I welcome the Minister and her officials to the House. I thank her for the consultation in advance of the debate and the opportunity for pre-legislative hearings on the general scheme of the Bill in committee. My colleague, Senator Katherine Zappone, was very active in the committee on that issue.
As a person who has advocated for children’s rights for many years and has the privilege of being a voice in the legislative process, this feels like a really important day, and I believe it is. The Children and Family Relationships Bill will bring about essential and long overdue reform, modernisation and legal clarity to many aspects of family law, particularly to diverse parenting situations and diverse family forms. When I say overdue, that is not a criticism of the Government. I commend the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, her predecessor, Deputy Alan Shatter, and the officials in the Department of Justice and Equality on their courage and expertise in drafting the Bill and bringing it before the Houses. It is an indictment rather of many previous Governments that it has taken us all until now in 2015 to introduce what will be the greatest reform of child and family law for a generation and finally to put children at the heart of family law. It is the first major reform of guardianship laws since the 1960s. I read an article by Colette Browne in the Irish Independentin February in which she noted that 3% of births in the 1960s were to an unmarried mother. I looked at figures in preparation for today’s debate solely in regard to these areas as married families can break down and issues can happen. Figures which I received from the Children’s Rights Alliance show that 308,000 children are living with 186,000 lone parents, 104,000 children are living with 60,000 unmarried cohabiting couples, 43,000 children are living with 29,000 lone fathers, and there are 230 same-sex couples with children. I want us all to have a perspective on the figures and to understand that these are many of the children we are talking about in debating the legislation.
As indicated by the figures, an increasing number of children live in diverse parenting situations and diverse family forms other than the traditional model of a household headed by married parents. I could use all my time to outline the areas I think will significantly contribute to children’s lives and their positive outcomes. For me the Bill is very much based on children’s rights. It is based on the best interests of the child being the paramount consideration and ensures issues such as continuity of care, right to identity, and the voice of the child are all becoming normalised and part of the legislative process. That is welcome.
I will use my time to indicate the areas where I think we could go further. For example, the Bill does not include definitions of guardianship, custody and access which would be essential to reduce the level of family conflict that may take place when relationships break down and to avoid the existing confusion among the public, professionals and the Judiciary. I understand the options about guardianships and the different levels of guardianship, but will it be difficult for the public to understand which levels of guardianship one person has vis-à-vis another? In future Bills, perhaps we should be look at the Law Reform Commission report of 2010 which examined the legal aspects of family relationships. It suggested new terms such as parental responsibility, day-to-day care and contact rather than the word “access”. These are much more child-friendly terms and state the roles the adult would play in the child’s life. However, I recognise and support the Bill as a monumental step in the right direction and the foundation from which child and family law can continue to be developed and bolstered to meet the needs of our ever-evolving society.
Given the breadth of the Bill, it is disappointing that the debate around it has been limited to a few narrow strands, albeit challenging and emotive issues by nouveauchildren’s rights proponents, whose premise I do not always agree is children’s rights centred. I am especially saddened by the talk of a hierarchy of family structures or some sort of Olympics of family structures meeting gold a medal standard where we now have silver and bronze who do not even get to compete. I am conscious that there are children who will listen to parts of the debate. I am not suggesting that they would be tuning in to the Seanad, although they come and visit us regularly, but I am concerned that in some way we are putting affirmation on one sort of family form or another. There are many different reasons for different family forms. We do not need to look too far beyond our families to understand the different types and diverse types of families in which children are living.
On Committee Stage I will be looking at section 63 which deals with the best interests of the child, particularly in relation to the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964. It provides a new and detailed definition in Irish law of the best interests of the child. The factors and circumstances enumerated thereunder are not exhaustive, and therefore the court will be capable of looking beyond them in making a determination concerning the child. The Bill will allow the courts to consider the physical, emotional, psychological, educational and social needs of the child, including his or her need for stability, having regard to age and stage of development. That is welcome.
As has been mentioned, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, special rapporteur on child protection, suggests that in tandem with this welcome legislative development, structural reform also needs to take place, namely, we need to establish a distinct and separate system of family courts. I am aware that is a commitment in the programme for Government to provide a fair and effective forum to vindicate the rights of children and families.
The Child Care Act 1991 is silent on the qualifications, roles and duties of guardians ad litem. A properly funded guardian ad litemagency in Ireland is long overdue. We have a blueprint for this in the Children Acts Advisory Board report of 2009 which gives a voice to children’s wishes, feelings and interests. I hope that as we progress the Bill, we can ensure the voice of the child is certain and guaranteed.
An issue that has been raised with me by Barnardos is the court welfare service. This service would provide a crucial link between the family and the Judiciary, offering services such as mediation, undertaking assessments of the child’s welfare and best interests, ascertaining their view through a child view expert, guardians ad litemand conducting family risk assessments. It would ensure judges received up-to-date holistic information on each case to help them in making their decision. The service would also provide, where appropriate, support such as child contact centres to assist the children in highly contentious and acrimonious splits.Perhaps we should look at other systems in operation, such as the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service in the UK.
I will move on to the issue of the right to identity, which my colleague Senator Power has raised. When I see all our colleagues raising the issue of right to identity, I wish many of them had been here when we were debating the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill, but we will wait and see. I am concerned that people are misrepresenting and misconstruing the principle underlying a child’s right to identity to fit their own agenda. They are talking about the child’s right to identity from the mother’s and father’s perspectives, rather than from the child’s perspective. This Bill approaches the issue from the child’s perspective, based on children’s rights. We had a good debate in the Seanad on the Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill, during which I tabled an amendment on the child’s right to identity. Hopefully, as we evolve in our thinking, we can assert this right to identity more and more. The focus of these groups is often selective, to further an ideological end, rather than a genuine concern for the vindication of the child’s right to his or her identity. This is the crux of our continuous failure on the issue of a child’s right to identity. Historically and culturally, we have constructed a hierarchy of rights, a veil of secrecy, to deny children the right to their identity. What the Minister is putting forward in this Bill and in the Bill on assisted human reproduction is to be welcomed. There are groups that wish we would go further or that we would allow for anonymous donation. The Minister has struck the right balance. I have sympathy with the position of Senator Power in that I would like to see the right to identity here. We have a history of not acknowledging it, but this is a welcome start. The transition period the Minister has proposed is fair and pragmatic. I would prefer that a child have a right to his or her identity, but I am willing to accept what the Minister is putting forward as a strong change, with a focus on children’s rights and ensuring they have their right to identity.
I also want to raise the issue of unmarried fathers. I am worried that we still have a long way to go on this issue. We often feed into the negative stereotypes of unmarried fathers as feckless, irresponsible flakes. It is all too easy for us to do this. Worse still, the justification for not granting automatic guardianship rights to fathers appears to have been conflated with concerns about domestic and sexual violence. These heinous crimes can happen in any type of family, not just unmarried ones. It is wrong, prejudicial and discriminatory to link it exclusively to unmarried parents. The law should presume that the majority of unmarried parents are responsible and reasonable. Where they are not, this should be addressed through relevant legislation. The solution is not to penalise the majority. Colette Browne, in her article on the Children and Family Relationships Bill, says that it compounds our unfair treatment of unmarried parents. She says that currently unmarried fathers have zero legal rights over their children, which means that:
[…] if your partner is away and your child falls ill, you cannot authorise medical treatment. It means that if your relationship breaks up and your partner decides to move abroad with your child, you are powerless to stop her. It also means that you have no automatic right to custody or access to your child. By law, the mother is entitled to sole custody of the child if the father has not been made a guardian. Imagine a worst-case scenario in which your partner dies and you are left alone to care for your child.
How can we make it more natural and how can we ensure that guardianship rights are there?
I have much more to say, but one of the issues I want to raise relates to statutory declarations. All of us have lost precious documents. For example, I lost my driving licence years ago. We are talking about a piece of paper. If one loses it, it is gone and one’s rights are extinguished. I welcome the Minister’s suggestion of piloting a repository. I wonder if we need to do more than that. I acknowledge what she is saying – that she does not want to make it compulsory and add another hurdle – but we have to find a way in which those statutory declarations can be lodged.
I want to be absolutely clear, so that there is no misunderstanding, in saying that I wholeheartedly welcome this Bill. I support it and I will do everything I can do ensure it is brought into law. Its potential is manifold, but at its heart it is about children’s rights. I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill to the House.