party, fresh-faced and bushy tailed to Government, does not have a single legislative proposal to bring before the House which would introduce the badly needed reforms it and other parties have identified in the past five years. This is a spurious, self-congratulatory, meaningless motion which is devoid of substance. Essentially, it says the Government is great and talks to young people and deserves a pat on the back for all the good things it is doing. It randomly refers to a series of concerns to young people, as if by listing them, hey presto, the magic political wand is waved and these problems are resolved.

The House should encourage many more young people to be involved in politics than those to whom the Minister of State referred. A very small proportion of young people participate in politics or are aware of or involved in Dáil na nÓg or the commission for young people, the bodies to which the Minister of State referred. The overwhelming majority of young people are hugely cynical of politicians and the political process and have little faith in the capacity of Governments or the House to address the needs they confront. Most young people, if they took time to read the Minister of State's speech, would wonder what on earth we, as legislators, are doing wasting our time engaging in a debate on a motion of this nature.

The motion is, however, interesting in one respect. It shows the limited vision of the Government, which pretends to know the problems facing young people, even if it does not appear to have many answers as to how to address them and is incapable even of identifying a range of issues which need to be addressed. It is interesting to note the issues the Minister of State chose to omit. Street violence and anti-social behaviour are the scourge of many young people on Friday and Saturday evenings in the centre of our cities and towns. It does not appear to occur to the Minister of State that these problems need to be addressed.

It is of concern to many parents of autistic children that proper services and educational facilities are not available for their children. This issue directly affects young people and their future lives and capacities in adulthood yet the Government has fought battles in the courts to resist having the State provide to the parents of autistic children education within an applied behaviour analytical, ABA, framework. The Government and its predecessor have wasted hundreds of thousands of euro in legal costs trying to resist establishing the educational facilities sought by parents and have defended the indefensible in the courts in the context of young people with special needs or behavioural difficulties who require specific forms of education. As a consequence of its stance, badly pressed parents have been forced to litigate.

The motion refers to Government action in the area of drug abuse. While resources have been invested in this area, not enough is being done. It was interesting to read in a good supplement to yesterday's edition of the Irish Examiner dealing with the drug crisis comments by the Minister of State with responsibility for drugs strategy, Deputy Pat Carey, in which he promised yet again to provide a variety of facilities. In dealing with drug abuse, methadone appears to be the principal weapon or treatment mode in the armoury of the State. Some people have been on methadone for seven, eight, nine or ten years and addiction to this drug has replaced addiction to other drugs. The Minister of State, Deputy Carey, admitted that young people on methadone will continue to take the substance into adulthood because of the lack of residential rehabilitation places and structured after-care.

I recall being present in the House in 2001 when the then Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition promised to provide the necessary facilities to address the problem, a promise the current Government continues to make. While we need to tackle prevention head on, we should also ensure that drug addicts have treatment urgently made available to them when they finally seek it and do not find themselves placed on waiting lists for months while their lives continue to be destroyed. It is possible these individuals will lack the capacity to avail of treatment by the time it becomes available.

Other issues the Minister of State appears not to believe require addressing include the housing crisis facing many young people, the Government's complete failure to ensure social housing is available and the excessive expense of getting on the housing ladder, an issue which, in the context of first-time buyers, the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, was finally battered into addressing in the dying days of the general election campaign when he promised stamp duty reform. Much more needs to be done. Young people are under severe pressure to find affordable housing, an area on which the Government has utterly failed.

Children affected by domestic violence come within the Minister of State's brief. There is a complete lack of counselling facilities for children caught in these circumstances. In the context of providing refuges for the victims of domestic violence, it is extremely difficult to find accommodation in refuges when a woman who has been a victim of domestic violence is accompanied by a male child in his teenage years. What is being done to address this problem, which is not even mentioned in the motion?

In the context of our court structures dealing with children in need of care and protection District Court judges are crying out for a court welfare service to undertake independent assessments to facilitate the court in making decisions in the best interests of children. In the context of marital breakdown, the courts do not have a welfare service attached to them to facilitate judges to determine the appropriate orders to make with regard to parenting, for example, on questions such as which parent should be the primary custodian or carer of a child or what arrangement should be made regarding child access. In the event that, on the one hand, there is concern that a child could be at risk if left alone with a parent while, on the other, it is also believed that the child should maintain a relationship with the parent in question, supervised call-in centres similar to those established in England, other parts of Europe and the United States are not available to facilitate child-parent access arrangements. The Minister of State, by the very wording of the motion, has indicated the Government's lack of insight and policy in terms of tackling a broad range of serious issues.

The House should be dealing with legislation today given that the Government has been in office for almost six months. In my previous 21 years in the House, I have never seen an Order Paper of the nature of the current Order Paper which does not list a single Bill as waiting to be dealt with in the House. The Government has utterly failed to deliver on any aspect of its legislative programme, as published on 25 September, or to produce a single new Bill, as agreed to and promised in the programme for Government in June last.

It is interesting, when dealing with a motion on young people which will achieve nothing, effect no change and impact on no one, to examine the legislative programme. I recall that I was shaving while listening to the Government Chief Whip, Deputy Tom Kitt, speak on the "Morning Ireland" programme on Tuesday, 25 September. During the interview he promised the Irish people that a great, exciting legislative programme would be brought before the House before Christmas. It is an extraordinary achievement that two months later and six months into the lifetime of the Government none of the 17 Bills listed in the legislative programme has been published. This demonstrates a lack of commitment, seriousness and energy and a desire to be in power for power's sake, rather than to address issues.

Some of the Bills promised directly affect young people. A serious issue exists for young people at third level colleges with regard to the level of student grants, the costs of being in college, the cost of books and the availability and cost of accommodation. The Government has promised a student support Bill. Although third level fees have been abolished, students must make additional payments to colleges at the start of the academic year. We are debating a nebulous motion about young people, but the student support Bill, which was third on the priority list mentioned by Deputy Tom Kitt on 25 September, has not been published. The employment agency regulation Bill, which will affect young people, was also promised before Christmas, but it has not been published.

The adoption Bill to ratify the Hague Convention on foreign adoptions has been promised since 1999, but we may celebrate a decade of that promise before we see the Bill, despite the fact that major problems in that area need resolution. Our adoption laws are still largely based on the Adoption Act 1952 and a series of amending Acts which fail to address a range of issues that should have long been addressed. These days many of the couples who are fortunate enough to adopt under our domestic adoption system agree to an open adoption system as opposed to a closed system where everyone's anonymity is preserved. However, our legislation makes no provision for this.

Some young people who have been adopted wish to trace their origins. A series of promises have been made with regard to putting in place a legislative framework to facilitate them while also protecting the privacy of natural parents in appropriate circumstances. That framework has been promised for years and was originally delayed because of a Supreme Court decision which was delivered four and a half years ago. There is no serious intent in what we are doing today. Where is the adoption Bill? We should be debating that Bill, if not the student grant Bill.

Another neglected Bill is the one the Taoiseach this morning forgot, the DNA Bill. It was promised by the Ceann Comhairle when he was Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It was promised by Mr. Michael McDowell when he was the Minister and it has now been promised by the current Minister. What relevance has that Bill for young people? It is relevant because we are one of the few countries in Europe that does not have a DNA database. If a young woman is sexually assaulted and raped on the streets of Dublin, there is less likelihood that the perpetrator will be identified than in most other European countries or any state in the United States, because we do not have a DNA database. This affects the lives, security, safety, well-being and particularly the future psychological well-being, of young people, yet our Parliament has been promising this legislation for approximately ten years.

Much of what I have been saying has to do with the failure of the Government towards young people generally and the farce of this motion. That farce is particularly well illustrated in respect of the failure of the Government to deal with issues affecting not just young people born in Ireland. This is neatly encapsulated in the Government's failure to put in place proper policies to deal with young people who come here seeking political asylum. The Government has presided over the HSE's loss of over 300 young people from residential care and has no idea where they are. It is a Government the Supreme Court stopped from deporting three children in the past three weeks in circumstances where its behaviour was regarded as illegal.

Tomorrow morning, the Government proposes to deport Adijat Okusanya who came to Ireland alone in 2004 at the age of 15. She has completed her leaving certificate and commenced a course in business and accountancy at Tallaght IT. This articulate young girl who has adapted to our Irish education system has lost all contact with her family and should be allowed to remain in this country. Her remaining here would benefit the country, but the Government proposes to deport her back to Nigeria tomorrow where she will have an uncertain future and no certainty of employment. I am informed that if employed, she fears she will be expected to provide sexual favours in return to her employer.

If we want to have credibility in the United States when discussing young illegal Irish people there, we need to make a radical change to our treatment here of young people, who may be illegals. Many came here seeking political asylum and to escape from circumstances that were not under their control as children. They have made this State their home, been responsible members of their local communities, successfully got through our examination system and have much to contribute. The Minister of State has some hours to look into the situation of this young girl. I urge him to do so and to confirm to the House by the end of this debate that the young lady in question will not be deported tomorrow.

The Government must end the lunacy and deal properly with the predicament of non-national parents of Irish-born children. Where young people are born in this country and are Irish citizens and entitled to remain here, we must put in place a system that does not require the type of advertisements and notices that were published recently and that result in their parents having to register annually to be allowed to remain here. It is time we adopted a child and family-centred humane policy that is not locked into bureaucratic idiocy.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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Unfortunately, if young people were watching this debate, they could be forgiven for wondering whether we want to do anything at all for them. We are debating a motion that does not include action. It does not propose doing anything for young people or speeding up the process of providing them with facilities, supports or help for problems. Instead, the motion is all about recognising, noting, affirming and welcoming the growth of practices.

What young people want to hear from their legislators is that we are doing something about their lives, addressing their needs, listening to them and acting on what they say when consulted. With respect to the Minister of State and to all who have spoken or intend to speak in this debate, we will not achieve anything by dealing with the motion. Rather, we should be discussing the specifics of what we will do under the various departmental heads that deal with the interests of young people.

I will try to make some positive proposals for action rather than waffle on about noting this, that and the other thing. I agree with Deputy Shatter that to be honest, we are having this debate because there is no legislation ready to be presented to the House. Again tomorrow we will have another such debate or statements on an issue of importance. We should instead be talking about what is being done, rather than talking broadly about motions that cross all sorts of areas and that do not propose any conclusive action that will help achieve a better world for our young people.

In all honesty, there is no legislation prepared for us to deal with. I have been pressing hard for legislation we were told would be implemented by the beginning of 2008, although it may not specifically relate to young people. However, I support Deputy Shatter with regard to the legislation to which he referred. I was told last year that the student support Bill would be enacted and implemented by the start of the school year, September 2007. Not only is it not debated, passed and enacted but it is not even published. That is an example of legislation that directly affects young people that simply has not been progressed by Government. Reference was made to the adoption Bill. I came into the Dáil in 1998 and was spokesperson on equality. That legislation, which was supposed to be imminent, was being dealt with at the time by the then Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy Frank Fahey. Yet, almost ten years later, it has not been published.

The All-Party Committee on the Constitution recommended that the rights of children be inserted in the Constitution. That recommendation which would be important for young people has not been promoted in any way, despite being an all-party proposal. The Youth Work Act was implemented after a long delay. Have the provisions of the Youth Work Act been implemented? Has the funding been provided to fully roll-out all the various actions determined under the Act and, if not, why? When will the money be provided to do so? I do not know if the Minister of State reached the point in his speech — he did not get to read it all — which reads we "realise that we can achieve more from existing funding streams if we collaborate across agencies in a more structured way". I am concerned about that because I think what that means in plain English is that no more money will be put into it and the money will be spread around to various places where it already exists. I am glad the Minister of State is shaking his head and I hope he will tell me exactly how much money he will spend on young people and where he will spend it.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children, Department of Health and Children; Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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No, it is more money and at times better collaboration between agencies and voluntary agencies to get the best outcomes.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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I am all for better collaboration but I am concerned about this lovely general speak because I have heard it in regard to other things.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children, Department of Health and Children; Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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There will be more funding plus better collaboration as well as partnership.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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So long as it is both because what we need is action. I agree that a certain amount of consultation is taking place and that is good but it is not reaching some of the most vulnerable young people. I am concerned about that. I meet young people in the course of my political work whom nobody has ever consulted and we need to reach them. I commend Emily Logan, the Ombudsman for Children, who is doing a very good job and is listening to young people. I hope the proposals from her office will be implemented.

There is a reference in the motion to addressing issues pertaining to alcohol-related harm, preventing drug misuse, promoting good nutrition and combating obesity, promotion of healthier lifestyles, mental health awareness and suicide prevention programmes, sexual health awareness and so on. Many of the issues referred to in the motion concern the health of young people. Side by side with that I raised the question of child and adolescent psychiatric services. The answer I received from the Health Service Executive stated there are currently 12 public inpatient beds available for young people. Last night I spoke to a mother of a 17 year-old girl who is in an adult psychiatric ward. There is no psychiatric bed near where she lives. There are only 12 such beds in the whole country, six in Galway and six in Dublin. This unfortunate child is in an adult psychiatric ward. That is an example of the terrible psychiatric services for young people.

Community services are no better. There is no walk-in area where young people can go if they are worried, feel suicidal or have psychological problems or lack self-esteem. According to this answer there are 3,598 children on waiting lists for the community psychiatric services for young people. Deputy Dan Neville walked out of the debate on psychological services last night because he was so angry that programmes are being reorganised by the Minister rather than being pooled in regard to the prevention of suicide in young people.

We need to be serious about addressing the health problems of young people. We can have grand statements about alcohol abuse and drug abuse, including the article we read in yesterday's edition of the Irish Examiner. However, they are no good unless they are practical and reach young people. In regard to the use of alcohol, one can buy a 24 pack of beer in off-licences in residential areas all over the country for €15.99, as I saw on the window of an off-licence yesterday. Off-licences are springing up all over residential areas. Older people can go into them and buy for young people. I have asked young people about this, it is as simple as pie. Some 13 and 14 year olds have no problem getting access to cheap alcohol. It is cheaper to buy a can or a bottle of beer than a bar of chocolate. Unless we begin to address these serious issues that young people have to deal with we will not get anywhere.

I turn to some of the recreational facilities that young people say they want, such as youth cafes. We have had a good deal of talk about them but very few of them are up and running. Young people have been consulted all over the country in regard to what they want. In my area they have said they want youth cafes but no stone has been turned in regard to the provision of a youth cafe in Limerick where there is a big problem with young people who do things they should not do. If they had places to go perhaps there would be less chance of them doing what they should not do. In regard to skateboard parks there is a funding problem but finally we got it sorted out in Limerick following much lobbying by the young people themselves and their supporters.

Young people will not believe we are serious unless we get rid of the obstacles to the provision of such services for them. If one is 13 years old and wants a particular recreational facility and is 19 or 20 years of age by the time it is provided, one has lost faith in the political system. There must be a sense of urgency.

On the issue of young people who drop out of school and have difficulties with the school curriculum, there are as many young people dropping out early as there were ten years ago. That is statistically accurate. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy Haughey, will be aware of some of these issues. It appears we are not reaching a certain cohort of young people. When they drop out there is no method of tracing them and keeping with them. If they dropped out for a job there is no method of tracing them to ensure they have not lost that job in a years' time and drifted into crime. Those young people are as entitled to training and education and a future as those who go on to do a PhD and yet we just lose them and forget about them. We bring in people from other countries to do the jobs these people might well want to do if they got some training and education. I strongly believe we need a social guarantee for all young people in order that they will be tracked and given an opportunity for a bright future.

The school curriculum needs to be changed. The leaving certificate curriculum is absolute anathema to a small section of our young people who are not academic minded and do not want to learn off reams of material in order to regurgitate it in an examination and forget about it because it will not be useful to them for the rest of their lives. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has made fairly wide proposals on reform of the leaving certificate and the Minister for Education and Science will do nothing except slightly change the timetable of the examination. That will do a huge disservice to a cohort of young people who drop out and lose faith in the system, in some cases losing faith in themselves and possibly being at risk of suicide, and in other cases turning on their own communities and causing all kinds of mayhem and destruction.

The problems of anti-social behaviour, crime and young people getting into gangs, who later commit serious crimes, will not be addressed unless we deal with the reasons they are dropping out of school and losing faith in the system. Unless there is cross-departmental action between the Minister of State with responsibility for youth work and the Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Health and Children and Enterprise, Trade and Employment, leading them into FÁS schemes and work, which is a positive response, we will not get anywhere. All the woolly language in the Minister's speech does nothing for me. There is nothing specific in it about what will be done. I would like to see positive proposals with specific timeframes regarding how we intend to increase the speed with which we respond to young people, whether these proposals involve youth cafes, skateboard parks, sports facilities, reform of the educational curriculum or providing locations young people feel comfortable walking into if they have problems of mental health, suicidal tendencies or concern about a wide variety of young people's issues.

Some of the reasons young people turn to abuse of alcohol, drugs and so on are that they have bad self image, are easily led by other stronger people in their group and get a sense of bravado from being identified with those who are big in their communities. Unless we begin to improve their self esteem and provide the supports they need and alternative activities, we will continue to come to the House to offer pious platitudes in this regard.

We must respond to young people. We need to get Departments working together. We need specific programmes of action with timetables and funding attached. We need to bring in Emily Logan and her office, which has a very good sense of what young people want. Ms Logan and her office have a lot of cred and are popular with and trusted by young people. They need to be brought into the delivery system.

I do not want this debate to be a useless exercise; I want it to have a positive outcome. When the Minister of State responds, I hope he will deal with the issues raised by myself and other Members and that we will get practical proposals with real-time implementation dates. We need to respond to young people or the depressing situation with regard to alcohol, drugs and crime will continue. We need to provide fundamental intervention if young people are to recognise that we want to provide them with facilities.

At the next election, I do not want young people approaching me to say they have nothing to do and nowhere to go, and that they must hang around corners, annoying the owner of the corner shop, who must move them on. That is not doing a good service to young people. I hope we will have a better response than we have had to date.

1:00 pm

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome this debate. It is important Dáil Éireann discusses young people and their problems at this time. I disagree with the contribution of Deputy Shatter. This is not a useless debate. As Minister of State responsible for youth affairs, I have waited a long time for such a debate and welcome the fact we are having a day-long discussion on issues that affect young people.

Ireland has the youngest population in Europe. Its present population is over 4 million, the highest on record since 1871. Of this, 42% or two in five are under the age of 25 while the EU average for under-25s is 25%. My Department has long recognised that our young people represent an active and vital force in our country's social, political and economic development and well-being. It is, therefore, important we recognise the valuable contribution young people make to our society and that we support their personal, social and educational development.

Enabling individuals to achieve their potential and participate fully as members of society is a key objective for Government. For young people, this means ensuring the availability of supports across a range of measures, including family support, health provision and, probably most notable in a young person's life, education. While much attention is paid to the undoubtedly important role that formal education plays in young people's lives, it should be recognised that it is also through complementary non-formal education activities and programmes that young people find the means to reach their personal potential and engage actively in their communities.

Irish society has changed dramatically in the past ten to 15 years. At least four major types of recent change, all interrelated, have been identified: economic, political, technological and cultural. These changes impact significantly on the lives of our young people.

The make up of the youth population is more culturally diverse than heretofore, increasing the need for intercultural aptitudes and awareness among young people and those who work with them. Ensuring this diversity is seen as a positive from which all can gain enrichment is a key challenge for all of us. In addition, the economic boom of recent years has brought its own challenges. Young people have more disposable income than heretofore, bringing with it its own set of burdens and complications for our young people that we of older generations did not experience.

Recognising that these problems and challenges are real, my Department, with others responsible for young people's issues, have put a number of measures and initiatives in place to address them. It is fair to state that those involved in the education process accept that innovative approaches are required to meet the current needs of our young people, with provision being made available through non-traditional modes, including those used by the youth work sector where appropriate.

Youth work and the youth work sector has a particular role to play in preparing and equipping our young people for adulthood. The overall purpose of the youth work service is to assist young people to realise their potential and become active participants in a democratic society. Youth work programmes and services provide space to young people to voluntarily engage in educational programmes which help this development. These activities, while being fun, engaging and inclusive, are also educative.

Youth work is complementary to the formal school system and in Ireland is implemented primarily by voluntary youth work organisations and groups. It is characterised by requiring the voluntary participation of young people. The programmes run by the voluntary youth work organisations vary widely and include outdoor pursuits, arts, recreation, project work and international exchanges. Qualities and skills such as leadership, co-operation, decision-making, motivation and self responsibility are acquired by young people through this non-formal learning process. In addition, youth work often acts as the point of contact and referral in the interface with other youth-related issues spanning the realms of care, health and welfare.

The development of youth work has been underpinned by the Youth Work Act 2001, which provides for a structural framework to support youth work at national and local level. The Act provides for a national youth work advisory committee comprising of equal representation from the voluntary youth work sector and the statutory sector, including key Departments such as the Department of Education and Science, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Department of Arts Sport and Tourism and the Department of Health and Children. The committee, the third of which I appointed earlier this year, advises me and my Department on policy regarding youth work.

At local level, a structure has been agreed with the Irish Vocational Education Association to resource VECs to help them carry out the functions envisaged for them under the Act. The national youth work development plan also provides recommendations for action on a number of issues affecting young people and the youth work services that are provided for them. These are being progressed by my Department in consultation with the various youth work interests on a phased and prioritised basis.

The important work carried out by the youth work sector with young people is also recognised by the Government through a number of initiatives funded by my Department and in 2007 this support totalled €51 million. Essentially, as Minister of State responsible for youth affairs, I am responsible for rolling out the provisions of the Youth Work Act 2001 and the provisions of the national youth work development plan on a phased and prioritised basis.

Education is central to addressing youth welfare issues. It is necessary not only to communicate information but to foster the motivation, skills and confidence necessary to take action to improve health and well-being. It is important that young people know and accept themselves for who they are, have increased self-esteem and are enabled to make responsible decisions about their health behaviour. Young people need to be empowered to communicate with others, negotiate healthy relationships, differentiate between high and low risk behaviour, protect themselves and others, and know how to gain access to and use health care information and services.

The work of the national youth health programme is central in addressing youth welfare issues, such as health and well-being. This partnership programme, which is operated by the National Youth Council of Ireland and funded by the youth affairs section of my Department and the HSE's health promotion unit, provides a broad-based, flexible health promotion support and training service to youth work organisations. It aims to promote healthy lifestyles and provides information and training in a number of areas, including health education, alcohol, bullying, drugs, mental health, sexual health, nutrition, physical activity and suicide prevention.

Youth work has a particularly distinctive and significant role to play in increasing youth participation. The operation of democratically controlled youth groups by young people provides them with valuable learning experiences on how to participate in and manage democratic systems. Such learning is likely to be highly beneficial to the future health and well-being of society. Criteria for youth work organisations, which is being finalised as part of the further roll-out of the Youth Work Act 2001, will require youth organisations to demonstrate a commitment to the involvement of young people in areas such as programme-service provision and the decision-making process of the organisation.

As regards citizenship, many youth organisations through their programmes and activities seek to involve young people in a voluntary capacity in analysing community needs and taking action to contribute to meeting those needs. Examples of such activities are to be seen in areas such as environmental improvement, the upgrading of community facilities, care for the elderly, services for those with disabilities, aid to the Third World and analysis of social issues and suggestions for their improvement.

These projects are recognised by young people as being of value to them as well as to the community. Different groups are very much involved in active citizenship. In particular, I welcome Foróige's youth citizenship programme under whose aegis I recently made presentations to certain young people. Gaisce is another important youth initiative with which many Members will be familiar.

I affirm the importance of consulting young people on matters of public policy which affect them. I welcome the growth of this practice among public bodies in the development of services and facilities for young people. This will better position us to put in place appropriate mechanisms to facilitate young people in the quest to achieve their potential and to participate in and improve society.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State's contribution reminds me of the good old days in the former health board when we were inundated with paperwork and told how great things were, but we never examined the problems. As other Deputies pointed out, the value of this motion is in great doubt. Everybody agrees we should be discussing the problems facing today's youth, but there is no point in doing so unless one has a plan to deal with them. I ask the Minister to look at the Visitors Gallery. Normally it is full of school children, but the people most concerned with this debate are not hear to listen to it.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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The National Youth Council of Ireland welcomed it.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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Let us discuss the schools we have before talking about those we do not have. Some 75% of primary schools have no indoor sports facilities and common rooms have been used as classrooms for the increasing enrolments. I am speaking specifically about Dublin North, including areas such as Balbriggan, Skerries, Rush, Lusk and Donabate. The latter two areas have no secondary school even though both have experienced major growth. The planners in Fingal set up a committee with the Department of Education and Science whose representative sat on the committee. Yet the Department turns around with its hands up and asks how such a situation could have been predicted. The question posed by residents of Dublin North is how the Department could have failed to predict this outcome.

There are not enough speech and language therapists for children with such problems. It takes months to see a therapist and parents realise that with each passing day the chance of a successful outcome for their children diminishes. Therefore they pay for private therapy even though they can ill afford to do so. Many parents cannot afford such treatment. We do not have enough school psychologists and we will be debating that matter again tonight. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is on record as having paid parents nearly €4 million to obtain psychological consultations for their children due to the lack of an adequate psychological assessment service in our schools. This is despite the previous promises made about this matter.

I heard Deputy Jan O'Sullivan refer to youth cafés, but how many do we have? There are virtually none. The only one I know of in Dublin North has been proposed for Rush, which is as a result of the progressive far-sightedness of the county manager, Mr. David O'Connor. Such facilities are important for the many teenagers who are not involved in sport. Even if they were interested in sport, however, the facilities are not there for them to use. Look at the society we have created over the past 20 years. The Minister of State must accept that his party has been in government for 18 years of that time. Children are now dropped to and picked up from school. They are kept at home because it is not safe to be outside. If somebody's child is missing for an hour there are panic stations, whereas when we were growing up one could be gone all morning until lunchtime and people did not worry. That situation does not pertain any more. This is a societal issue that transcends policing, the construction of new residential areas and traffic volumes.

Many youths feel detached from society because they do not have a vote and what they say does not seem to count. They look with suspicion at gardaí in squad cars. More community gardaí are needed because the numbers are insufficient. We need the gardaí we had ten or 15 years ago to whom people would look for help. When people had a problem they would go to a garda who was seen as a helpful person to solve problems, rather than the heavy hand of authority. We need authority as well, of course, and there must be accountability, but while young people learn that at home, they also need to learn it on the street.

Where are the required sports facilities? They do not exist in primary or secondary schools. Because of the nature of society and the lack of investment in facilities like gyms, we now have an American scenario with soft drinks companies promoting vending machines and giving part of the proceeds as a grant to schools for sports equipment. On the one hand they are promoting sporting activity, while on the other they are promoting obesity through the sale of high sugar food and drink. Instead of having this nonsensical discussion, why can the Government not make a concrete proposal to install vending machines with fruit and other healthy eating options? Vendors of such products could be allowed tax breaks given that fresh food has a shorter shelf life than many high sugar products such as chocolate and soft drinks.

The Government has failed miserably to provide medical cards for young people. The current threshold for a medical card is €184 per week for a single individual, which is marginally over half the minimum wage. Even more intriguing is that a married couple receives an extra €38 allowance for the first two children and €41 per child thereafter. Can anyone in this House explain why a child's health is valued at one fifth or one sixth of an adult's? Children, particularly those under five, have tremendous health needs, yet the allowance for a child is only one fifth that of an adult. If the Government wants to do something meaningful in the next budget it must not only increase the income threshold for a medical card, which is scandalously low, but also focus on the young by increasing children's allowances to realistic levels. The last attempt through the doctor visit-only card increased it by only 25%. What is 25% of 25? It is a joke.

The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government needs to introduce new guidelines for housing development. While they are on the way and they will refer to crèches and facilities as part of residential developments, will provision be made for gymnasiums and safe exercise areas so that the new developments are built in a manner more conducive to safe walking? Gymnasiums are needed because many women do not feel safe walking on their own after dark.

Drug and alcohol abuse and sexual behaviour are also major issues, which need to be addressed through our education system. A great case can be made for providing specific classes to educate young people about drugs, alcohol and sexual behaviour. As Deputy O'Sullivan said, lack of enforcement is the most significant problem regarding alcohol. Everybody knows it is illegal to sell alcohol to people aged under 18 but the law is not enforced. Sometimes, for example, 19 year old people are sent into the shop to buy 24 cans of cider. Alcohol purchases must be properly monitored and community gardaí should be on the beat because prevention is better than cure.

Drugs are rife in our society. I met a young man who started taking drugs when he was 11. Drugs are too prevalent and, for example, it has been reported that they have been detected on cisterns in Leinster House. Why are sniffer dogs not used more widely? Why do gardaí not visit pubs and clubs at night with such dogs to detect drugs? That would prevent drug dealers from treating them as safe havens.

I agree with Deputy O'Sullivan regarding psychiatric services for young people. It is absolutely outrageous that only 12 beds are available in the entire State. Many children with intellectual disabilities and psychiatric disorders are cared for as inpatients in adult institutions. It is not acceptable in a modern society.

I refer to education, diagnosis and autism, which was ignored by the Government and the Department of Education and Science until they were dragged kicking and screaming through the courts where awards of more than €200,000 were made against them. Why can the Department not support autism schools? I fully agree with the Minister for Education and Science that ABA is not the only way to go but it is one way to go and she will not even support the one way we know works. The outlook for children with autism who are subject to early intervention can be greatly altered from a life in an institution to a near normal existence. Children with cystic fibrosis have also been let down badly. No isolation rooms are available for them in hospitals and, as a consequence, their life expectancy is ten years lower than sufferers in the UK. Is that acceptable?

The Government has brought us into the House to discuss pious platitudes in the motion. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy Haughey, made no concrete proposals to address our problems. He gave the Government a clap on the back and said everything was wonderful. This is the Government's modus operandi. According to it, there is no crisis in the health service and everything is grand in the education system, yet 13 schools are needed in Dublin North. Parents are faced with emergencies and last minute arrangements have to be put in place for schools, even though officials have known for years that this was coming down the line. They were told people moving into the area had existing families and the projections for the school population should not be based solely on the birth rate.

The motion should be amended and the Government should come back to the House with concrete proposals, otherwise all we are doing is filling the Chamber with hot air.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute on this important motion.

According to census 2006, Ireland's population of young people — up to 18 years — is more than 1 million, representing 26% of the population. Overall this population group experiences good health and reports high levels of general well-being. A few months ago I launched the most recent health behaviour in school-aged children survey, HBSC 2006. I was delighted when the survey results showed that rates of excellent or good self-reported health have improved in the children surveyed since the previous survey in 2002. With regard to children's reported happiness, 92% of boys and 89% of girls feel very or quite happy with their lives, which is a slight increase since 2002 across age groups and gender.

While this can be deemed positive, the many difficulties and challenges that face young people in our society today must be recognised. In seeking to improve and maintain the health of young people, the Department of Health and Children works toward a policy-making process that ensures a holistic understanding of the young person, with the young person at the centre of the process. To this end, the work of the Department is focused to a large extent on addressing the determinants of health for young people while ensuring preventative, partnership-based approaches are to the fore.

I refer to smoking. While the consequences of smoking-caused death and disease emerge in adulthood, addiction begins when most tobacco users are children and teenagers. The younger the age when a person takes up smoking, the higher their nicotine intake as adults. In addition, the earlier children start to smoke, the more likely they are to remain smokers. More than three quarters of all smokers in Ireland started to smoke before they reached the age of 18. It is critical, therefore, that we do everything possible to stop children and young people from smoking in the first place.

A report published by the Office of Tobacco Control late last year, focusing on the issue of children, youth and tobacco, shows that 16% of those aged between 12 and 17 smoke. The office made children and youth smoking its top priority in 2007. Earlier this year the office held a conference entitled, Children, Youth and Tobacco: Causes, Consequences and Actions, which highlighted the risks to young people of tobacco use and the actions that can be taken to reduce it. Research shows that one of the most effective measures in preventing young people taking up smoking in the first place is the price of tobacco. A number of measures have been taken to prevent young people smoking, including the banning of the sale of packs of less than 20 cigarettes and confectionery which resembled tobacco products from 31 May 2007 and increasing the minimum price at which 20 cigarettes can be sold to €6.79 with effect from last Monday, 19 November. My colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, hopes to shortly announce the commencement date for further provisions of the Public Health (Tobacco) Acts 2002 and 2004. We are in consultations and will take decisions in this regard in the near future.

Ireland has experienced significant increases in alcohol consumption and related harm over the past decade and alcohol misuse is a policy area in which I am committed to working towards protecting children, particularly in light of worrying attitudes to alcohol among young people. Research shows that a young person who commences drinking before the age of 15 is four times more likely to have problems associated with alcohol in adulthood. We need, therefore, to make particular efforts to protect our young people and to delay them taking their first alcoholic drink for as long as possible. The HBSC study shows that half of children aged between 15 and 17 years report they are current drinkers and more than one third report they have been "really drunk" in the past 30 days. That is alarming. We must act to protect our children and young people. The evidence contained in the study should strengthen our resolve in that regard. We all have a part to play in addressing this problem. We need to take responsibility, both collectively and individually. We need to examine our social acceptance of alcohol and the signal this sends to young people.

A number of the recommendations contained in the report of the strategic task force on alcohol concern a reduction in the exposure of children and adolescents to alcohol advertising, marketing and sponsorship. In response to these recommendations, the Department entered into negotiations with the broadcasting, media and drinks industries to restrict alcohol advertising, sponsorship, sales promotions and marketing practices. This resulted in the establishment of Central Copy Clearance Ireland which addresses the issue of the content of alcohol advertisements. A voluntary code of practice on advertising was agreed, which addresses the issue of the placement of advertising. The alcohol marketing and communications monitoring body was put in place to oversee implementation of these voluntary codes.

The first annual report of the alcohol marketing communications monitoring body for 2006 was submitted to the Minister responsible in July this year. Following consultation, my Department has decided to commence discussions with the relevant stakeholders with a view to strengthening and expanding the current voluntary codes on alcohol marketing and communications. The purpose is to provide significantly greater protection for children and young people. I will give further consideration to the possibility of using legislation in this area depending on the outcome of these discussions.

With regard to sponsorship of sports and youth events by alcohol companies, the Department intends to raise this issue with the industry representatives during the course of the broader discussions that will take place on advertising and marketing to which I referred.

Another issue to which I wish to refer in the limited time available is obesity, the prevalence of which has been described by the World Health Organisation as an epidemic. Ireland is no different from other countries in terms of obesity trends. Data suggest that there could be more than 300,000 overweight and obese children on the island of Ireland. The rate is rising at a probable 10,000 per annum. In response to these trends a national task force on obesity was established in 2004. Its report, Obesity: the Policy Challenges, was published in 2005. It encourages and facilitates a healthier lifestyle, thereby reducing the incidence of non-communicable diseases that afflict many in Ireland.

At an early stage my Department was able to begin funding implementation of the recommendations that related to the health sector. For example, additional funding has been made available to provide specialist community dietitian and physical activity posts in obesity and weight management and for the development of specialist hospital services for obesity treatment. I would like to have the opportunity to refer to physical activity and the national nutrition policy but time does not permit me to do so.

I assure the House of my commitment, as Minister of State with responsibility for health promotion and food safety, to continue to keep a focus on promoting healthier lifestyles for young people and seek the most appropriate means of realising this goal.

Photo of Dan NevilleDan Neville (Limerick West, Fine Gael)
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I welcome this opportunity to contribute to the debate on young people. A month ago an RTE "Prime Time" programme re-examined the provision of psychiatric services for young people, following up on a programme 12 months previously which had exposed the glaring neglect of the services provided by the State. It was found that nothing had changed in that time. Waiting lists for psychiatric services for children are up to three to four years long, even though we are aware that early intervention is vital as it increases the chances of a cure for the problem. Allowing a child in need of psychiatric services not to be treated for such a long period leads to the problem becoming chronic. It would be helpful if the Government recognised early intervention as a cost saving measure. Early intervention ensures people will not need adult psychiatric services when they reach the age of 18 years. Therefore, early intervention is essential.

The Government must examine its performance in the delivery of services to young people and how young people see themselves in Ireland in the 21st century. I refer to a study carried out of how young people see their treatment. According to the report, Inequality and Stereotyping of Young People, published by the Equality Authority and National Youth Council of Ireland, they see their treatment at the hands of adults as being unequal and unfair. The research found that among young people there was strong agreement that they were being stereotyped and treated unfairly by adults in general. It found that the media were regarded as particularly prone to stereotyping young people in negative ways by constantly associating youth with crime, deviance, delinquency, drug and alcohol problems, sexual promiscuity and general disorderliness. The predominant view of young people was that politicians dismissed them as being unimportant. There was a view that politicians were responding both to media stereotyping and helping to fuel it.

The views of young people as to how their teachers perceived and treated them were mixed. In general, they felt most strongly about not being listened to and not having a say in how schools were run. They perceived that there was a poor relationship with the Garda and that gardaí had a poor opinion of young people.

There is a need to consult young people on issues that relate to them and to involve them in decisions. It does not come as a surprise to me that there is this attitude. I have always argued that young people today face pressures about which previous generations never knew. They are coping with many sources of stress and many experience difficulties because of these pressures. We must examine why they sometimes feel so alienated from society, the political system and official religion, even though most young people are spiritual. Many turn to binge drinking or worse as a response to their feelings of alienation and the spiritual vacuum often present in modern day life. This demands a political and media response. In seeking to find solutions to the problems facing young people, however, we must be sensitive to the possibility of negative stereotyping and seek to avoid it.

Suicide is the chief cause of death among young people under the age of 25 years. More people die by suicide than in road accidents. We must seriously examine why so many young people, at a time of unprecedented prosperity, are so disenchanted by life that thousands present at accident and emergency departments each year, having attempted to take their lives or self-harm.

Social change has brought with it many serious challenges. There is the fragmentation of the family, allied to the increase in marital breakdown. Young people believe they have nowhere to turn. Clearly, those who fall out of the education system are most vulnerable. Many of the cultural icons and authority figures of the past such as the church and the political establishment are no longer inspirational in the eyes of the young. The report to which I referred also makes this clear. It is worrying that young people feel so separated from adults when the role of each generation should be to lead and protect the one that comes after it.

It is also of great concern that young people feel demonised by society. We should all seek to understand why this is so. Politically, we must demonstrate the will to recognise the equal rights of young people and develop a greater sensitivity to their particular needs.

Debate adjourned.

Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.