Tuesday, 24 March 2015
Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015: Second Stage
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. This Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015 is probably one of the most significant changes in family law in a generation and this is a historic debate which reflects the changing nature of our society and of what we all define legally as a family. I appreciate the opportunity to speak on what really is landmark legislation for this Republic. Nelson Mandela's assertion that there can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way it treats its children comes to mind and is a statement with which all of us will agree. Whatever we are doing here, whatever subject we are debating or whatever agenda we are pushing, it is for the continued betterment of our families and communities and, ultimately, for the improvement of our society for future generations. The welfare of our children is of paramount concern. I disagree with Senator Walsh in that my interpretation of the Proclamation is articulated in, and responded to, in the debate on this child-centred legislation.
We need to strive always to ensure the child's care and be cognisant of what improvements we can make in this regard. Up to this point, the State has done a disservice to hundreds of thousands of children. Society in 2015 is drastically different from that in the Ireland of ten, 20 or 30 years ago. Treoir, the national specialist information service for unmarried parents and their children, has called this Bill the most important legislation affecting parents and children for a generation. The widespread cross-party welcome it has received is a testament to the significant work and thought that has gone into drafting this legislation and I sincerely commend the Minister on her clear commitment to ensure the Bill is robust, fit-for-purpose and timely. I do not see it as being rushed. Any part of it which has been rushed has been omitted to be discussed later. The Minister addressed the surrogacy issue and the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, will address that separately. I am glad that has been decoupled, so to speak, from this important legislation. I also acknowledge the extensive work and foundation laid by the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Shatter. The Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015 will be a strong legacy of this Government.
This Bill is about ensuring the welfare of children across a broad spectrum of scenarios. It will be looked to for guidance and for legal clarity in issues surrounding children in years to come and that is why it is of the utmost importance to scrutinise it carefully.
I, like many colleagues, have been contacted by several citizens and organisations in regard to guardianship rights of unmarried fathers. This is clearly an important issue and one which is having an effect on society. It is a progressive step that there is a new provision whereby an unmarried father who has lived with the mother of his child for 12 months, including three months after the birth of the child, will now be issued automatically with guardianship rights. Having this issue debated in the Seanad is a positive step. I am encouraged by the Minister's statement that she will delve further into the factors to be considered in issuing unmarried automatic rights.
I welcome the fact that this legislation is addressing donor-assisted human reproduction because any system of such a nature should not be unregulated. I would also be of the same mind as so many who have spoken on the right of a person born through such a measure as DAHR to core information to help them form and build on their identity. I also welcome the fact that anonymous donations are now prohibited. That is important and is one of the reasons I support the Bill. This right supersedes any initial financial losses that may be incurred as anonymous donations come to an end. It is another facet of the Bill which clearly puts the child first.
I also acknowledge the improvements in the adoption system whereby civil partners or cohabiting couples, who have lived together for three years, will now be eligible to adopt jointly. I echo the salient words of the Minister that adoption is a child welfare system. It is a child-centred system. A child is now, and will continue to be, placed in the home that best suits his or her needs. I am very glad that there are no clauses in the Bill that would create a hierarchy of family types. This is probably the most radical and probably the most uncomfortable part of the Bill which is that we are accepting, whether we like it or not, that there is no such thing as an atypical family any more. Artists, playwrights and film-makers have been portraying this on the stages of our theatres and on our screens forever. It has finally been acknowledged that there should be no hierarchy. Nobody should be excluded from what is his or her self-definition of family. To me, that is probably the most profound and philosophical point of this legislation.
When it comes to something as important as our children, we all feel we know best. We are fiercely protective of our children, and rightly so. This is a comprehensive Bill and I appreciate people may have many concerns about the number of amendments it will enact. In this case, I trust the expertise of those who work at the front line of child protection and can see the bigger picture. That is why, in addition to the Minister, I looked at the advice of Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, the special rapporteur on child protection, for guidance and really took on board his view in regard to this legislation. Dr. Geoffrey Shannon has stated that this is an important milestone on the road to recognition of children as rights holders - this goes right back to the philosophical and ideological stance of our Proclamation - and almost all proposals contained in this Bill are progressive. He cites the legal ability to formalise a relationship between a child and his or her de factoparent as being critical to ensure security, fairness and clarity in the child's life and upbringing and that the Bill's recognition of this is an important step which should be welcomed.
The Bill continues this principled rights-based approach by providing that the best interest of the child are to be paramount in decision-making and that the voice of the child should be heard as much as possible. I believe this Bill is child-centred. The extensive section outlining the best interests of a child to be considered by and to guide the court when making decisions about guardianship, custody and access is a key addition to our legal framework. The inclusion of the power of the court to seek input from the child and understand their perspective is to be noted as a welcome change. This Bill makes paramount the best interests of the child in these incredibly important decisions. It articulates for the first time the rights of grandparents and other key caregivers whose relationship with the child often becomes central to that child at times when their parents find themselves unable to care for them for myriad reasons. This is a core component of the Bill that takes into account and legislates for the diverse types of families in which children live.
The stated aim of this Bill is to reform and update family law to address the needs of children living in diverse family types. I strongly believe that this is exactly what it will achieve. The Children's Rights Alliance, which represents more than 100 member organisations and individuals working to protect and care for children, has warmly welcomed this legislation. It believes that it puts children at the heart of family law and ensures that children living in non-marital and non-traditional families will be in a position to enjoy a legal relationship with the person who provides them with day-to-day parental care. This Bill is a good news story for hundreds of thousands of children and families in Ireland. It will mean that children are not caught in legal loopholes and that less ambiguity will exist in cases where a child is in a vulnerable position. It allows for wide consideration of many pertinent factors along with the perspective of the child when determining what living and access arrangements are in the best interests of that child. It is bringing families in this country in from the cold and sending a clear message that all compositions of family types in our society are of equal value. I again congratulate the Minister and the Government on the progression of this Bill and will be voting in favour of it.