Seanad debates

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

UN Committee Report on Children in Ireland: Statements (Resumed)


3:00 pm

Photo of Geraldine FeeneyGeraldine Feeney (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to the House. Since our previous debate on this issue, we have already seen substantial change in the area of child protection. Not alone do we have a committee on child protection, of which the Minister of State and I are members, the Taoiseach has announced we will have a referendum in the spring to protect the rights of the child. The Minister of State is currently engaging in talks with all parties on the issue and he will, no doubt, have all-party support for it. The talks involve seeking a wording that will be agreeable to all parties. The referendum is a good news story and I am sure we will get agreement on the wording.

With regard to the rights of the child, I was interested to hear the judgment of the Supreme Court in the case of baby Ann. I heard somebody mention on a radio show that both sets of parents had been legally represented, but that nobody legally represented the right of the little two year old girl. Initially I thought the judge would be responsible for protecting her rights, but realised that constitutionally he might not be in a position to do that. Has the Minister of State an opinion on whether she should have been legally represented or whether the court should have appointed someone to represent her?

When the Minister of State was in Geneva, I was gratified to see the UN Committee was pleased with Ireland's signing up to the different recommendations it laid down. We have come a long way in the past 14 years. We have an Ombudsman for Children, a National Children's Office, a dedicated Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, and Dáil na nÓg, about which I spoke briefly on our previous discussion. I know something about Dáil na nÓg because both my daughters were very involved with it.

Ireland was not without problems or concerns with regard to child protection. However, compared with other countries we were far more advanced with regard to child safety. We have all read from time to time about places like Thailand where there is sex trafficking of teenagers. Sadly, I have heard that young men, including young Irish men, are frequent visitors to Thailand.

The issue of child labour is another concern. A mother in Dublin may pay €140 for a pair of football boots, but the poor child who has practically blinded himself or herself at the sewing machine making the boots only gets approximately €2 for a day's work.

I also want to mention the UN Committee's concerns about immigration and communities that continue to practise female genital mutilation. At the weekend we heard the Supreme Court has come back with its judgment on the case going through the court and that it has granted the mother the right to appeal. The issue is topical.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate and welcome the Minister of State to the House. Before going further, I wish to acknowledge the work he is doing in this area. We cannot doubt his commitment as progress in the area of children's rights and affairs has been significantly advanced. As the Labour Party spokesperson on this area, I acknowledge his work in this significant area that covers matters ranging from the provision of child care to the area of children's justice.

The Minister of State has now been landed with the issue of the constitutional referendum.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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Is the Senator offering a wording for it?

4:00 pm

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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I have not got the Minister of State's wisdom or his legal background. There has been significant progress in this area. The Government has taken on the issue of child care, although not to the extent I would like. One area missing attention is preschool education. Will the Minister of State consider the failure of the Government to take on the possibility of providing a pre-school place for every child, not only from an economic point of view, although that is important, but also in terms of what it would make available to all our children? I would have no difficulty, for example, with rolling out the scheme in a way that would ensure disadvantaged areas were the first to benefit. It would make a great difference to families in disadvantaged areas if their children could access good quality pre-school education because education allows us to begin levelling the playing field. By tackling child poverty and offering children equal opportunities to participate, we will give our youth the chance to reach their potential as participating members of the community. However, commitment and investment will be needed if we are to succeed. I do not doubt the Minister of State's commitment in that regard but I wonder why the Government has not addressed the issue because, while private provision is generally good, it cannot replace a system in which every three year-old child can expect automatic access to pre-school education, regardless of his or her family circumstances.

Significant progress has been made on child care with the establishment of the Office of the Minister for Children and the Ombudsman for Children. However, the range of the ombudsman's powers remains limited. The exclusion of children in detention or prison from the ombudsman's remit is a serious shortcoming because the children concerned are vulnerable and need representation and support. As the Minister for State's boss once famously said, it s a case of a lot done but more to do.

The report by the UN committee highlights the misses — I will not use the word "failures" because that may be too harsh — in the Government's approach to children. The committee criticised the revised age of criminal responsibility, which provides that children as young as ten years of age may be found guilty of serious criminal offences, from the perspective of the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Many of the provisions of the Children Act 2001, including alternatives to detention for children through community and other sanctions, have yet to be implemented. We need to consider the unimplemented provisions in the Act on child justice in the context of the apparent increase in anti-social behaviour by relatively young children. I am sure the Minister of State is currently knocking on doors, as are I and all the other Members who wish to serve in the Dáil after the next general election. It is a feature of many estates, and local authority estates in particular, that people feel terrorised by gangs of children. Hallowe'en was a nightmare for a lot of people, although the fact that children were off school for a week puts the matter in context. I am referring not only to older people here, because I met three single mothers living in the same estate who told me that a brother of one of the women had to rescue them on Hallowe'en night from the intimidatory actions being perpetrated outside their front doors by 12 to 14 year old children. Given the considerable efforts that went into the Children Act and the fact that several excellent provisions contained in the Act remain to be implemented, it is time to reconsider the issues.

The UN committee expressed concern at the plans to introduce biometric identity cards for children under new immigration legislation. While I will not dwell on that matter, I wish to raise the issue of accommodation and care of unaccompanied minors who seek asylum. Concerns have been expressed to me by people who work in this area that the hostel accommodation being provided is inappropriate.

An issue which emerged during the summer was that a shortage of appropriate places resulted in children who were in care and about to attend court hearings being accommodated in hotels or bed and breakfasts and looked after by social workers or other HSE employees who worked in institutions during the day and stayed with the children during the evening. This situation was reported to be prevalent in the midlands, although not in my area. The Minister of State is looking at me with scepticism.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I am looking at the Senator with interest.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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I do not consider such arrangements to be acceptable. One could argue that care is being given to the children but the setting is not appropriate. The issue was brought to my attention during the summer recess, and I did not raise it in the House before today. My investigations have confirmed the truth of the matter, although I could not make an estimate of the numbers involved. I am aware that difficulties have arisen in terms of developing the necessary resources for providing children with appropriate accommodation but the situation I have outlined falls far short of acceptable standards. I urge the Minister of State to investigate the matter.

I have asked the Leader for a debate on the issues raised by the baby Ann case. I welcome the fact that we are beginning to debate the position of children within the community. It was not long ago that the idea of giving children independent rights was inconceivable. We have moved a long way in that regard. The campaigns by Barnardos, the Children's Rights Alliance and other organisations to put this issue on the agenda is bearing fruit from their point of view. That the Taoiseach has responded to calls for a referendum on including children's rights in the Constitution is an indication of the elevated level it has reached politically and in terms of it becoming a reality following a referendum.

There are many issues to be considered and I welcome the Government's inclusive approach. I am aware the non-governmental organisations have been asked, under the umbrella of the Children's Rights Alliance, to convene with the Minister of State to discuss possible wordings, the implications of those and so on. I hope we will have a third discussion at Oireachtas level. I have called for a debate in this House well in advance of the publication of a wording to allow us to tease out the issue, which is not simple. I am not a constitutional lawyer but I know from reading the summary of the judgments in the so-called baby Ann case that there are complex issues to be considered and that a balance of rights must be achieved. We have had difficulty in achieving a balance of rights in the past involving children who were unborn. I hope we will be able to agree on a position which not only achieves what we want but does not cause us further problems.

As a society and a community we have embraced the notion of children having rights independently. Senator Feeney asked a question, to which I also want to hear the answer, about separate representation for a child in a Supreme Court case such as the one that was heard this week. My assumption is that child could not have been represented because it was not possible legally, but cases other than Supreme Court cases are heard daily in which children need representation. I am aware they get representation in many cases, but I ask the Minister to clarify that aspect.

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House for what is a valuable debate. I thank the Leader also for providing time for the debate.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I welcome also the opportunity to debate this issue. The Minister of State has been positive in coming to the House on a number of occasions as he has today for this resumed debate.

The issue of pre-school care to which Senator O'Meara referred is important. I am very interested in some of the developments in that area. I have long advocated the use of our schools as centres for pre-school and after school care. That is beginning to happen in many small and large towns throughout the country. The good news is that there now appears to be space in our primary schools that was not always available. Once the space is available, it does not take too much money to provide staffing compared with the very large grants the Minister is providing for new child care centres.

I could give the Minister examples of devolved grants being used very effectively to provide rooms to be used for child care. The Minister recently announced funding of €1.4 million for a major child centre project in Kinvara. That is the largest investment the town will ever see, but an additional €40,000 was provided for staffing in the local primary school, which is welcome because it can be used immediately and we do not have to wait for those buildings to be erected.

There is a major cost involved in this area and I could name many towns that have benefited from this investment. The standard figure appears to be between €1 million and €1.4 million. I refer to towns like Mountbellew, Tuam and others towns in Galway that have benefited greatly from that funding. In addition to the fact that child care is costly, the sad reality is that parents must sometimes travel long distances to work because of the housing difficulty. The first priority for them, therefore, is child care because of that need to travel.

Another welcome development is the number of child care committees now established. I understand there are 33 local city and county child care committees, which have done very good work. They have also recommended many of the projects the Minister of State is promoting and will support.

Issues the Government has tackled in recent years have been important. Maternity leave, for example, is important. I understand an additional four weeks was provided last March and that an additional four weeks will be provided from next March. Child benefit has been increased. The early child care supplement of €1,000 for children less than six years is also welcome.

Another welcome measure was the tax relief for child minders who could care for up to three children in their home, but I understand no tax is paid if the amount earned is less than €10,000 per annum. I hope that will be examined in next month's budget because I made inquiries about cost in a number of child care centres in County Galway and the standard figure is approximately €160 per week for full child care. That could amount of €24,000 per year for three children and therefore an increase in the threshold would be welcome.

The question Senator O'Meara raised about schools being closed for Hallowe'en is important. There is always a danger that accidents will occur involving young people or those living in fear of the damage fireworks can do. It is important to have fireworks for community celebrations but it amazes me the way people can gather all those materials months before Hallowe'en. I do not know where they get them but they must do a great deal of research and put a great deal of time into it.

That brings me to the question of playground facilities, in which I hope we will see an improvement throughout the country. There has been talk for years about insurance not being available for playgrounds. Galway County Council came up with its own scheme which meant it could get an insurance policy. The five electoral areas will have three new playgrounds this year, which is 15 in total for the county. That is a very good start.

When we consider the development of towns, new roads and where land becomes available, everybody says we must have housing in a certain location and land for industry, but the last consideration is a playground, recreation area or a park where young and old can play. It is important for young people in particular that they would be able to avail of those facilities.

An area I want to stress in particular is the question of services for children with disabilities. I met the service providers, such as the Brothers of Charity, and the Galway County Association, who are happy that they are making good progress on their services, but they make the point, and the Minister might agree with it, that despite all the resources available for even one child, from where will the funding come for other children? At this stage we should engage in forward planning and have definite budgets, whether for a three or five-year period. When Senator Leyden and I were members of the health board, one of the issues we continually advocated was to have these schemes continued.

On the question of residential places, I understood we had a sufficient number but from talking to the people in the Brothers of Charity and the Galway Association, that appears not to be the case. That is an important area.

I very much welcome the Taoiseach's statement about a referendum on children's rights. That is important and the Minister of State has been very supportive of it. The issues he raised are difficult ones. People have told me that the bond between parents and children is important, whether it is a prospective adoptive family or whatever. I agree it is important but one sometimes wonders why decisions are not taken more quickly.

Senator O'Meara referred to the balance of rights and asked whether we would ever achieve it. Difficulties arise between the birth mother and the prospective adoptive mother, or adoptive parents, and it is therefore very important that a balance be struck.

In my travels I have spoken to elderly people. Grandparents must be very careful and should never tell their sons and daughters how to rear their children, bearing in mind that they might have a different view on child rearing. Children were reared differently in the grandparents' time. Some of their practices may have been good and others may not. This is a very difficult issue and I hope there will be a good outcome. However, it means we will need to have much discussion on the rights of children, who are the most important people. The rights of children comprise an important consideration in striking the right balance.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House to discuss the UN committee's report on child care in Ireland and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Minister of State is eminently qualified to do so and has performed extremely well in this regard. I thank him for all the work he has done on children's rights and affairs. I met him in various locations around the country and noted that he takes his job very seriously and has championed the provision of child care facilities.

Some of the UN committee's criticisms are a little over the top. Approximately 17 criticisms have been highlighted and I will refer to two, one of which is the lack of child care facilities. Much work has been done in this regard over the years and we could not debate this issue without recognising it. However, there is a need for many more pre-school places. Such places give children a proper start in life, especially in disadvantaged communities.

Grind schools and fee-paying schools have become part of the education system. In my area provides computer training in the form of European computer driving licence courses to every child of national school age. This has enhanced the children's computer skills and has given them confidence. The advantaged or well-off are usually the only ones who can afford such courses. The course in question has been a great success. It has been allocated funding and could be allocated much more. It is a pilot scheme carried out in conjunction with various community groups and it has worked. It costs €3 or €4 per week but if a family cannot afford it, it is not charged, thus allowing all children to participate. The model is worth considering. Much pre-school and child care provision is of good quality but a little more can be done in this regard.

We need to be vigilant about the increase in the number of racist crimes. Ireland was traditionally very inward-looking and was not used to immigration. It presents a great challenge but I would like to believe we have met it quite well. This does not take from the fact that there are pockets of people who are plainly racist. We must adopt measures on the ground to address this. One or two schools in my constituency have expelled young students for hurling racist abuse at visitors. In the towns in question, the Garda has taken the problem on board but it seems to have no resources or detention places for the offenders. It is unnerving to note that the offenders, who may be 15 or 16 years of age, are probably misguided and out of control. Their parents probably do not have the proper skills or confidence to take them on. The youths in question are engaged in bullying outside the school environment.

I am concerned that this problem is becoming prevalent throughout the country. The offenders are more than likely male but some are female. When one is 15 years of age and running wild, one has no responsibilities. This must be dealt with. The Garda, parents and teachers are trying to tackle the problem but there do not seem to be enough detention places or other mechanisms of redress. We need to explore solutions to stamp out racist offences and bullying.

Many resources and much time are being devoted to addressing the poor health status of Traveller children. I was travelling from Sligo some days ago and admired all the new houses and housing estates. Most of the new houses are quite well insulated and have all the modern conveniences, including hot running water, showers and televisions. When one goes by Travellers' caravans on a wet day, one says to oneself that one would not be able to live in such conditions, which have a bearing on the poor health status of Traveller children. We all believe more must and can be done to address this.

The lack of progress in banning the smacking of children was raised. We are losing control of ourselves in this regard. When I was a certain age, a good smack sometimes did me no harm.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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It did not do the Senator any good.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I never made it as far as Senator Leyden's area to get away with it. Where does the discipline process end? If we are not disciplined and do not fear stepping over the mark, we can run wild. Many years ago, if a child left his street or town, somebody always recognised him and informed his parents. One always knew one's parents had a good cane. Mine not only smacked me but smacked my friend also. I would not say smacking children is desirable but the criticism that there is a lack of progress in banning the smacking of children is a little over the top.

Issues arise regarding child poverty, particularly among children of lone parents. There are many incentives in place and community welfare officers have much discretion in this regard. It is worrying that child poverty in lone parent families seems to be unbalanced. If I can make criticisms in certain respects, I cannot criticise the Minister of State's application to his job. I wish him every success. When one is in Opposition, it is nice to be able to acknowledge what has been done by the Government in this area. I wish the Minister of State continued success.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to the House. I commend him on his work as Minister of State with responsibility for children. The establishment of the Office of the Minister for Children was a wonderful decision by the Government and, in particular, by the Taoiseach. The choice of the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, as the person with responsibility in this regard was a worthy one.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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He should have been a senior Minister.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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We will have to wait until next May or June. It may be before that. As the Minister of State attends Cabinet meetings, he is fully aware of all the issues pertaining to children.

I do not normally follow Senator Feighan in the House. I commend him on his views on equality of opportunity for Travellers and Traveller families. Those of us involved with Roscommon County Council have tried our best in that respect. It is not the easiest or most politically advantageous issue to raise at any time. We have made some contribution. Traveller children can be educated if they are in fixed abodes. We should commend our schools which have openly and willingly assisted settled Traveller families that are part of the community in the education sector.

When Traveller children reach a certain age, there is a tendency for their families to follow the old-style tradition of withdrawing them from secondary schools. It is a difficulty that is hard to explain. Such children must continue their education and get to third level, if possible. They have the ability, but they sometimes suffer when decisions are made by families not to allow children, especially girls, to continue in the education system. Some Travellers might not want their children to be exposed to the settled community.

I disagree with Senator Feighan's comments on corporal punishment, which I oppose in the home and in schools because I do not think it has contributed anything. We all remember the fear we had when we attended school. I walked a mile and a half to school. It was not a pleasant experience to get six of the best or whatever it might have been. It did not happen to me very often, but it happened to me as it happened to every other child. The best teachers I ever had were Sister Anthony, who taught me in the Convent of Mercy in Roscommon and never slapped a child in her life, and Brother Paul O'Dwyer, who died last year and was in charge of the Christian Brothers school in Roscommon. While the Christian Brothers have been much maligned, I had nothing but good experiences of them in Roscommon.

It is difficult to make corporal punishment in the home illegal. We do not want to go down that road because it would not be possible to enforce it. Most families use corporal punishment as a last resort in any situation. It rarely occurs, as far as possible, but I presume it arises from time to time. All we can do is give the example of our own lives and the way we raise our children. As I have said many times, one becomes somewhat experienced when one has the blessing and fortune of having a family, but one then becomes redundant, which is a strange thing. Grandparents can have a great influence in the area of education.

I would like to comment on the Minister of State's work in the context of this debate on the UN committee's highly commendable report on the progress that has been made on the position of children in Ireland. I am sure the Government is delighted that the UN has produced a report that gives Ireland some very good marks. The Minister of State recently spent a hectic day visiting some of the extraordinary number of quality child care facilities in County Roscommon. He met the parish priest of Fourmilehouse, Rev. Fr. Raymond Browne, who is dynamic in bringing services to that area. He also met Bernie Kearney and others who have helped to develop an impressive state-of-the-art child care centre adjoining the school, community centre, housing for the elderly and church in Fourmilehouse.

I was delighted that the Minister of State attended. He also went to the Lisnamult area of County Roscommon, where child care facilities have been provided for some time. I am sure he will not be found wanting when the authorities from that area contact him seeking assistance with a major development of that facility. I had the honour of serving with the Minister of State's father, the late Brian Lenihan, whom I succeeded as TD for Roscommon.

The Minister of State called to the well-designed state-of-the-art facility in Frenchpark, which was opened by the President. The Taoiseach was there last Friday. There are similar facilities in Loughglynn. The Minister of State also met the group from Tulsk and Cams that is proposing two projects in the area. Since he met the group in question, both projects have been approved by the Government. I am pleased to put such positive developments on the record.

Just as we were under pressure to provide national schools when I was a Deputy, it seems we are now under pressure to provide child care facilities in every town and village. If that is what is required, we will have to provide those facilities. The Minister of State dug the foundation stone and approved the money for a beautiful new centre in Croghan. He also received proposals for a child care facility as part of the youth centre at Circular Road in Roscommon. He will appreciate that representations have been made to him by certain councillors in that area. The worthwhile development in question will be based on a site donated by the State.

I ask the Government to consider in the forthcoming budget the proposal that child care facilities be exempt from rates. The proposal, which was made by Mr. Séamus Butler, who is a member of Longford County Council, has been approved unanimously by that council. It makes sense because the State ultimately must pick up the tab for various overheads of this nature. It is a form of cross-subsidisation. I agree that child care facilities offered by the private and public sectors, communities and co-operatives should be exempt from rates. Rates should not be imposed in such circumstances. I commend Councillor Butler and I ask all local authorities to follow his lead. The motion has been passed by Longford County Council. I ask my friends in Roscommon County Council to agree to this proposal at their next meeting. It would be worthwhile to ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to approve the plan.

I echo the words of Professor Lucy Smith, who is the United Nations representative in this area, in the report being considered by the House. She said it is impressive that so much has been achieved in Ireland in respect of children's rights in such a short period. That is a major statement by the UN. It is right to acknowledge that we have come such a long way. The Office of the Minister for Children was established in the 2006 budget, which also provided for the new early child care supplement and the national strategy for children, which will run from 2006 to 2010.

The Minister of State recently met young people yet again at the highest level of democracy. He has given young people throughout the country a voice in Government by allowing them to express their views to him, to be conveyed in turn to the Government. The Minister of State does not just express his views and those of other mature politicians, but also those of young people who outlined their views to him in an open manner. I listened to the Minister of State when he spoke on television about this matter which received tremendous coverage.

The drafting of the new child protection regulations has commenced. The level of investment in education is unprecedented, as I have already said in the context of my home county. The Government made the wise decision to approve the appointment of the first Ombudsman for Children, who has been appointed by the President in accordance with usual procedure.

An expert on the UN committee highlighted that social expenditure on children in Ireland has doubled since 1997. This huge increase underlines the Government's commitment to children. As the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, has said, we are working hard to ensure that our economic success leads to positive social change. That is most important in the area of the rights of children. I welcome the announcement that the Minister of State is engaged in an article-by-article examination of the Constitution to ensure it is child-proofed. A referendum on this subject would be a landmark in the history of the State. While we should not rush such a poll, it should be provided for in the lifetime of this Government or early in the next Fianna Fáil, Progressive Democrats and Labour Party Administration.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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That would be a grand coalition.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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There can be no clearer or more relevant example of the need to provide for the rights of children in the Constitution than the awful case of baby Ann. The Judiciary had no choice in this matter. The only consolation is that baby Ann is loved very much and we cannot say that for many children around the world, especially those in Africa who have nobody to love and care for them. That is not much consolation in this case in which there are two sets of parents with two sets of demands and requirements. We can only hope that baby Ann will grow up with love from both sets of parents, who are excellent people. I hope they can work together to ensure she has a bright future. We should cherish all our children equally. The constitutional amendment proposed by the Minister of State and approved in principle by the Taoiseach is the right direction in which to go. We can devote our efforts to encourage other states in the EU to follow the lead given by this Minister of State with responsibility for children.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I thank the Acting Chairman for allowing me the opportunity to speak on this. I welcome the Minister of State and I am very pleased that he is handling this issue. He has grabbed a hold of his portfolio and has shown his interest in the topic. I also wish to start by applauding the process under discussion. It is right that when we sign up to an international convention, we should be held accountable before the international community for how well we perform in bringing that convention into effect. It is good that we should have to go before the UN committee every few years and account for what we have done. I am not sure if we have done this too often in the past.

As the UN report makes clear, we have made some progress in a number of areas but there are many remaining where our performance has been below par. The purpose of a debate such as this is to bring such matters into the public domain, not only to create awareness but also a groundswell of support for future action. I wish to focus my contribution on one of the areas in which the UN finds us lacking. This is the matter of denominational education, which is raised on page 14, paragraphs 60 and 61. The committee reiterates its concern that non-denominational or multi-denominational schools represent less than 1% of the number of primary education facilities in Ireland. The committee encourages us:

[T]o take fully into consideration the recommendations made by the Committee on Racial Discrimination which encourages the establishment of non-denominational or multi-denominational schools and to amend the existing legislative framework to eliminate discrimination in school admissions.

This is not the first time the committee has drawn attention to this issue, but we have done nothing about it. Two UN committees have found us wanting in this area, but so far we have not responded meaningfully to their prodding.

History has left us with a structure for our educational system that is quite inappropriate for the age in which we live. When the British created our national school system in the 1830s, Ireland was sharply divided into two religious communities and it made some sort of sense to mirror that division in the way education was organised. The result was that the management of schools was effectively handed over to the two main churches, each of which provided denominational education for its own flock. They did a marvellous job and we have been fortunate in Ireland with the education provided to us by nuns, priests and the Christian Brothers.

I was in South America recently and I discovered that a couple of generations ago, legislators in both Uruguay and Argentina went looking for an education system that would suit their people. They found what they were looking for in Ireland and they encouraged the Christian Brothers to set up an education system in their countries.

The denominational system may have been the right solution for the 19th century, but I doubt if it is the right way to structure our education almost 200 years later. Over the past 40 years, we have seen significant growth in the number of parents who prefer their children to be educated in a non-denominational or multi-denominational environment. The recent wave of immigration has brought to our schools many children who belong to neither of the two denominations that until recently dominated our culture.

Let me make it quite clear that I am not against people sending their children to denominational schools, which are for the most part excellent. I do not for a moment suggest that the State should not support denominational schools to the generous extent that it does today. I object to a structure for our education that does not offer to everyone as a right the choice of a non-denominational or multi-denominational approach. We do not offer such a choice to everyone, still less do we offer it as a right. In today's world, it is wrong for us not to do so. I agree with the two UN committees in this regard and I say this as a committed member of one of the two main churches. I am a supporter of denominational education if one wants it, but I know that there are a considerable number of people who do not want such an education nowadays. I am not sure if we have taken the correct steps to enable that to happen.

My belief about this is strengthened when we consider the matter in an all-Ireland context. Nobody would deny that the basic problem underlying the situation in Northern Ireland is the mutual antagonism of the two communities. Many would argue that no lasting reconciliation between the communities can take place until they abandon the virtual apartheid that keeps them apart and start treating each other as the neighbours that they are. I know the North very well and I know that the education system causes divisions. If one meets somebody and wants to know what side that person is on, he or she just has to talk about his or her school. A main pillar of the apartheid that continues to divide Northern Ireland is the sectarian nature of the education system. Like our own system in the Republic, it is strictly segregated on religious lines. Despite the great success of the few multi-denominational schools that exist, very little progress has been made in loosening the sectarian stranglehold on education that many would argue is one of the fundamental causes of the divisions.

In both North and South, the churches have united in their wish to continue the denominational system. It is high time that we questioned that outright opposition in the light of the circumstances we live in today. In this part of the country, given the calmer circumstances that prevail, we are in an excellent position to lead the way in this very sensitive area. I hope this issue will not get overlooked among the many other matters the UN committee has raised in its uncompromising report. For the sake of future peace on this island, it is one of the most important and urgent issues to emerge.

I am pleased that the Minister of State has brought this matter before the House. It is worth debating and I would like the focus to be placed on that particular topic.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
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While I am in favour of choice in education, including multi-denominational education, we should not lose sight of the fact that there is much de facto multi-denominationalism. My nephew and nieces have been educated without exception in Catholic schools, yet they are still members of the Church of Ireland. I am a member of a board of management of a school which is under Church of Ireland management but which has a 70% Catholic intake. Therefore, I do not think one should paint the system in the South as more rigid than elsewhere. It may have been that way 30 or 40 years ago, but that is not the case today.

I do not normally speak in these debates because it is not possible to follow every policy field with close attention. However, I warmly congratulate the Minister of State with responsibility for children on the pioneering work he has been doing. Tackling child poverty and disadvantage through the health, education and social welfare systems is obviously a high priority. There has been tremendous growth in excellent child care facilities in villages, towns and cities all over the country, and I am sure the good work will be continued. Consideration should be given to the problems of obesity and higher priority accorded to providing sports halls and facilities in schools, particularly at primary level. Referring to a previous debating point, it is good that corporal punishment should be discouraged, even in the home. Whether it is practical to penalise it, except in clearly defined and extreme circumstances, is another matter.

I welcome the idea of a constitutional amendment, although, having being involved in some others, I do not underestimate the complex task of finding the right formulation. However, it is right that children should be recognised as autonomous human beings rather than simply being subsumed into the family. When the Constitution was written, people across the board had much more authoritarian ideas, and the role of parents, Church and State was taken for granted. There was no question of children's rights differing in any way from those of their elders and, as they would have said in those days, betters.

It would be a good idea in many instances to have children represented separately. I do not know whether it would be practical or popular, but I believe it should apply not least in separation and divorce cases. I know judges take account of children's interests, but if there were constitutional backing, it might become a more central factor. The creation of an Ombudsman for Children is a very important step towards recognition of their autonomous rights.

Incidentally, in another judgment, the Supreme Court has reprimanded the State regarding the separation of children from immigrant parents. It is fitting that the rights of children would not be subjected to the exigencies of immigration policy, and we will have to rethink the matter. That is the advantage of having a written Constitution and a Supreme Court.

Two other matters relate to anti-social behaviour. There has been a development in towns throughout the country of housing liaison officers becoming involved in order that the problem is not dealt with in a purely criminal or legal context but in a holistic social fashion. Many measures not directly connected with the law can improve the situation. Another idea from across the water that the Minister might consider, which I found both intriguing and amusing, is sending difficult children to the best boarding schools instead of placing them in detention, the reasoning being that their fees are still considerably less than the cost of a State place of detention. Perhaps that might be explored with the boarding sector.

5:00 pm

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators for their informative and useful statements.

It was very generously acknowledged on all sides of the House that Ireland has come a long way in the past ten years in implementing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and that progress was endorsed by the UN committee that examined our record thereon. There is no doubt the establishment of the Office of the Minister for Children gives renewed focus to issues relating to children within public administration. Equally, the appointment of a Minister of State regularly attending Government meetings ensures that, as never before, children's interests are taken into account before it arrives at decisions.

The Taoiseach's recent announcement on behalf of the Government of its intention to hold a referendum on children's rights to accord them a central place in the Constitution is an important development regarding their status. The status of the child as a rights holder was highlighted by the UN committee as a concern in its concluding remarks. I have been charged with the responsibility of initiating a process of consultation and discussion with the other Dáil parties and all other relevant groups over coming weeks. That process aims to achieve consensus on the wording of an appropriate amendment regarding the place of children in the Constitution. It is the Government's intention to find a wording that reflects the Irish people's desire to establish robust safeguards for the rights and liberties of all children and enshrine the highest possible standards of protection.

The Supreme Court's judgment this week brings into focus the Taoiseach's wisdom in proposing a referendum. That the case took 19 days of argument in the High Court and an appeal to the Supreme Court demonstrates the complexity of the issues. The Supreme Court judges have delivered separate judgments outlining their view of the law applicable to the dispute, and each requires very careful consideration. I have examined the implications of all such judgments for the proposed referendum. It may be that they have implications for the content and wording of any constitutional change, and judgments may also have implications for legislative change in our adoption code. The exchange between the committee and the delegation can be seen as useful and constructive, and I know the Government will take into account the concluding observations in developing children's policy.

In the very short time left it will not be possible to comment on the complete list of issues raised by Senators, but I will deal with several. Senator Browne raised the issue of access to psychological services for children. The current position is that all primary and post-primary schools have access to psychological assessments, either through the National Educational Psychological Service or through the scheme that it administers for commissioning psychological assessments. Schools that do not currently have psychologists assigned by NEPS can avail themselves of the scheme, whereby schools can have an assessment carried out by a member of a panel of private psychologists approved by the service, with fees paid directly.

Senator Brian Hayes asked that I reply on the assessment of children in care and the procedure for returning children to their families. Under the Child Care Act 1991, the HSE has statutory responsibility in the area. The dominant focus has been on the protection and care of children at risk, but we have shifted to a more preventative approach. It should be noted that 90% of children in care are in foster care placements. A designated social worker is allocated to children as soon as the need for admission to care is identified and for as long as they remain in care. Social workers co-ordinate care arrangements and have responsibility for ensuring compliance with statutory requirements and standards, including an assessment of the young person's needs, care planning and review, including consultations with the young person, families, foster carers and other significant parties.

Regarding care planning for children in foster care, the Child Care (Placement of Children with Relatives) Regulations 1995 set out the legal requirement for the development of a care plan. That must be reviewed every six months for the first two years and thereafter annually. The regulations also set out some of the areas that must be considered by the assigned social worker in reviewing the care plan, including whether the child's circumstances have changed and whether it would be in the child's best interests to return to the custody of his or her parents.

Senator Henry raised several issues regarding mental health, including the Mental Health Act 2001, which entered force on 1 November 2006. The Act provides additional safeguards for the protection of the very small number of children requiring involuntary detention owing to mental illness. From now on, all applications for the involuntary detention of a child must be made by the HSE to the District Court. The HSE has put in place interim arrangements for the treatment of children in adult units pending the provision of the dedicated child and adolescent beds. As Senator Henry is aware, the Government adopted the report presented to it earlier this year in this regard. All children admitted to adult units will be treated on a one-to-one basis by appropriately trained staff. The Mental Health Commission has also issued a code of practice relating to the admission of children under the Mental Health Act 2001. In recent years the HSE has made significant progress in the provision of additional child and adolescent consultant psychiatrists to support the work of community-based child and adolescent multidisciplinary mental health teams. There are now 70 child and adolescent consultant psychiatrists employed by the HSE. Having said that, I take Senator Henry's point that progress must be made in respect of this area.

The National Office for Suicide Prevention, which is responsible for the implementation of the national strategy or action on suicide prevention, supports a number of initiatives to promote the mental health of children and to prevent suicide. These include programmes in schools, projects in youth organisations and related services, and the provision of information for young persons on dedicated websites.

I thank Senator O'Meara for the good wishes she extended to me as Minister of State with responsibility for children. The Senator referred to pre-school education. I agree it would be a desirable objective to ensure every child in the country should obtain such education. I was pleased to hear the Senator state that she would like to see those disadvantaged areas and other areas that are not availing of pre-school education to obtain access to it first. The latter is extremely important. I commend the Senator because in the lead-up to a general election, it would be easy for any political party to state it would like to ensure that every child should have access to a guaranteed free year of pre-school education. It must be acknowledged that a large number of children are already obtaining pre-school education thanks to the efforts and contributions made by their parents. It is vital to ensure that, in the first instance, those who do not have access to such education should obtain it. That is the important first step because it will lead us close to the position where all children will have access to a pre-school year of education. The wealth of evidence that the latter does so much good in the context of the later development of children is overwhelming.

The Senator raised a number of other points. She referred to the detention of children in prisons, which is extremely unusual. The Government has accepted my proposal that the use of St. Patrick's Institution will be phased out. Under the new Children Act, child detention schools will become the model for all offenders under the age of 18. The necessary commitments have been made, in financial and planning terms, by the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Education and Science and work on this project is well under way.

The age of criminal responsibility was discussed when the House debated the amendments to what has become the Children Act. I disagreed with the United Nations on this matter in Geneva. I was not prepared to take responsibility for stating that a ten or 11 year old could never commit a homicide or an aggravated sexual crime. I disagreed with the UN because I was obliged to take responsibility for commencing the legislation. It is easy for committees to indicate what is desirable, but they are not obliged to face victims and state that offences never occurred. That is the obverse of what the UN recommends. However, I accept that the latter must consider matters exclusively from the perspective of the child and criticise us on that basis.

Senator Leyden referred to the considerable progress that has been made in the provision of community child care facilities. There is no doubt a substantial investment has been made in that regard. The Senator correctly indicated that child care facilities are increasingly replacing national schools as the focus of interest for many local representatives. We have renewed the child care investment programme for a further five years in order that we can continue to roll out investment in this area.

Senator Quinn raised the question of denominational education. This matter did not feature very strongly at the hearing in Geneva. The committee was impressed by the achievement and performance levels of our school sector and by the levels of attainment that Irish students, in the context of international standards, achieve. However, the Senator made his case on an entirely different basis and stated that, as is the case under the Constitution, parents have the right to determine how their children are to be educated. The Education Act recognises a variety of patrons. I accept, however, that because Educate Together is the most recent patron, it has more temporary schools than other patrons that already have ownership of lands and established buildings, not that they are always satisfied with the condition of the latter. Educate Together has a difficulty in that it possesses a large number of temporary schools. The Government has increased the amount being invested in the schools building programme. There is no doubt we must try to give increased priority to the completion of Educate Together schools.

Senator Quinn referred to a number of phenomena in respect of multi-denominational and non-denominational education. The Senator spoke about the massive growth in the numbers seeking non-denominational education and the recent waves of immigrants. It would be dangerous to assume recent immigrants to this country necessarily want non-denominational education for their children. My experience, as a representative of the constituency which probably has the largest proportion of immigrants in the country, is to the contrary. I have discovered that many immigrants want religious education in schools because they tend to use their religion as an identifier in their country of arrival. I will, however, draw the Senator's observations to the attention of the Minister.

There is a great deal of wisdom in what Senator Mansergh stated, namely, that we must give consideration to schools exercising greater flexibility in this area. There are a large number of Catholic schools in Dublin in which are enrolled large numbers of immigrant students who profess different religious faiths. Arrangements will have to be devised for these children. I am aware that some within the Catholic Church have acknowledged that. A degree of flexibility will have to be developed in the system in respect of the different conscientious preferences of parents and for their proper accommodation.

Senator Feeney referred to pre-school education and the need for play facilities. Along with Senator Mansergh and several other Members, she also referred to the separate representation of children in the courts. I am giving further consideration to this matter in the context of the legislation relating to children and the guardianship ad litem issue. I am somewhat dissatisfied that while we provided in the Child Care Act for a guardian ad litem to be appointed to a child, we have never defined what should be the function and scope of this service. It is important that it should be regulated and that there should be a clear set of standards.

Mary Henry (Independent)
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I must ask the Minister of State to conclude.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I apologise for trespassing on the time of the House.

Mary Henry (Independent)
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The Minister of State's comments are extremely interesting but we must conclude.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Feighan for his generous comments on my performance. The Senator dealt with a range of issues, including corporal punishment.

I agree with Senator Leyden that we cannot legislate in this area but that we can encourage.