Children’s Rights Alliance lecture marking the work of Jillian van Turnhout

Children’s Rights Alliance lecture marking the work of Jillian van Turnhout
Senator in Seanad Éireann from 2011 to 2016
in The Ark, A Cultural Centre for Children

13 April 2016

Speech by Jillian van Turnhout

Thank JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (1)you Children’s Rights Alliance for this wonderful opportunity to reflect on my path to children’s rights advocacy and my term of office in Seanad Éireann.

So, what can you expect from this evening? I plan to start by sharing a bit about myself and my journey. I will use some of the legislation we dealt with in the Seanad to offer insights into both success and failure and how best to avoid the latter.  I hope you will find it interesting and to the NGOs in the room, I hope it will help you both understand life inside the bubble and how best to shape it.

As I look around the room I see so many friends and supporters.  I know I couldn’t do what I do without you.  On this note I want to begin by giving a very special thank you to my husband Michael who is my rock.  A huge thanks to my Mum, Jenny Hassett and my late Dad Michael Hassett for always believing in me and nurturing the eternal optimist in me who believes she can make the world a better place.  To my brothers John and Gerry for the reality checks and keeping me grounded. And to my sisters-in-laws Philo and Gina for always cheering me on.  My Researcher and Assistant in the Seanad over the last 5 years, Amy McArdle, is also here tonight and I want to pay her a special thanks for all her support and expertise as our time working together comes to an end.  Amy, I wish you good fortune as you move to your exciting new challenge.

My Dad lost his Mum at the age of 8 and lost his Dad less than 3 months later following a bicycle accident. Unbeknownst to him, my Mum, living only a short distance away, would soon be grieving the loss of her Dad. So much tragedy in their early years and both tell of how narrowly they escaped a fate in one of the children’s institutions we are only too aware of today. They were lucky you see. They both had strong, determined adults who believed in them. So, while they grew up in hardship, they grew up knowing they were loved. This is the gift they gave to me and my brothers, the gift of growing up wrapped in love. When asked what one thing I would want for every child?  My answer is always “to have an adult who believes in them fully and strives with them to realise their dreams”.  It has taken me until now to realise that their experience, and the experience they gave to us their children, was a key factor drawing me to children’s rights.

JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (2)For the first 12 years of my career I worked in the private sector but throughout this time I was working with children and young people in a voluntary capacity not least through my involvement with the Irish Girl Guides. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a Girl Guide! I have endeavoured in every role and position I have held to date to live by my Guide Promise and Law to ensure that “I think of others before myself”.

Just over 20 years ago I was elected as Secretary General to one of the then three European youth platforms – it brought together all the International Youth Organisations at a Council of Europe level.  Over three years I worked in Brussels with the leadership of the other two youth platforms to successfully merge into the European Youth Forum – a sole platform for youth organisations across Europe.

On returning to Ireland I was honoured to be elected as President of the National Youth Council of Ireland.  Now, I know I’m showing my age here but I remember getting my first mobile phone in this role and the excitement of waiting for it to ring.  I also remember doing my first radio interview and my Mum, who remains my dedicated media consultant to this day, giving me her first piece of advice “I hope you are not going to be one of those moaners who is always complaining.  If you want to be a game changer then you need to focus on how to solve the problems”.

I went on to be a member of the European Economic and Social Committee which is an advisory body of the EU and was honoured to be elected to the position of Vice President.  As part of my work on the EESC I was a member of the EU-China Round Table, which took me back and forth to China over several years.  In this role I was the rapporteur on its Children’s Rights Report.

I still remember my job interview in the Central Hotel for the Children’s Rights Alliance in May 2005. I remember thinking it was a long shot since my professional experience until then was primarily in the private sector, albeit with the advantage of significant performance driven results expertise, but still it was only my voluntary work that was directly relevant to the work of the Alliance.  Perhaps I needed to think more like a man and focus on all the things I could offer.

In accepting the role I met every metaphor going-baptisms of fire, roads hit running, and deep ends plunged. Within my first year in the Alliance we produced a Shadow Report and had appeared before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, we also produced a children’s report to the Committee and had agreed a Social Partnership deal entitled, somewhat optimistically, “Towards 2016”.

In my time in the Alliance I worked with many wonderful and talented people and I would like to take this opportunity to wish one of them, Maria Corbett, every success with her exciting new venture.  Maria recently announced she is going to take up a full time PhD with NUIG to examine the process of how we decide to take children into care. I can’t think of a better person for the job.  During this time, I also developed a great relationship with Prof Geoffrey Shannon whose legal expertise I have always appreciated. Thank you both for your firm and lasting friendship.

It was on taxi ride through Shanghai’s equivalent of Temple Bar in 2011 that I received the fateful phone call from the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, inviting me to accept his nomination to the Seanad. I hope you will appreciate just how surreal a moment that was for me! To this day I remember clearly him stressing that he wanted me to be truly independent and keep my own voice.

So this evening, in the spirit of ‘keeping my own voice’ I intend to peel away some of the layers of legislative mystery. While the Seanad transcripts will give you the “record” of how various Bills pass through the House, I will give you a behind the scenes look at what really influenced and shaped some of the legislation I worked on.

Finance (Local Property Tax) Act 2012
In preparing for the Local Property Tax Bill in 2012 I knew that many children and youth JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (3)organisations owned residential venues and was concerned they would face paying significant Property Tax bills. I rang the Department of Finance to explain my concerns. As it happened, the Official I spoke to had had a daughter in the Girl Guides and got exactly what I was talking about.  In December 2012 I tabled an amendment to the Bill to exempt venues owned by children and youth organisations from the Property Tax. The Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan TD, did not accept my amendment but did commit to come back with an amendment to achieve the same aim in a few months.  I took him at his word and in March 2013 he came back and granted the exemption and specifically cited Guiding and Scouting as an examples of why he was doing so.

As we all know, there is often a disconnect between law making and the practical reality on the ground.  There is no better feeling in the world than knowing you have bridged that disconnect and won a victory for civil society.

Protection of Children’s Health (Tobacco Smoke in Mechanically propelled Vehicles) Bill 2012
On New Year’s Day 201JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (4)6, the Protection of Children’s Health (Tobacco Smoke in Mechanically Propelled Vehicles) Act of 2014 came into effect in Ireland. This legislation extends the workplace ban on smoking to all vehicles where children are present.  The impetus for this important legislative change was in fact the Protection of Children’s Health from Tobacco Smoke Bill 2012, which I initiated with Senators John Crown and Mark Daly with the support of John’s assistant Shane Conneely. We started the process optimistically in spring 2012 with a view to its passage before the summer recess.  Instead what ensued was months of tedious meetings and games of tag with John Crown stressing the urgency of the Bill, Mark working the political aspects and me bringing the children’s rights expertise but also the diplomacy necessary to calm the waters and steady the ship.  Each of us played to our strengths. In the end, some three years later, even though only a handful of words from our original Bill remained due to amendments but we got it over the line.

Adoption (Identity and Information) Bill 2014
Tens of thousands of Irish adoptees don’t know their original names, who their parents JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (5)are or their medical history.  In November 2014 I co-sponsored legislation with Senators Averil Power and Fidelma Healy Eames to recognise the right to identity of adopted children.

As an adopted child, an adoptive parent and a children’s rights advocate, we each brought our own unique perspectives to the table.  Thanks to cross party support in the Seanad we persuaded Government to allow the Bill pass through Second Stage (no mean feat!!).

For those who are not au fait with the legislative process, there are 5 Stages in the passage of a Bill but it is the middle 3 that are the most substantive.  In short:

  • First Stage initiates the Bill and gets it on the agenda of the first House (Dáil or Seanad);
  • Second Stage is the general debate on the purpose, intention and scope of the Bill;
  • Third Stage (aka Committee) goes through the Bill section by section and considers individual amendments;
  • Fourth Stage (aka Report) allows you to review issues raised at Committee and table additional amendments; and
  • Fifth Stage (Final) sees a vote on entire Bill.

A successful Bill then goes to the other House, and follows stages two to five and then hopefully it is enacted into Law.  Many Bills, particularly those not initiated by Government, fall or stall at one hurdle or another…and some reappear as a Government Bill down the line!!

Back to our Adoption Bill and we are now at Committee Stage the third stage of the Seanad process.  Unusually, since we were the authors of the Bill, we had tabled a considerable number of amendments to address issues raised by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, James Reilly, at Second Stage.  Averil and I worked as a tag team and it was the one and only time I occupied the Fianna Fáil front bench seats in the Seanad.  It became clear as we were working through the amendments that the Minister and his officials had decided to neither engage nor oppose our amendments.

While this was allowing us to whiz through the changes we proposed it was all very bizarre.  It was at this point I got a text message from an Official in the House kindly pointing out that the schedule did not limit us from pushing the Bill through all stages.  So, following a speedy consultation with Averil, we agreed to give it a go but not before giving the Minister his opportunity.  I took to my feet and asked the Minister if he would be willing to engage with us on our Bill before Report Stages, which we were willing to take another day otherwise we would progress all Stages.

At the end of Committee Stage we asked again and there was still no comment.  So we pressed ahead to Report Stage and then with thanks to the Government Senators jumped the final hurdle and took the fifth and final stage.  These last two stages took all of 30 seconds maximum.

We now had a powerful tool in our armoury on the Right to Identity for all adoptees.    We had a Bill that had passed unopposed through all stages in the Seanad.  Surely the Dáil could pick it up and amend it if and where necessary.

Our efforts pushed the Minister and the Department to publish its own Heads of Bill on Adoption (Information and Tracing).   The Heads had come a long way from formerly stated positions. There are still obstacles, which were highlighted during the excellent hearings by the Health and Children Committee and detailed in its subsequent report.  There are over 50,000 adult children whose right to their identity could soon be realised.  This issue is a ticking clock as many are aging and many not see the legislation published let alone enacted.  It is urgent.

Immigration (Reform) (Regularisation of Residency Status) Bill 2014
Passing legislation is never easy and unfortunately things don’t always go to pJvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (6)lan! Case in point, a Bill proposed by Senator David Norris and myself to provide a pathway to residency for asylum seekers who have been awaiting a decision on their protection application for 4 years or more.  We had worked on the substance and intention of the Bill with a number of individuals and organisations working with refugees and migrants.  We knew the Bill we initiated wasn’t technically perfect but we hoped for the support of the House to move the Bill to Committee Stage where the necessary changes could be made.   However, Senator Norris and I were blindsided by Sinn Fein.  They had been approached by another NGO working in the area who did not agree with the use of the term ‘amnesty’ and so lobbied to block its passage.  Sinn Fein voted with Government against the Bill and we lost the passing of Second Stage by 1 vote.  We never expected our Bill to pass into law rather we saw it as an important opportunity to highlight the appalling reality of Direct Provision and to put pressure on the Department of Justice and Equality to act.

I appreciate the motivation of the NGO concerned but I still think it was a short sighted step that showed scarce respect for their fellow NGOs and more importantly removed an important lever to effect change.

Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015
The Children and Family Relationships Bill really illustrates the importance of JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (7)collaboration and I wish to commend the Children’s Rights Alliance not only for their work on this Bill but for their unstinting support and expertise during my tenure.  Tanya Ward, Chief Executive, has proven her leadership, vision and acumen in spades since taking over the reins in 2011.

The Children and Family Relationships Bill was tabled and debated against the backdrop of the impending Marriage Equality Referendum.  This coloured much of the debate on the Bill but this legislation was so much more.  It represented the most significant reform of child and family law for a generation and finally put children at the heart of family law.

I watched in admiration as the Alliance united voices by forming a working group of members with diverse views to analysis and co-ordinate advocacy action.  They provided briefings and strategic communications at every level needed to effect changes to the Bill.  The Alliance built consensus amongst their membership, generated media and organised events.  Indirectly their work built consensus and support for the recognition of LGBT people as parents.  At this point, I also commend Minister Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Justice and Equality who personally steered this legislation through both houses.  It took 30 hours in Seanad Éireann alone.

As I talk about the Marriage Equality Referendum one of my greatest regrets in office is that we could not embody the same level of public engagement when it came to the Children’s Referendum.  The closest I got to tapping into mass public sentiment was JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (8)when I took on Child Beauty Pageants. I was inundated with support from parents and the public.  It showed me there is a strong public appetite to protect childhood but we haven’t been able to able make the link in the public mind with children’s rights.

Marriage Age
Not everything must be done through legislation. Tabling Motions under group speaking time can be equally effective.  In May 2014, we had a Seanad debate on the abducted schoolgirls in Nigeria that Boko Haram had threatened to sell into forced child marriage. I took this opportunity to voice my concern that exemptions to the marriage age in Ireland mean that, strictly speaking, child marriage is not prohibited here.

In June 2014, Senator Ivana Bacik brought forward a Motion calling on the Government to remove the court ordered exception to the legal age for marriage of 18.  Aware of my own interest in this children’s rights anomaly, Ivana invited me to second the motion and I detailed how in 2012 28 child marriages were permitted to take place in Ireland.  Just before Christmas the Government committed to setting the marriage age to 18 without exceptions.  I hope this is brought into law soon.

On a side note, I must take this opportunity to thank Ivana and wish her every success in her Seanad campaign.  I have grown in respect and admiration for Ivana – she is a great person to collaborate with. She’s whip smart and has an expert legal eye for legislative scrutiny.

My lowest moment
If you had asked me a few days before the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill I JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (9)would have said that this would be my most tense vote.  The debate was fractious, bigoted and filled with misinformation.  Little did I know my toughest vote would be within hours of that vote.

To set the scene, we were now operating in a Seanad where the Government was in the minority and needed Independents or opposition to support them.   In the short period of 3 hours leading up to my toughest vote I was shouted at in the corridor, grabbed, cornered and at one stage even pinned up against a wall – all by opposition parties and independent members– who felt they could ‘bully’ me into voting a particular way.   On a side note we are all friends again.  The vote in question was on a motion to delay the passage of the Referendum Bill proposing the abolition of the Seanad.  If I voted with the opposition, we would delay the passage of the Bill for 90 days.  However, in my head all I could think was that only six months previously we were one vote short of delaying the passage of the Social Welfare Bill that brought in the cuts to the Respite Care grant. If we couldn’t get our acts together to frustrate this utterly unfair cut, how in good conscience could we justify delaying the passage of a Bill that was about keeping our own jobs!!

No one from Government approached me about my vote.  On pressing the button I voted with my gut.  Along with my colleagues Senators Marie Louise O’Donnell and Fiach MacConghail we made the difference and ensured the vote for the Referendum would be put to the people.  The footage of the day will show how I was jeered and shouted at by opposition for being a ‘traitor’.  Funny how they changed their view when the people of Ireland gave the Seanad a mandate.

IndependentJvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (10)
Being independent should not mean you are automatically in opposition.  As a Taoiseach’s nominee I had to work out what independence meant for me?  From the outset I believed it meant dealing with issues on merit. I voted with the Government where possible and clearly articulating my position where not. In the end we were operating in a minority Seanad and so each time I voted it counted – a power I had to use wisely.

Following my low point in the Seanad I was feeling increasingly isolated from both the Government Senators and Opposition Senators.  Some Government Senators felt I should automatically vote with them as I was a ‘Taoiseach’s nominee’.  Coupled with this I felt an increased sense of responsibility as the people of Ireland had voted to keep the Seanad.

So, I sought a meeting with the Taoiseach and despite everyone thinking we were in regular contact this took a few months to set up.  In fact, prior to this meeting the only advice I received from him was during my first days in office to pick a few key issues and stay on them if you want to effect change. Sound advice that I endeavoured to follow.

I met the Taoiseach and he listened.  I explained my frustration with the system, with trying to put forward amendments and feeling I was working in an echo chamber.  He repeated the advice he gave me when he first appointed me “I want you to be yourself and be Independent”.   It was only when I reached out that he leaned in to help and provide support to me.

Following this meeting he set up a weekly meeting for me with an advisor from his Department.  The only thing he asked was where possible I would give advance notice when I was not in a position to support the Government.  The payback for doing this was access to influence and in particular securing wins on a number of policy fronts.  At no stage during my time as a Senator has the Taoiseach ever tried to influence my vote.

Reform
There is much debate and talk about Reform.  I find most Members are very happy to JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (11)discuss any aspect of reform that won’t directly affect their lives.   I believe that reform begins with the individual.  I decided when I started to take a new approach to politics and so used my social media – twitter primarily – to account for my work and I also publish each year a statement of my salary and allowances to ensure maximum transparency.   Indeed, each year I return the unspent portion of my allowance and as there was no procedure up until last year I had to ‘gift’ it back to the Department of Finance.

An example of some of the reform introduced in my time is pre-legislative scrutiny to a significant number of proposed laws.  This allowed for Committees to bring in experts, civil society groups, public officials and the Minister responsible to provide testimony.

Health and Children Committee
My experience is on the Health and Children Committee.  In reality only five or six members keep each committee going.  If you attend for one minute or three hours your attendance is recorded in the same way.  I was fortunate that my Committee was under the excellent chairmanship of Jerry Buttimer who ensured we worked collaboratively and respectfully.  I am very proud of our work, much of it in areas I have already highlighted, but additionally our hearings on End of Life Care. I hope the report we published will come to fruition.

Many NGOs supported my work at the Committee. A particular thanks to Chris Macey of the Irish Heart Foundation and Angela Edghill of the Irish Hospice Foundation.  Their advocacy expertise was so helpful especially in my early days as was Chris’s sage advice when I was faced with a legal threat from tobacco industry stooges.

In a similar vein, I was happy to draw on my European experience in challenging the alcohol industry and its attempts to frustrate and stymie legislative efforts to address alcohol related harm.  The drinks industry has a role – to make profits for its shareholders.  They have no role, whatever guise they choose to wear, in the formulation of health policy.   I think my views are clearly known.

Constituency
Senators shouldn’t have constituencies. Certainly not geographical ones.  As an independent Taoiseach’s nominee I definitely didn’t have one but I did endeavour to use the platform I was given to continue working with NG0s, civil society organisations, community and voluntary sector organisations and interested members of the public to JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (12)help achieve our shared objectives.  I want to thank each and every one of you who has helped and supported Amy and I throughout the past five years across a broad range of issues. Your insight and expertise has been essential to the quality of our input and in helping us to convey the reality on the ground.

One thing I would stress to you is the importance of collaboration. It is the missed opportunity I see all too often in Leinster House. An organisation will come to meet me in my Seanad office and say “A is critically important” and then the next day another group within the same sector will come to me and say “B is the most important”.  These groups need to work together to determine and agree the priorities, not offer a choice for politicians to decide.

Coin drop machine
One of the greatest privileges of being a Senator is theJvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (13) opportunity to meet and engage with a wide range of peoples who bear witness to their personal circumstances.  We
have done so much damage in the past and the only way we can truly demonstrate we have learnt from our mistakes is through the actions we take now.  I wish I had a magic wand or a do-over. Instead I feel I am operating one of those coin machines you see in arcades.  You have to put a lot of coins in to hit the tipping point for change.

There are many issues where I feel I have put in a considerable amount of coins but we have yet to see progress. In particular, I highlight the situation for transgender, non-binary and intersex children.   In 2015 Ireland passed ground breaking gender recognition legislation into law.  However, it is silent when it comes to children under 16 –despite my efforts to introduce an interim gender recognition mechanism.   Minister James Reilly has committed his Department to doing more research in the area in time for the review of the Gender Recognition Act in 2017.  I am also sitting on a Working Group hosted by TENI and hope with several others to ensure children have a voice and a place in our laws.

Shelter
JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (14)
I cannot leave today without mentioning the untenable homelessness crisis faced by children and their families, which is compounded by the shortage of social housing and the State’s failure to regulate the private rental sector.  It is incumbent on us to ensure all children – homeless children, children from the Traveller community and children in Direct Provision –  have secure and appropriate accommodation.

Corporal PunishmentJvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (15)I want to end on a high and the achievement of which I am most proud- havingchampioned and secured the effective ban on the physical punishment of children in Ireland.  A few months before this win a high level official in the children’s area told me that it would be impossible.  I succeeded by drawing on all in my armoury – all that I have amassed and using every ounce of social and political capital I had built up.   I have documented the official story in the Irish Journal of Family Law but let me take you behind the scenes here.

As early as 2011 I had spoken in the Seanad on the need for Ireland to repeal the defence of reasonable chastisement and I continued to raise the issue throughout my tenure. Behind the scenes I researched the issue, drew on International experiences and identified the piece of Legislation I would use as my vehicle.  The Children First Bill was perfect as it was about child protection and yet it contained no penalties or sanctions and so no one could say I was trying put parents in jail.  I also knew the Government would work to ensure this Bill was brought into law as it was a key plank of its reform of child welfare and protection.

The Committee Stage of the Children First Bill was taking place on 23 September last.  At 10am the previous day I met an Advisor and several officials from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to discuss my amendments to the Bill.  Over the summer recess I submitted several substantive amendments and I had been waiting for this moment.  In our meeting I said I was willing to concede on the other amendments but that corporal punishment was my red line.  They tried very hard to dissuade me but I did not see any other Oireachtas Member willing to put their head above the parapet on this issue and so I had to do it before my time was up.  Even if I lost, I intended to force a vote and let the record show who in the Seanad was willing to be listed as saying it is acceptable to hit children.   It was a tense meeting.

At 4pm that same day, I was invited to meet Minister Reilly and the Secretary General of the Department.  My persistence on the issue meant he had spent the day trying to find a way forward through discussions with his officials and the AG.  In that meeting he gave me a commitment he they would do the change but I needed to buy them some time to work out the how.  We agreed that I would postpone a vote at Committee Stage but one way or the other we would be voting on an amendment at Report Stage.

I had been working with the NGOs and in particular the Children’s Rights Alliance, ISPCC and Mummy Pages who were all outstanding in playing a subtle but vital role in getting the ban on corporal punishment over the line. It worked, with thanks to my fellow Senators who all supported me; the NGOs and children’s rights advocates; and some really outstanding civil servants and advisors.

Through this action the Government has put children first and provided leadership that will hopefully give confidence to other countries across the globe, including our nearest neighbours, to protect children from violence.

There is so much more I could mention but let’s keep it for another day!  It has been a roller-coaster ride that I feel so privileged to have been on. I learnt so much, not least how to hold my nerve and persevere with my eyes fixed firmly on the goal.  I believe I made the most of the opportunity.  I worked extremely hard to effect the most change I could. I don’t know what my future holds but as ever I am optimistic and confident that I will rise to my next challenge.

I would like to thank my fellow Senators from across the house for their collaboration and cooperation.  It has been an immense honour.  Most of all I wish to thank all of you for your input and support during my tenure.    Thank you the Children’s Rights Alliance for giving me an opportunity to share my experiences and to the Ark for providing such a wonderful venue.  Thank you ALL.

END

Motion: Direct Provision

The Minister of State is welcome to the House. I avail of the opportunity to welcome to the Visitors Gallery Dr. Bryan McMahon, chairman of the working group which is to report to the Government on improvements to the protection process, including direct provision accommodation and support for asylum seekers.

I am pleased that the last motion to be debated during Private Members’ business in the 24th Seanad looks at the living conditions of children and young people in the direct provision system. Our group has used its time to consider this issue and I have spoken about it at every available opportunity, including in numerous Adjournment debates and debates on legislation, in an effort to bring the plight of children to the fore. This is the critical issue of our time. In fact, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said the test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children. I fear our failures and the treatment of children in the direct provision system will be the subject of a Ryan report in the future, but we have an opportunity to make changes now. All too often we look back in shock at what happened in the past and say how desperate it was, but what we do now with that knowledge is on what we should be judged.

My entry point to the issue of direct provision is from a children’s rights perspective. My perspective has been informed by my previous work in the Children’s Rights Alliance, the recommendations of the Government appointed special rapporteur on child protection, Professor Geoffrey Shannon, the concerns raised consistently by advocacy groups, my visits to two direct provision asylum centres as an independent Member of the Seanad and the recommendations of the working group. It has taken me a long time to wade through the mire that is the political discourse on the direct provision system. I have struggled to understand the distinction drawn – I still do not agree with it – between children cared for by the State, as children in the direct provision system are described, and children in the care of the State as those in foster care and other care systems are described. I have argued strenuously that children are children, irrespective of their status, and that it is stretching credulity to claim that children in the direct provision system are in the care of their parents in circumstances where their autonomy to make even basic decisions about their children’s care, for example, on what and when to eat, is so limited as to render it absent.

The direct provision system is detrimental to the welfare and development of asylum seekers and, in particular, the 1,225 children residing in direct provision accommodation throughout Ireland. There is a plethora of difficulties, including the dubious legality of the direct provision system, the lack of an independent complaints mechanism for residents, the absence of independent inspection of centres in which children reside, the decision by Ireland to opt out of the EU directive to allow asylum seekers to enter the workforce if their applications have not been processed after one year and the fact that there are no prospects post-secondary education for young asylum seekers. It is like hitting the pause button for an uncertain and, doubtless, lengthy period.

I appreciate that we have made some moves, but for most of the children, there is this cliff, the fettering and erosion of normal family dynamics and functioning, the lack of autonomous decision-making and the negative impact on the mental health of adults and children in the direct provision system. The ultimate failure lies in the length of time people remain in the system waiting to have their claims processed. I note the efforts the Government has made to reduce the length of time involved through the International Protection Act 2015 by introducing a single procedure to deal with international protection applications, but the reality is that the average length of stay is four years. However, a significant number have remained within the system for five to ten years. Some 55% have been on the waiting list for more than five years. I ask the Minister of State to think of all the things we have achieved in the past five years when he is on the election trail. There are people who have been in the direct provision system for that period of time. What a substantial loss of time it has been for the individuals, families and, particularly, children who have spent their entire childhood in direct provision centres. They are waiting for their lives to resume.

I was saddened to read in the final report on the child care law reporting project by Dr. Carol Coulter and her team, presented in November 2015, that children born in 2007 were still in the direct provision system. The only time they spent outside it was when they were placed in foster care while their mother received treatment for a mental illness.

There are more than 17 recommendations in the report of the working group which are specific to children and young people. I take the opportunity to thank the Children’s Rights Alliance and its member organisations for ensuring the unique vulnerability of children in the direct provision system was not lost in the process. I will cover briefly the first of those recommendations that we have cited in the motion. My colleague, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, will speak to the others.

There is a need for child-friendly materials containing relevant legal information. The reality for all of us in full health is that the system is very legalistic; as it can be intimidating, people need support, particularly children who are unaccompanied and seeking guidance on how to pass through the system and for what they need to apply. We need to ensure the material is in a language they can understand in order that they can appreciate the ramifications of the decisions they will take.

The remit of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children should be extended to include complaints about services provided, transfer decisions and so on. Ireland ratified the third optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which involves a communication procedure. It allows individual children, groups of children and their representatives, including those in the direct provision system, to submit a complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child about specific violations of their rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I had the privilege of attending the hearing on Ireland before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The question was rightly asked how Ireland had in place a system that allowed children in the direct provision system to make a complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child but yet they had no right to make it to the Ombudsman for Children. How can this be the case? Technically, the recommendation that the remit of the Ombudsman for Children be extended is supported in the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 which in section 69 includes a provision on the referral of complaints to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. Technically, it requires nothing more than a ministerial order or a statutory instrument similar to the one made in 2012 when the decision was made to extend the remit of the Ombudsman for Children to receive complaints from children in prison. It is a question of political will. It is absurd that one can report to a UN body based in Geneva but not to the Ombudsman for Children. I know that the Ombudsman for Children is ready and willing to receive these complaints and wants to be there for all children in Ireland.

The lack of an independent complaints mechanism is completely out of step with the jurisdiction conferred on the office of ombudsman across the Continent. In November 2014, in CA and TA – a minor – v.the Minister for Justice and Equality, the Minister for Social Protection, the Attorney General and Ireland, Mr. Justice Colm Mac Eochaigh found that the RIA’s complaint procedure was deficient, not sufficiently independent, owing to the fact that it was the final arbiter in the process and that some elements of its house rules were unlawful. I do not care what anybody says, I trust the system, yet I would not be comfortable in making a complaint to those who I perceive as being part of the asylum system. We need to develop a welfare strategy and ensure all children have a named social worker based within the Child and Family Agency, not within the system in which a decision will be made on an application. I have argued for the application of the HIQA national standard for the protection and welfare of children, for the involvement of the Health Service Executive’s child and family services, particularly where a referral is made by the child and family services unit in the RIA to the HSE of a child. It is shocking that there is still no independent inspection regime or national standards for direct provision centres, given that we know that there is a significantly higher referral rate for child protection and welfare cases from direct provision centre than among the general population. In one in four cases at least one parent is from an ethnic minority or an asylum seeker or Traveller. I implore the Minister of State to be cognisant of the consistent findings in child care law reporting projects that social exclusion, poverty, isolation, mental health issues and disability are common features of mothers and fathers facing court proceedings and the acknowledgement that minority groups, including asylum seekers, are particularly vulnerable.

My colleague, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, will speak in greater detail about the issues related to the weekly allowance. There is also the issue of those seeking jobs.Ireland and Lithuania are the only two EU member states that apply a blanket prohibition on asylum seekers entering employment or setting up a business in the state. In conclusion, I wish to quote the words of Bill Frelick, the refugee programme director at Human Rights Watch. He said: “Ireland should recognise work not only as a source of dignity, but as providing a livelihood that is integral to sustaining asylum seekers in the pursuit of their right to seek asylum.”

………………..

I thank, in particular, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail who worked with me on this issue, on which we have been at one. I also thank Senators Brian Ó Domhnaill, Martin Conway, David Norris, Marie Moloney, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh and Ivana Bacik. It is great that the House is united on the issue.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh is correct to ask what we have achieved. For me, what is most depressing is that we can unite on an issue, but the question is whether we can really bring things forward. Senator Fiach Mac Conghail is correct – as we have the working group’s report, we do not need to have long discussions; we need to move to its implementation. I would like to see the progress reports of high level groups published in order that the process is transparent.
I have listened to the debate on the importance of cooking facilities for families. There is the issue of costs because people need materials in order to be able to cook. We can have that debate, but I will go home tonight and decide the time at which I want to eat and what I will eat. I do not have to depend on a service that provides for me to eat at a specific time. How many of us eat at the same time every day? That alone is institutionalisation. Friends have told me how difficult they find it when they are in hospital for one week. I cannot imagine what it is like to be in a direct provision system.
On the issue of tenders, why are we allowing people to profit from the misery of others? I have a fundamental problem with this. Why is the State not providing the service? Why do we not ask an NGO to do it? There are some really excellent NGOs working in this area. I am thinking of Crosscare, but I am sure there are others. I have seen first-hand the work they do.
On the remit of the Ombudsman for Children, I believe it could be done by statutory instrument or ministerial order. It is, therefore, an issue of political will. If one goes back to the debate in the Houses of the Oireachtas on the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002, this issue was raised. Would we leave an especially vulnerable group of children and young people outside the scope of the Ombudsman for Children’s investigatory remit? In response the former Minister Mary Hanafin said, “The children of asylum seekers and refugees will have access to the Ombudsman for Children in the same way as every other child in Ireland.” That is what the Houses were told. The only thing excluded is the administration of the law, that is, the procedures for defining and determining whether a person is entitled to a particular status. She also explained:
If, however, there are problems in relation to delays, the provision of accommodation, nutrition, housing, etc, those issues are covered. This provision is only to ensure there is not a duplication of the actual process of the administration of the law.
Why does the Ombudsman for Children not have a remit to look at the application? We live on an island, but we really are an island as far as the rest of Europe is concerned because children in other countries can go to their ombudsman for children. It is enshrined in the Constitution that all children are equal, yet now we say we will interpret it slightly differently and that children in direct provision centres do not have the same rights. The Ombudsman for Children and Mr. Peter Tyndall made a joint submission to the working group which clearly explained the benefits, from their involvement in the direct provision system, that their experience could bring and the ease with which they could move into that space if allowed to do so.
The Minister of State has talked about the additional resources that would be needed. It makes me more fearful because it means that he believes there would be lots of complaints and resources needed. What is happening if we know that we will need all of these additional resources? We would need some resources. He goes on to say it is also important to recall that the working group looked specifically at the possibility of setting up a separate complaints procedure but rejected the idea in favour of extending the remit in order that the established offices could take on this role. It is welcome that the Minister for Justice and Equality will meet the Ombudsman for Children next Wednesday. I hope we will move on this issue because it is about giving people hope.
I explain that my job is about nudging. When one is in a direct provision system, it is difficult to understand the nuances in things moving forward and progressing. People need hope and we need to see some big changes. We need to see an increase in the amount of money given to those in direct provision centres in line with the working group’s report. Although a figure of 60% makes for a good news day, it has not risen in 15 years. The people concerned cannot afford to do the normal things children do. I want to be happy that we are moving forward and have a great report, but we are not doing enough. I hope that when the House comes back, Senators will again unite and push firmly for change.
I thank the cross-party group and all Senators who have united on this issue. In particular, I thank the working group’s members, the secretariat, the different Departments that have come together on the issue and, in particular, Dr. Bryan McMahon. We now need to stop the discussion and begin implementation. We need to ensure hope for all citizens and that children are children first and foremost.

Motion: Children and young people in Direct Provision

The following motion will be taken from 4pm to 6pm on Wednesday 27 January 2016.

“That Seanad Éireann:

– welcomes the final Report of the ‘Working Group to Report to Government on Improvements to the Protection Process, including Direct Provision and Supports to Asylum Seekers’, published in June 2015;

– notes, according to the latest available statistics from the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), in its Monthly Report September 2015, there are 4,814 RIA residents ‘live on the system’ of which 1,225 are children;

– welcomes Ireland’s ratification of the Third Optional Protocol on a communications procedure of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which allows individual children, including those in Direct Provision, to submit complaints concerning specific violations of their Convention rights;

Asks the Minister for Justice and Equality to outline the exact progress of the recommendations, in relation to children and young people, drawing specific attention to the following recommendations:

– child-friendly materials containing relevant legal information should be made available and widely distributed, including through special information services for children such as specialised websites (Recommendation 3.262);

– the remit of the Office of the Ombudsman and the Office of the Ombudsman for Children should be extended to include complaints relating to services provided to residents of Direct Provision accommodation centres, and transfer decisions following a breach of the House Rules (Recommendation 4.135);

– Tusla – Child and Family Agency should liaise with the RIA to develop a welfare strategy within the RIA, to advise on policy and practice matters and to liaise on individual cases as required (Recommendation 4.199);

– Tusla and the HSE should identify a named social worker on their respective child protection, mental health and primary care teams to be the identified lead social worker for a Direct Provision centre in their area (Recommendation 4.199);

– the Minister for Justice and Equality should establish an inspectorate (or identify an existing body), independent of the RIA, to carry out inspections in Direct Provision centres against the newly approved standards (Recommendation 4.226);

– all families should have access to cooking facilities (whether in a self-contained unit or through use of a communal kitchen) and their own private living space in so far as practicable (Recommendation 4.75); and

– the Direct Provision weekly allowance for adults should be increased from €19.10 to €38.74 for adults and from €9.60 to €29.80 for children (Recommendation 5.30).”

– Senators Jillian van Turnhout, Fiach MacConghail, Mary Ann O’Brien, Averil Power and Katherine Zappone.

Joint Committee Questions to the Minister of Children and Youth Affairs

Question 10 (Senator Jillian Van Turnhout)

Can the Minister give his considered view on the recommendations in the Report of the Joint Committee on Health and Children on the General Scheme of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2015?

My Department is examining the Report on the Pre-Legislative Scrutiny of the General Scheme and Heads of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2015, recently published by the Joint Committee on Health and Children.

I would to thank the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, Jerry Buttimer TD, and members of the Committee for their work in producing the Report without delay. I know that a considerable amount of work has gone into this Report and it is being studied in detail as we continue the preparation of the legislation.

The Report has made key recommendations as follows:

  • That the definition of ‘compelling reasons’ be further clarified and more tightly defined in the Bill.
  • In cases where non-disclosure is sought citing ‘compelling reasons’, this should be supported by medical evidence.
  • that consideration should be given to excluding the Statutory Declaration provision from the Bill. This could possibly be replaced by an alternative provision where the applicant is required to attend one preparatory session to discuss and explore the issues concerning privacy and respect, before the Birth Certificate is released.
  • that consideration should be given to reducing the lead-in to a much shorter time period, and to holding a shorter, more intense information / awareness campaign over a six-month period, to include engagement with social media and a wide range of community groups who can help to raise awareness about the new Register.
  • in the case of the illegally adopted, that consideration should be given to establishing a dedicated unit to actively investigate those cases.  
  • that a review of service requirements arising from the Bill is undertaken.   

All the recommendations of the Committee will be fully considered with a view to incorporating the Committee’s views where appropriate and subject to legal advice.

The Committee also recommended that I give consideration to issues highlighted during the pre-legislative scrutiny process in relation to step-parent adoption. I am addressing this matter in the context of the Adoption (Amendment) Bill.

Question 11 (Senator Jillian Van Turnhout)

Can the Minister provide an update on the progress by the Child and Family Agency of a national seven day, 24-hour social work service for children and families at risk?

Tusla, the Child and Family Agency provides a range of services aimed at addressing emergency situations in the area of child welfare and protection. In the main, these emergency situations arise out of hours.

I am pleased to inform the Committee Members that Tusla commenced the new Emergency Out-of-Hours Social Work Service last month. The key objective of the service is to co-operate with and support An Garda Síochána in the execution of their duties and responsibilities under the Child Care Act, 1991 and the Refugee Act, 1996.

Prior to this new development Tusla provided, in an emergency situation, for residential and foster care placements for children under Section 12(3) of the Child Care Act, 1991 and placements for children referred under Section 8.5 of the Refugee Act, 1996;

The additional service now available allows the Garda Síochána to contact a national emergency social work out-of-hours phone service for general advice or consultation. This on-call service will be staffed by social workers operating from the Out-of-Hours services in Dublin, supported by on-call social workers in different parts of the country. 

The social workers are currently employed by Tusla in its children’s services.

I welcome this new development. Up to now, under the Emergency Place of Safety Service, An Garda Síochána could access an emergency placement for children found to be at risk out of hours, but they did not have access to a social worker regarding the case or particular circumstances. In these circumstances, a child deemed to be at risk by An Garda Síochana was placed in a family setting until the following working day, when the local social work service would assume responsibility for the case.

Tusla and An Garda Síochána are the key agencies empowered by law to protect and promote the welfare of children and they have separate yet complementary roles. Mutual understanding and cooperation is essential in ensuring that these roles are carried out effectively and in a child-centred manner.

The aim of the Emergency Out-of-Hours Social Work Service is to ensure that the disruption and upset to which children may be exposed in emergency situations is minimised and the rights of parents and guardians are respected. The introduction of the Emergency Out-of-Hours Social Work Service assists in maximising inter-agency co-operation and promoting the safety and welfare of children.

Question 12 (Senator Jillian van Turnhout)

Can the Minister advise if he plans to legislate to vindicate children’s constitutional rights; including enacting legislation to satisfy Article 42A provisions on the best interests of the child, views of the child, and adoption.  And if he plans to carry out an audit of laws, judicial and administrative practices and policies to identify gaps in the implementation of the best interests principle and to address these gaps without delay?

At the time the wording of the then proposed thirty-first amendment of the Constitution was published by the Government, there was a commitment to bring forward important amendments in adoption law. In order to fully inform consideration by the people of the constitutional change being put forward for their decision, the Government published the General Scheme of a proposed Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2012 which would flow from implementation of the change. With the thirty-first amendment now standing as part of the Constitution, in the form of the new Article 42A, my Department is progressing the promised Adoption (Amendment) Bill, in which the best interests of the child are a paramount consideration, for consideration by the Oireachtas.

The Constitutional amendment was the subject of consultation with Government departments to ensure their compliance with the provisions therein. While the amendment has set a standard that must be observed, there is nothing to constrain measures being taken in the public legislative or administrative domain that exceed the standard set. The impact of the amendment, and the willingness of the Government to foster a child-centred approach, are to be seen in provisions relating to the views and best interests of children in certain legislation enacted or introduced since the referendum, such as the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 and the Children First Act 2015.

The on-going implementation of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures: the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People 2014-2020, is demonstrably rooted in the values and principles that the Constitutional amendment represents. The implementation of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures is a ‘whole-of-Government’ commitment which is being driven with involvement by non-Governmental interests in the sector.

The policy framework relates to five specified outcomes for children and young people, which include that they will be connected, respected and contributing to their world. A major commitment by my Department in that regard is to greatly enhance the basis, and opportunity, for participation by young people in decisions that impact on them.  To that end, I published the first National Strategy on Children and Young People’s Participation in Decision-Making 2015-2020 which is a constituent strategy of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures. The Participation Strategy specifies a number of commitments to be delivered by various public bodies.  In my Department’s case this includes a commitment to bring about a major development by way of the establishment of a Children and Young People’s Participation Hub to become a centre of excellence on children and young people’s participation.  

While an audit of the kind referred to in the question is not planned at this time, emerging developments in the legislative and policy domains indicate that possible change is already underway and more is in prospect.

Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012: Committee Stage; The Housing Crisis and Child Homelessness

[CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY]

Amendment No 53, Section 15:

An amendment to section 20 of the Principal Act to provide for the extension of the duration between rent reviews from 12 months to 24 months for a period of 4 years, after which the period will revert to 12 months.

***requirement on the part of the Landlord to justify the reasonableness of the rent increase***

While this amendment falls far short of the measures of rent certainty I would like to have seen introduced, for example rent increases that are in line with an external measurement like the Consumer Price Index suggested by Threshold, I absolutely welcome this amendment as a much needed and long overdue first.

The latest quarterly Daft Report was published today and shows that in the third quarter of 2015, rents rose nationwide by an average of 3.2%, which represents the largest 3 month jump in rents since 2007 while supply on the rental market, just 4,000 properties available to rent nationwide today and very few of which offer affordable family accommodation, at its tightest on record.

The current “monopolistic private rental market”, characterised by rapidly increasing rents and a complete dearth of housing supply is intrinsically linked to our spiralling homelessness and risk of homelessness crisis.

Minister, I have spoken on this issue on a number of occasions in the past. I only plan to speak on this grouping of amendments this afternoon.

I have a number of questions and I look forward to hearing your answers from the floor. I will also be happy to forward any of these questions to you in writing if they require time for further consideration.

In November 2014 homelessness agencies were reporting that 700 children were living in emergency accommodation. In twelve months, this figure has now grown to 1500. It is extremely likely that this number will continue to increase as:

  • supply continues to be constrained and there’s no indication of a step change in new supply, given the pipeline of sites that are development ready and with available finance ;
  • new homes recently announced (modular housing) will only serve to meet part of the back log;
  • the private rented sector is likely to remain attractive to those who can afford it, and those who cannot access homeownership- I.e. So called ‘young professionals.

Affordable family accommodation is therefore chronically under supplied.

Minister, do you have a figure for projected demand for emergency accommodation for families with children? What exactly are you planning for?

Setting aside numbers in emergency accommodation, research has shown that where homelessness among children increases, this is coupled with a rise in children living in unsuitable and/or overcrowded accommodation, sometimes sharing with other families, which parents view as preferable to presenting as homeless.

Minister, do you have an estimated figure for the number of children who are living in overcrowded accommodation? Has a study been done into this area of concern or is one planned?

I and many of the children’s rights organisations (such as ISPCC) following these issues, are deeply concerned at the immediate and the long term impacts for children who are placed in emergency accommodation.

Temporary accommodation (whether hostel , emergency or any other forms of temporary accommodation) can all adversely impact on children. In many cases the lack of stability and uncertainty is deeply worrying for children and this is reflected in anecdotal evidence from the ISPCC Childline service.

It affects children’s ability to play due to lack of space, and often quiet spaces to study are impossible to find. At its worst, lack of natural light and outdoor spaces are also likely to affect development. Children report being extremely stressed, and often hide this stress and worry from their parents, who are also often struggling.

Emergency hotel accommodation is the most concerning type of accommodation for homeless children. It should only be used in exceptional circumstances. Right now, it is increasingly being used as ‘the norm’ because of a severe lack of purpose built temporary accommodation for families. I am genuinely concerned about child protection issues, safety issues, security issues s well as the range of developmental impacts as set out briefly above.

Minister, has TUSLA been involved in assessing the suitability of hotels /hostels that are housing families with children? If so, have they determined that some forms of accommodation are unsuitable? Who determines whether there may be child protection risks?

Are individuals working in hotels where homeless children are placed Garda vetted? If not, why not? I appreciate Minister that hotel staff are not normally vetted but the placing of children in hotels as a formal State intervention to the homelessness crisis changes the said hotel’s official usage. The children are living there, playing there, growing up there. On this basis, they could be a place of interest to predators. It is absolutely essential that urgent steps are taken to ensure all children in emergency accommodation are safe.

In other jurisdictions, with similar homelessness levels, emergency accommodation is used as an exception and then for no more than six weeks. How many children have lived in emergency accommodation for more than six weeks and Minister do you agree that this is unacceptable?

Are wraparound services available for all families in emergency accommodation, and what steps are being taken to work with families to help them secure and keep a tenancy elsewhere?

Minister have officials from your department been assigned to inspect emergency accommodation and its suitability for children on an ongoing basis? For example, to assess the safety and security of shared and communal areas and the availability of safe spaces to play.

Have you made any requirements of providers of emergency accommodation to make the accommodation suitable places for children? Has TUSLA been involved in advising on suitability?

Finally, I have a few questions concerning the new modular housing project for Dublin:

  • Will the design of modular housing reflect the fact that it is to be purpose built accommodation for homeless families?
  • Will the design meet the needs of children, and will there be sufficient space for children to play?
  • Will TUSLA and other organisations be consulted on the design of this accommodation, and if so, when?

Seanad Order of Business: MRI Scanners for Children

Senator Jillian Van Turnhout: I wish to raise the issue of the MRI scanner for children in Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin and the associated waiting list for children. The scanner has broken down, and I believe this is not an irregular occurrence. It broke down at least one week ago but no contingency plan is in place to manage the care and assessment of children. My understanding is that there are only two MRI scanners for children in Ireland with the appropriate medical support, one in Crumlin and the other in the hospital in Temple Street. Children require a general anaesthetic. The result is that the waiting list in Crumlin currently stands at 28 months and I do not know the length of the list for Temple Street – perhaps the Minister can enlighten me. I understand the list is divided between the two hospitals.

I wish to share a case with the Minister of State. Obviously, I will not disclose the name of the person on the floor of the Seanad, but I am happy to provide it to the Minister of State. It is very illustrative of why this is such a critical issue.

One young boy, who is now six years of age, when aged three had symptoms including very poor balance, being tired and lethargic and the development of a tick in his head. His parents were able to afford to bring him to a neurologist on a private basis. The neurologist advised them that the child probably had flat feet and questioned whether something was happening in the home which caused him to develop the tick. Thankfully, the mother insisted on the scan. The neurologist was reluctant to put the child forward saying the child was not an urgent or high priority case. Given that there are only two MRI scanners, at that time the waiting list was eight months.

The child went for an MRI scan over two and a half years ago on a Friday morning and the parents were advised that they could receive the results in about four to six weeks. They were in the recovery room 30 minutes later and a team of medical staff surrounded the bed. The team said a brain tumour had been found and a biopsy needed to be done, the earliest opportunity for which was Monday. The first test was done on the biopsy on Monday and the parents were told there was an 80% likelihood that the child had cancer, but the results were inconclusive and a second, more intrusive, test needed to be done, and was done two weeks later. The further test found that it was a low-grade tumour which required regular monitoring but, thankfully, was not cancerous.

These parents initially brought their child for three-month checks, and then tests on a six-month basis to establish a baseline and ensure they could monitor the situation. At a six-month scan in April 2014, they were told that they were not allowed to leave the hospital as the child had developed hydrocephalus. He was transferred by ambulance to Temple Street, monitored overnight and had surgery the next morning. The parents advise me there were no obvious signs in the lead-up to that test in April 2014 and nothing made them feel that the test would be any different.

The child has scans every six months. Last Friday he was due to have his next six-month scan, but the parents were told on Tuesday last week that the machine was not working and it would take two weeks to get a part from Germany, which is mind-boggling – I would get on a plane and get the part. They were advised that the new appointment would most likely be in early 2016. Thankfully, because of the pressure the child’s mother applied and, I imagine, the debate we are having here today, she received a call yesterday to say the child would have an appointment early next week.

I am thinking of all the other parents out there. This is a low priority, non-urgent case involving regular monitoring. How many other children are low priority? How many other parents have been told that their children’s cases are not urgent and, therefore, they are on a waiting list? As I said, the waiting list is very long. Why are MRI scanners for children not in operation seven days a week? It would give parents assurance if an MRI scanner did not show anything of concern. A wait of 28 months to find out whether something is wrong is unacceptable.

The parent who contacted me is obviously concerned for her child, but in her generosity is extremely concerned not only for the children lucky enough to be in the system but those on the impossibly long waiting list. I have been told by a senior source in Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, that children requiring a general anaesthetic, usually those aged under 12 years, face a waiting list of 28 months.

Over the past two days I have discussed this issue with a number of friends. I could not believe the number who shared frightening cases they knew directly or of friends’ children who are on the waiting list to ensure their children can get MRI scans. Over the past three and a half years waiting lists have increased from eight to 28 months. Even eight months is far too long, but the parents to whom I referred were told their child’s case was non-urgent and not a priority, it was likely the child has flat feet and something was happening at home. They were able to afford to go an alternative route, but I want to know the situation regarding the MRI scanner for children in Ireland and the length of the waiting list.

Deputy Joe McHugh: thank the Senator for raising this issue. I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, who is elsewhere on Government business. I want to reassure the House about the MRI scanner in Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin. I understand some concerns may have been raised last week about whether the machine is in working order. I am happy to advise the House that the MRI scanner was fully operational last week, other than on Friday, 13 November, when scans were postponed to allow for repairs to be carried out on the machine. The repair on Friday affected five patientSLOTS and these scans have been rescheduled for this week. MRI scans recommenced fully on Saturday. Appropriate contingency plans were put in place by Crumlin hospital, with Temple Street hospital, for any emergency cases that might have arisen on the Friday while the machine was being repaired. On the broader issue of waiting times for MRI scans at Crumlin hospital, the capacity to provide these scans is, as the Senator pointed out, under pressure. Referral patterns reflect the tertiary paediatric nature of services provided in the hospital. The oncology specialty generates the largest portion of MRI activity. Crumlin hospital also provides the only paediatric cardiac MRI service in Ireland. The unit takes consultant referrals from local maternity hospitals and from hospitals nationally where paediatric MRI with general anaesthesia for younger patients is required. Demand for MRI services is steadily increasing from all specialties. In this context, particular attention has been paid to optimising existing capacity and managing demand through clinical triage. MRI capacity at Crumlin hospital has increased in recent years and is at almost 2,000 scans per annum. This compares with 1,600 scans in 2011. The MRI service now operates for 37 hours per week and staff are available to provide lunchtime cover as demand requires it. In addition, a service is provided from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays, which is suitable for those patients who do not require anaesthesia or sedation. This has improved access and decreased the waiting list.

To maximise capacity there is a strong focus on active local management of appointments, with the result that did not attend, DNA, rates are extremely low. Triage is also a key element in managing demand and preventing inappropriate referrals. Under the triage process, between six and 14 referrals weekly are triaged as urgent and these are dealt with as soon as possible. Unfortunately, however, patients from specialties other than oncology and cardiology who require a general anaesthetic and who are categorised as routine experience long waiting times of between 15 and 27 months. I emphasise that the Government sees this as unacceptable and acknowledges the difficulties which delays cause for patients and their families.

Crumlin developed a business case for resources to increase capacity and submitted it for consideration in the context of the current service planning process, which is still ongoing. The HSE and the Department of Health continue to work together to address waiting times for diagnostic services, including MRI, and to ensure appropriate collection and reporting of MRI waiting times.

Senator Jillian van Turnhout: I thank the Minister of State. Obviously, somebody is telling somebody untruths because why would those at Crumlin hospital have telephoned the mother I mentioned on Tuesday and said the machine would be down for two weeks? For me, there are serious questions to answer. I am not questioning the veracity of what the Minister of State said but I am concerned that the truth is not being told. How do we actually know this is urgent? The Minister of State spoke about the routine waiting list of between 15 and 27 months. My reference to a 28-month waiting list is probably more accurate. I know the Minister of State is a parent and that he understands what it is like for parents to worry about a child. I welcome the fact that the Government sees this as unacceptable. I will continue to monitor it because I find it totally and utterly unacceptable that we are asking parents to wait this length of time to be reassured or to ensure their children get the correct and appropriate treatment. We know the importance of early intervention and prevention, particularly in the lives of children, and we need to increase the pressure in respect of this matter. I hope the business case will be put through and we will ensure children are seen in a timely manner. The case I have raised today was routine and the neurologist did not wish to refer it. How many other children are like this?

Deputy Joe McHugh: I appreciate the Senator raising this extremely important matter. I do not doubt that her contact with the parent concerned will have highlighted to her the obvious distress the family went through. Statistics are statistics and, unfortunately, demand for the MRI scans increased from 1,600 in 2011 to 2,000 per annum at present. The Minister is not using statistics as an excuse. However, he will use them to try to improve the service and I have no doubt he will ensure that, where possible, resources will be directed to where they are needed. I will certainly convey the Senator’s message to the Minister and I thank her for raising the issue.

Senator Jillian van Turnhout: I thank the Minister of State.

Press Statement: Children First Bill: Calls time on physical punishment of children

Press Statement 11 November 2015

Children First Bill: Calls time on physical punishment of children

***FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE***

Today, Wednesday 11 November 2015, An Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr James Reilly TD, heralded the final stages of the Children First Bill through the Dáil, thus concluding its passage through the Oireachtas. Independent Senator and children’s rights advocate, Jillian van Turnhout warmly welcomes the completion of the Children First Bill, which effectively calls time on the physical punishment of children.

She said “there must never be a defence for violence against children. I am honoured to have championed and secured the effective ban on the physical punishment of children in Ireland. The Children First Act will put child welfare and protection on a statutory footing.  It will solidify good intentions. As part of this legislation I brought forward an amendment to abolish the archaic common law defence of “reasonable chastisement” and finally vanquish it to the realms of history.”

“The defence of “reasonable chastisement” is not an Irish invention; it came to us from English common law. Through its colonial past, England has been responsible for rooting this legal defence in over 70 countries and territories throughout the world.  In this action being taken today, the Government is putting children first and providing leadership that will hopefully give confidence to other countries across the globe, including our nearest neighbours, to protect children from violence.”

“Why as a society do we accept that we even have to debate whether it is okay to hit someone? Let alone when that someone is smaller than us and probably doesn’t understand why they are being hit?”
“I fully agree with Minister Reilly that the abolition of the defence of reasonable chastisement is a tangible and practical manifestation of children’s rights and I am very proud of the role I have played in securing it.”

-ENDS-

Notes for the Editor:
Children First Bill, Report Stage, 21 October 2015:jillianvanturnhout.ie/childrenfirstreportstage
Children First Bill, Committee Stage, 23 September 2015:  jillianvanturnhout.ie/children-first-bill-corporal-punishment

For More Information, Please Contact:
Senator Jillian van Turnhout,
Leader of the Independent Group (Taoiseach’s Nominees)
Phone: 01 6183375
Mobile: 0872333784
e-mail: jillian.vanturnhout@oireachtas.ie

 

Marriage Bill 2015 Amendment re Marriage Age at 18, 21 October 2015

Amendment proposed by Senator Jillian van Turnhout to abolish the possibility of a court ordered exemption to 18 years as the minimum legal age to marry.
22 October 2015

Copy of Amendment proposed below this speech

Speech on 22 October 2015 by Senator Jillian van Turnhout to propose amendment
My amendment seeks to abolish the possibility of a court ordered exemption to 18 years as the minimum legal age to marriage. As I emphasised on Second Stage on Tuesday last, my amendment stems from my concern about the exemption that can and is being granted by the Circuit Court in Ireland to allow children under the age of 18 enter into marriage. The Minister will be familiar with my concerns since they were the subject of a motion tabled by Senator Ivana Bacik and the Labour Party, and which I seconded, in June 2014.

The exemption to the ordinary legal minimum age of 18 years for entry into a contract of marriage is provided through section 31 and 33 of the Family Law Act 1995 and was more recently retained in section 2(2) of the Civil Registration Act 2004.

We know that the exemption is being applied.  On the afternoon of our Motion the Minister of State had advised the House that between 2004 and 2013 almost 400 parties to marriages in Ireland were under the age of 19.

More specifically, according to CSO data kindly compiled by the Oireachtas Library and Research service in advance of our debate, 28 marriages registered in Ireland in 2012 involved a bride or groom or both who were under 18 years. In 21 of these marriages the bride was 16 or 17 years of age and the groom was 18 years or over. In 4 the groom was 16 or 17 and the bride was 18 years or over. And in the remaining 3 marriages both the bride and the groom were 17 years of age. Both children entering into the legal contract of marriage.

I find this quite remarkable and entirely undesirable in the context of the State’s duty to protect childhood.

Deciding to marry is a very serious matter, with potentially life-long implications. The obligations and responsibilities that arise from marriage are onerous.

It is ironic and seems inappropriate that we would trust children to make this decision when we prevent underage people from making other decisions. For instance, unless a person is married, he or she must be 18 or over in order to make a valid will.

Notably, you had to be 18 or over to enter into a civil partnership, and there is no provision made for exceptions.

A person under 18 also has limited capacity to contract. A contract with a person under the age of 18 cannot be enforced unless it is for ‘necessaries’ – items that are needed for the child’s basic sustenance (as opposed to luxury items) – or it is a beneficial contract of service. So a child’s capacity to enter into a simple contract or will is limited; yet we would allow a child under the age of 18 to take the equally if not more profound decision to marry.

International research demonstrates that there is a strong correlation between the age of marriage and the chances of divorce. Of course, lots of people marry young and stay together for life; but the odds are against them.  One study suggests, for instance, that a person who marries aged 25 is half as likely to divorce as a person who married aged 20.

Ireland is bound by a number of international human rights laws and standards, the provisions of which are completely incompatible with child marriage. For example:

  • International Bill of Rights.
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child.
  • CEDAW (which explicitly prohibits child marriage)
  • Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery.

More recently in September 2013, Ireland, along with its fellow EU Member States, supported the United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution on Strengthening efforts to prevent and eliminate child, early and forced marriage: challenges, achievements, best practice, and implementation gaps.

Minister, it’s such a glaring contradiction that we in Ireland speak out against child marriage in countries such as India, Nigeria, Malawi, Iraq, Nepal, Ethiopia and Bangladesh, while our statue books still allow for exemptions to the normal marriage age, which worse still fails to specify a minimum age for such an exception.

This is not just a question of child marriage. The exemption also raises concerns around the scope for coercion and forced marriages of children…here in Ireland, which again seems totally baffling when we consider our reaction to the horrific incidents of forced child marriages internationally (for example, Boko Haram).

Applications for exemptions are made to the Circuit Court in private. Senator Bacik made an important point about this in the debate of our Motion. There is no public record of the application or the arguments put forward in support of the application. There are no guidelines on the criteria for granting the exemption. Rather the standard language of section 33 gives the court wide discretion.  And, worryingly, there is no provision for minors to be legally represented at the hearing or for the HSE and child protection authorities to be notified.

Our Motion specifically referenced the criticism levied by Justice McMenamin in the High Court in a judgment in June 2013 in a case concerning an “arranged” marriage.

The case concerned the annulment of a marriage between a 16 year old girl and a 29 year old man on the basis that the girl lacked capacity to give true consent in the first instance.

Justice McMenamin felt the case raised concerns of such magnitude that it warranted a general comment about the danger of the legal loophole for children.

He noted that “in certain circumstances such marriage exemptions may give rise to significant child welfare issues” and queried whether the HSE should be put on notice of such applications in order to inquire into the protection and welfare circumstances of the child concerned.

As the legislature we must provide guidance for the courts to implement statutory provisions as they are intended.

Or Minister, we can lead by example and remove the statutory provision currently allowing minors to marry.

When our motion was debated in June 2014 we were told that a small interdepartmental group would be established. I have not heard anything about it since. I appreciate the importance of today and the historic occasion that it is. As we are in the last few months here, I have tabled this amendment because it is an issue that is close to my heart. As I have said, I will not press the amendment but I wanted the issue to be raised and I wanted the Minister’s officials to hear the reasons we must address this gap for children. There is no lower age for this exemption, it is all done in the Circuit Court in private. We must protect children. Without representation, a decision can be made about their lives, a decision that we all take extremely seriously is what makes today so important.

Amendment Proposed

SECTION 7
On page 6, immediately after line 29, insert the following new section:

“Removal of court exemption to impediment on ground of age
(1) In this section “the Act of 1995” means the Family Law Act 1995.
(2) The Act of 1995 is amended by –

(a) the deletion of section 31(1)(b), and
(b) the deletion of section 33.

(3) Section 2 of the Civil Registration Act 2004 is amended by the substitution of the following for paragraph (c) of subsection 2 –

“(c) one or both of the parties to the intended marriage will be under the age of 18 years on the date of solemnisation of the intended marriage,”.

(4) This section shall not apply to a marriage in respect of which, prior to the enactment of this section, a court has made an order under section 33 of the Act of 1995.”

Press Statement: Senator van Turnhout welcomes abolition of defence of reasonable chastisement

Press Statement 21 October 2015
Senator van Turnhout welcomes abolition of defence of reasonable chastisement

***FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE***

The archaic common law defence “reasonable chastisement” of children finally vanquished to the realms of history

“Whether it is slapping or tapping, shoving or pushing, hitting or beating, the invisible line between “reasonable chastisement” and simply physical violence against children has finally been removed.”

“I was appointed to the Seanad by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny back in 2011 on the basis of my children’s rights work. One of the first objectives I set for my tenure was for Ireland to repeal the defence of reasonable chastisement. On 23 September 2015, I tabled an amendment to the Children First Bill to this effect. Following an anxious wait until today, an historic day for children’s rights in Ireland and for me personally, through a joint amendment with Government we have successfully amended the Children First Bill to secure the abolition of the defence of reasonable chastisement.”

“There must never be a defence for violence against children. I am honoured to have championed and secured the effective ban on the physical punishment of children in Ireland.”

-ENDS-

Notes for the Editor:

Children First Bill, Report Stage, 21 October 2015: jillianvanturnhout.ie/childrenfirstreportstage

Children First Bill, Committee Stage, 23 September 2015:  jillianvanturnhout.ie/children-first-bill-corporal-punishment

For More Information, Please Contact:                                                                

Senator Jillian van Turnhout,                                                                                                 Leader of the Independent Group (Taoiseach’s Nominees)                                                   Phone: 01 6183375                                                                                                                   e-mail: jillian.vanturnhout@oireachtas.ie

 

Children First Bill, Report Stage: Corporal Punishment

Children First Report Stage with Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, James Reilly TD, Wednesday 21 October 2015

Speech by Senator Jillian van Turnhout
Video of speech: youtu.be/BxrkLOl16jA
Video of full debate: youtube.com/watch?v=VqixbeSPUEw

Minister, you are always welcome to the Seanad but I have to admit that today you are particularly welcome.

One of the first objectives I set when I became a member of the Seanad in 2011 was for Ireland to repeal the defence of reasonable chastisement. When the Seanad took Committee Stage of the Children First Bill on 23 September I tabled an amendment, with thanks to the expert help of Dr Fergus Ryan, to the same purpose as the amendment before us today.   You said “If I have my way we will have this defence of “reasonable chastisement” removed from the Statute Book.”

And here we are today. Minister, I am extremely aware and thankful for all the work done by you personally, by officials and advisors across Government cooperating and working together to bring about the amendment tabled here before us. I would like to extend my particular thanks to the officials of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. I would also like to thank my Assistant and Researcher Amy McArdle, for all her work and support. I was also heartened at Committee Stage to receive cross party and independents’ support. Thank you.

On 23 September I cited a number of international and national experts and I don’t intend to repeat myself today but ask that my words at Committee Stage be included in any documenting of how Ireland brought about the abolition of the defence of reasonable chastisement. Over the years there have been notable voices to the fore calling for the Ireland to take this step.

Of special note I must thank:

  • the Children’s Rights Alliance, in particular Tanya Ward and Maria Corbett who have been steadfast in their support and in ensuring the support of a wide range of children and youth organisations;
  • the ISPCC, driven by the experience of children calling into their ChildLine service, have always prioritised ending a culture of violence against children in Ireland.
  • the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Professor Geoffrey Shannon who has, through his reports, repeatedly called on us as legislators to repeal the defence of reasonable chastisement.

For the global leadership they have provided at an International level I want to thank :

  • Marta Santos Pais, Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence against Children;
  • Peter Newell of the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children;
  • and Ireland’s academics who have shone a light on Ireland’s international obligations, in particular Prof Ursula Kilkelly, UCC.

I also must thank Jenny and Michael Hassett, my Mum and Dad. Since 23 September I have had a lot of time to reflect and probe why I am so passionate about this issue. It is of course rooted in my own childhood. My memories brought me back to a particular primary school teacher who would on occasion whack someone in our class across the ears with a ruler. I remember telling my Mum and she said that if I was ever hit I was to stand up calmly, walk out of the class, go to the office of the school secretary and ask for my parents to be called to come and collect me. I was lucky. My parents were ‘ahead of their time’, they respected me as an independent rights holder. Thanks Mum for being here today to share this momentous occasion.

Why do we as a society accept that we even debate if and when it is okay to hit someone? Let alone when that someone is smaller than us and probably doesn’t understand why they are being hit? Very often when we discuss the issue of corporal punishment, violence against children or so called ‘slapping’ you can almost feel an invisible line appear in people’s heads about their tolerance level. They say, “you know I am only talking about a tap not a thump, a slap not a belt, a smack not a whack”. And of course this issue is wrapped up in how we were raised – all too often the knee-jerk reaction “it never did me any harm” is heard. I would add “it never did you any good either”!

This invisible line is extremely subjective and it leaves children vulnerable. When someone hits a child it is not from a rational place. The decision is made in a heightened emotional state, when we are stressed, when we are tired and let’s face it least able to engage sound and reasoned judgement.   The invisible line gets blurred. In extreme cases it gets rubbed out completely.One way or the other, the existence of the invisible line means children are all too often exposed to an escalation of violence.

The excuse “I got a terrible fright when she ran out on the road and so I just hit her to show how wrong it is” is used in relation to children. We all get frights in our life but my first reaction is not to hit someone – so why do we culturally accept that it is okay when it is a child? A caller to the Last Word on TodayFM summed it up by saying “my Grandmother has Alzheimer’s and she is as likely to walk out into traffic or harm herself. Should I use that as a reason to slap her?”

Of course I understand the importance of supporting parents in the vital role they play in their child’s life.   We need to ensure parents have access to supports and resources when they need them. We know that the majority of parents in Ireland already believe that we have a ban on corporal punishment. However, I know that some parents are anxious about this change in the law and I would like to reassure them that we all want the best for their children, for the children of Ireland. To this end, I would like to take this moment to thank Laura Haugh of Mummy pages for their unequivocal support of this amendment.

I would also like to point to an excellent book for any parents who are anxious, developed by a leading advocate in this area, Paul Gilligan. His book “Raising Emotionally Healthy Children” is a great resource that provides lots of advice and support.

By abolishing the defence of reasonable chastisement we are giving life to the Children’s Amendment in our Constitution, Article 42A.1 states: The State recognises and affirms the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children and shall, as far as practicable, by its laws protect and vindicate those rights. We know that corporal punishment:

  1. Can cause serious harm to children;
  2. Teaches children that violence is an acceptable way of solving conflicts;
  3. Is ineffective as a means of discipline and there are positive ways to teach, correct or discipline children which are better for the child’s development and health;
  4. Makes it more difficult to protect children from severe abuse if some forms of violence are legitimate.

With this amendment today we are ensuring that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law.

This ancient defence of “reasonable chastisement” is not an Irish invention; it came to us from English common law. Through its colonial past, England has been responsible for rooting this legal defence in over 70 countries and territories throughout the world. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the “reasonable punishment” defence still allows parents and some other carers to justify common assault on children; in Scotland there is another variation – the defence of “justifiable assault”.

In this action being taken today, the Government is putting children first and providing leadership that will hopefully give confidence to the Government at Westminster, the devolved UK administrations and other countries across the globe to discard these archaic and disreputable defences and give full respect to children’s dignity.

We will be the 20th EU Member State to effectively ban corporal punishment in our jurisdiction and in doing so I hope the remaining European Governments will follow. Irish law is being brought into step with parents, children’s rights advocates and international best practice.  With this amendment we have a way to unite and agree that all citizens are equal.

There must never be a defence for violence against children. I am honoured to have championed and secured the effective ban on the physical punishment of children in Ireland.

 

Amendment

In page 5, line 12, to delete “and to provide for related matters.” and substitute the following:

“to provide for the abolition of the common law defence of reasonable chastisement and, for that purpose, to amend the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997; and to provide for related matters.”.

—Government & Senator Jillian van Turnhout.

In page 20, after line 21, to insert the following:

“PART 5

MISCELLANEOUS

Abolition of defence of reasonable chastisement

The Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 is amended by the insertion of the following section after section 24:

“24A. (1) The common law defence of reasonable chastisement is abolished.

(2) Subsection (1) shall not apply in respect of proceedings brought against a person for an offence consisting in whole or in part of any act done by the person before the commencement of section 28 of the Children First Act 2015, whether those proceedings were brought before, on or after such commencement.

(3) This section shall not affect the operation of section 24.”.”.

—Government & Senator Jillian van Turnhout.