Question submitted in advance by Senator Jillian van Turnhout:
Given the new Article 42A of the Constitution of Ireland, will the Minister now conduct a law audit relevant to children to determine where gaps exist in full implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and bring in a comprehensive Children’s Rights Bill.
Article 42A provides an enhanced general visibility for the rights of children under the Constitution. More generally, the new standard has the capacity to influence the approach to legislation beyond what is required by the letter of the new constitutional provision. The interpretation of the existing statute law is now subject to the new constitutional requirements and this will, no doubt, be reflected in jurisprudence in both public and private law in the years to come.
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 will proceed with arrangements to submit the promised Adoption (Amendment) Bill for consideration by the Oireachtas.
Specifically the amendment sets certain standards relating to determining the views and best interests of children in specified proceedings which both comprehend existing provisions and require that all future legislation must comply in the areas concerned. The Government has also provided potent examples of this in the inclusion of provisions relating to the views and best interests of the child in the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 and the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015.
My Department has a number of other proposed legislative initiatives in train that aim to promote the rights and welfare of children. These include the Children First Bill, 2014 to strengthen fundamental aspects of the child protection system which is currently before the Oireachtas; the Child Care Act (Amendment) Bill, to strengthen the legislative provisions for aftercare which is currently being drafted; and work is continuing on the Heads of Bill for the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill. I also mention in a separate reply to Senator Van Turnhout, that my Department is working on policy proposals for significant statutory reform of provisions relating to Guardians ad litem under the Child Care Act 1991.
I note that there is a major and wide-ranging initiative underway to advance the rights of children on a cross-government basis. I refer to the on-going implementation of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures: the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People 2014-2020, which is demonstrably rooted in the values and principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. These values and principles will continue to guide the implementation and monitoring of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures.
This universal strategy, covering all aspects of children’s lives, is a challenging and highly-focused whole-of-government undertaking. Delivery of the 163 commitments set out in the strategy will result in better outcomes for children right across the spectrum of State inter-actions with the child and his or her parents and family. Along with the legislative programme, these are the mechanisms by which the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is being advanced.
A further important underlying process relevant to the question raised concerns the examination of Ireland by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child which is scheduled to take place next January. This provides a basis for engagement between my Department and other Departments of Government, preparatory to the meeting with the Committee, on issues it will raise regarding the State’s discharge of Ireland’s obligations as a party to the Convention.
Question submitted in advance by Senator Jillian van Turnhout:
Can the Minister confirm whether the blueprint set out in the 2009 Children Acts Advisory Board Report “Giving a voice to children’s wishes, feelings and interests” for a properly funded Guardian Ad Litem agency in Ireland forms part of the reform promised for the Guardian Ad Litem services in proceedings under the Child Care Act 1991? And can the Minister outline his plans in this area and a timeline for implementation?
Guardian ad litem services, under the provisions of the Child Care Act 1991, are currently organised and provided on an unregulated and ad hoc basis and, in the absence of extensive and fundamental reform, the service will not be sustainable into the future. The service now incurs an annual spend of over €16 million, and needs to be grounded as a consistent, accountable and sustainable national service. My Department is currently preparing policy proposals to achieve this objective.
A ‘root-and-branch’ reform is envisaged. Work on the policy proposals is being informed by a number of considerations and sources of information, including work done by the former Children Acts Advisory Board. The objective is to put in place a comprehensive legislative basis for the delivery of a high quality and sustainable service, on a national basis.
The reforms must ensure the best interests of the child, the centrality of the courts and the independence of guardians ad litem, but must also put in place a nationally managed service that is cohesive, accountable and sustainable. In Ireland, as in other jurisdictions, the service is subject to increasing demand and finite resources. I am determined to achieve best possible use of the substantial level of funding that has already been allocated to this area.
Reflecting elements identified by the Children Acts Advisory Board, proposed statutory arrangements will aim to address such matters as guidance as to circumstances for appointment, the qualifications that will be required for appointment, a well-defined role and responsibilities for the guardian ad litem, their legal status in proceedings, and legal representation. The reforms will take full account of the importance of listening to the views of children in relation to their own future.
My Department is well advanced in its examination of all aspects of reform of the guardian ad litem service. It aims to have the necessary policy proposals completed as soon as possible and, subject to Government approval for same, to proceed immediately to the preparation of Heads of legislation.
The Minister is always very welcome to the House. The time he has dedicated to today’s debate shows that he has an understanding of the importance of this issue and the serious health concerns associated with it. There is no doubt that we are IN the midst of a full-blown obesity epidemic. It is shocking that 61% of adults and 22% of children between the ages of five and 12 are overweight or obese. Given that this issue is so costly and damaging to the health and well-being of the nation, it is difficult to understand why we are still discussing strategies rather than implementing the excellent strategies we already have. The national task force on obesity has been operating for almost ten years, but its recommendations have been implemented in a partial and haphazard manner. The then Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, established a special action group on obesity in 2011. This group highlighted priority areas and policy recommendations, such as an introduction of a sugar tax and the improvement of nutritional labelling. These are very cost-effective ideas, but four years on there has been no action towards implementing any of them. Children remain particularly vulnerable. The Government’s failure to act is having a particular impact on them. They are increasingly vulnerable to chronic diseases, premature deaths and disability in adulthood.
Given the negative impact of obesity on people’s health, it is understandable that we talk about it in a critical and negative way. However, we need to be mindful in our discourse that obesity and excessive weight are realities that people live with and struggle to overcome. This is especially important when we talk about childhood and adolescent obesity, which can have a significant impact on the self-image, self-esteem and confidence of the young person affected. For many years we have associated malnutrition with lack of food or starvation, but in fact that is under-nutrition. Obesity is the result of malnutrition, which is a poor diet with a lack of adequate nutrition for proper growth and development.Not everyone who is malnourished is overweight or obese but this does not mean that he or she is not seriously damaging his or her future health. It is imperative, therefore, that we shift the focus to a more holistic healthy lifestyle approach, with nutrition and exercise as its linchpins. We must tackle the unhealthy obsession that has developed about being fat, counting calories, “yo-yo” dieting and losing weight, all of which are serious issues among young adults, especially females.
As previous speakers pointed out, school is where children spend the majority of their time in the company of their peers. Physical education in schools is essential to a child’s physical and mental development. The children’s sport participation and physical activity study of Irish students in primary and post-primary education found that a mere 35% of primary pupils and 10% of post-primary pupils received the minimum 120 minutes of physical activity in school per week, as recommended by the national task force on obesity. One in four of the children surveyed was unfit, overweight, obese or had elevated blood pressure.
A 2013 report by the European Commission, Physical Education and Sports at School in Europe, found that the provision of physical education at primary level in Ireland is the third worst in the European Union, while at post-primary level, it was found to be seventh worst in the EU. This failure to ensure the weekly minimum of 120 minutes of physical activity for children is a serious blow to children’s health. We must promote physical activity, participation in physical education and non-structured play during school hours. Children should be encouraged to engage in team sports, join activity clubs in the community and simply enjoy the outdoors. When they learn these habits at primary school level they continue to be active throughout their teenage years, thus reducing the risk of obesity.
I am concerned that parents do not have control over children’s eating habits when they are outside the home. While healthy lunch policies are widely implemented in primary schools, they tend to be abandoned when children enter secondary school. Research carried out this year by the Irish Heart Foundation on food provision in post-primary schools found that 51% of students have daily exposure to foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt and that these are widely available not only outside the school gates but also in school tuck shops and vending machines. There is no statutory requirement on schools to provide meals and hot food to students throughout the school day, although many schools have canteen facilities. Given the obesity epidemic we face, it is alarming that no national guidelines or standards are in place on the types of food and drinks available for children to buy. With no time for exercise and sugary, fatty foods surrounding children everywhere, it is little wonder that childhood obesity rates are high. If we continue to ignore this issue, our children’s health will only worsen.
Obesity is also becoming a problem of poverty. Convenient cheap foods that are high in calorific value and low in nutritional value are becoming the norm for lower income families. Why are convenient healthy foods the most expensive option? Anyone who visits a canteen or shop will see that convenient healthy foods are the most expensive option. The cost of healthy food is becoming a barrier to a healthy diet for families. For this reason, I support the introduction of a sugar tax. The money generated from such a tax should be used to fund projects such as family food initiatives. These are projects that help to improve the availability, affordability and accessibility of healthy food for low income groups at local level using a community development approach. The objective is to help families to achieve a healthier lifestyle.
The Minister raised the issue of free general practitioner care for children aged under six years and the two health checks available for this age cohort. While these are excellent initiatives, one of the issues people have raised with me is that they do not provide access to a dietitian or nutritionist in cases where a general practitioner encounters a problem. The schemes present an opportunity for general practitioners to engage with parents and provide them with nutritional information. As the Minister is aware, I fully support free GP care for children aged under six years.
An issue arises regarding choice architecture. The Department organised a seminar some weeks ago on what is known as the nudge policy and a number of simple steps that could be taken in this area. One need only visit a local shop, supermarket or canteen to observe how choice architecture is being used. It is easy for shoppers to grab the unhealthy option. While many of us agreed with Senator Byrne’s interesting comments on food, these issues do not always click for us. If Members are not getting this information easily, how much more difficult must it be for someone managing a family and in a rush to do so?
I thank the Minister for his attendance. My message is that we have policy blueprints and it is now time for action.
Senator Jillian van Turnhout describes the exclusion of children from the Gender Recognition Bill 2014 (being considered, Wednesday 17 June, by the Dáil Select Sub-Committee on Social Protection) as fundamentally wrong
She says “I cannot sit silently by as we tell trans children and young people to sit in the corner and wait for their rights to be upheld, maybe, at some point down the road.”
Statement from Senator Jillian van Turnhout 16 June 2015 *** Embargo 10am 16 June 2015***
“There are few groups in Ireland more vulnerable than our transgender (trans) children and young people. We don’t know exactly how many trans children we have in Ireland but we do have compelling anecdotal evidence from the groups supporting them that their number is significant; they live all around Ireland; there has been a notable increase in the numbers of trans children and their families contacting support groups for advice over the last 12-18 months; and in LGBT awareness training in schools the vast majority of teachers have questions around trans issues and trans identification. This is not a remote issue. We are talking about real children throughout Ireland right now. Many of these children are living a nightmare from as early as between three and five years of age when their gender identity is likely developed, where their gender identity doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth and therefore indicated on their birth certificate. These children and their parents face numerous challenges as so many of our services are driven by our birth certificates.
“Schooling is a classic example of the barriers trans children face in trying to live their young lives in the gender they identify with. We have a predominantly single-sex school system in Ireland where enrolment is predicated on a birth certificate. And so, we can have a 6 year old child who has clearly articulated that he identifies as a boy. His parents, friends, extended family and community all accept and support his lived reality. Is this young child, a boy, really going to be forced to go through a girls’ school, wearing a girl’s uniform, using the wrong name and personal details in order to access the education available in his locality? Are we really prepared to stand over legislation that in this case would allow unnecessary distress, embarrassment, humiliation and potentially serious psychological harm prevail in this boy’s life for 10 years before he is eligible to apply to have his gender identity recognised?
“As a children’s rights activist I am profoundly disappointed that children under the age of 16, and given the onerousness of the process for 16-18 year olds we can say in effect ALL children, have been excluded from the provisions of the Gender Recognition Bill 2014, which enables a person to apply for formal legal recognition of their preferred gender. I believe the new children’s rights article in the Constitution makes it incumbent on the Oireachtas, in any legislation directly impacting the lives of children, to ensure the best interests of the child are the paramount consideration; the views of the child are heard when key decisions are made about their lives; and the evolving capacity of the child is facilitated.
“The voices, opinions and lived realities of trans children have been deafeningly silent throughout this legislative process. I do not know of a single trans youth who has been consulted by Government but I have heard directly from many young people and their families about how significant a mechanism through which their preferred gender could be formally recognised in their childhood would be to them practically but also in terms of their mental and emotional well-being.
“It is fundamentally wrong that this Bill does not provide a mechanism for legal recognition, even on an interim basis, of gender for trans children under 16 who seek it, where there is parental consent, support of the child’s GP and agreement that this is in the best interests of the child. I tabled an amendment seeking such a compromise, an Interim Gender Recognition Certificate, at Report Stage of the Bill in the Seanad back in February.
“It is important to stress that an Interim Gender Recognition Certificate for children is completely distinct and has no bearing on any decision that might be taken by a trans person to pursue medical intervention, such as hormone replacement therapy or to undergo gender reassignment surgery at a later stage in their lives.
“I sincerely hope the Government is prepared to deal with the question of trans children in this Bill. We have this opportunity to make a massively positive impact on the lives of trans children in Ireland and to ensure, unlike too often in the past, that we are not compounding and ignoring the needs of our most vulnerable citizens.
“An Interim Gender Recognition Certificate for children would allow the rights and best interests of trans children to be promoted and protected, and for evidence gathering around models of best practice for a permanent arrangement, in the period before the issue is revisited in the two year review.
“I cannot sit silently by as we tell trans children and young people to sit in the corner and wait for their rights to be upheld, maybe, at some point down the road.”
For More Information, Please Contact: Senator Jillian van Turnhout,
Leader of the Independent Group (Taoiseach’s Nominees)
Gender recognition is an established human right to which children, as individual rights holders (Article 42A(1) of the Constitution), should be entitled. The Yogyakarta Principles (2006), which consolidated international human rights law, treaties and standards relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, is widely accepted as the authoritative legal statement and fully supported by Ireland at the International for a, defines gender identity as “each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth”. Principle 3 goes on to say: “Each person’s self-defined sexual orientation or gender identity is integral to their personality and is one of the most basic aspects of self-determination, dignity and freedom.”
The Gender Recognition Bill 2014 will be considered, Wednesday 17 June, by the Dáil Select Sub-Committee on Social Protection.
Senator van Turnhout tabled an amendment at Report Stage of the Bill in the Seanad on 17 February 2015 seeking an Interim Gender Recognition Certificate for children under 16 years of age.
Some paediatric specialists put the age of gender identity in children, whether transgender or not, at two or three. Other research cites gender identity development as occurring between three and five years of age.
Senator van Turnhout welcomed the commitment in February conveyed by Minister Humphreys in the Seanad on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan TD, to convene a round-table discussion with all educational partners on issues effecting transgender children. However, she notes that to date no steps have been taken to this end.
The Minister is always welcome to the House. I warmly welcome the introduction of the Children (Amendment) Bill 2015 and thank the Minister for introducing it in the Seanad.
Senator Leydon raised the possibility of arranging a visit to the site of the children detention centre. The Minister issued an invitation to members of the Joint Committee on Health and Children to visit the centre and we expect to make arrangements to do so in the coming weeks. To be collegial, I suggest the Senator discuss with his party colleagues on the committee the possibility of allowing him to take part in the visit on their behalf.
A significant achievement by the Government in the promotion and protection of children’s rights has been the near complete closure of St. Patrick’s Institution, which has been the subject of serious criticism over the decades for detaining children in the adult prison system. For this reason, I look forward to the publication of the prisons Bill, which will facilitate the complete closure of St. Patrick’s Institution.
Before discussing the Bill in detail, I affirm my firm belief and commitment, as a legislator, to the internationally and domestically recognised principle of detention as a last resort for children, both committed and detained on remand. Detention as a last resort is fundamentally important to the welfare and well-being of children who have come into conflict with the law. I continue to be concerned about the numbers of children detained on remand who do not go on to be sentenced to a period of detention. This raises concerns that detention is being resorted to inappropriately – as a form of detention for assessment – in the case of children who have care or protection concerns. Children must not be criminalised as a result of inadequate care and mental health service provision elsewhere. While I have raised these concerns on a number of occasions with the Minister for Justice and Equality, I restate them in this debate.
The Bill facilitates the amalgamation of the three detention schools on the Oberstown site into one legal entity. The practical effects of this change will be the creation of a single management team, payroll, staff rota, etc. Crucially, with regard to governance, it will lead to integrated practices, operational consistency, coherence of model and the appointment of one director. The proposed amalgamation is critical to the success of Oberstown.
I am concerned as to whether the disciplinary system in Oberstown will be appropriate to the age of children committed and remanded to the facility. To express this in another way, will the facility be child friendly? Will the disciplinary system be distinct from the system in operation in the adult prison model and will it reflect the welfare and care relationship model?
The Minister kindly organised a briefing for Members yesterday, which was attended by my researcher, Ms Amy McArdle. Assurances were given that, in keeping with the child care model of detention, good order rules would be used to avoid disciplinary measures. Will the Minister elaborate on what is meant by the term “good order rules”? Perhaps these are rules modelled on best practice in juvenile detention in another jurisdiction. Is that the case? I would like to understand what exactly this phrase means and what is its basis?
I note in section 5 that provision has been made for part or all of the children detention school to be designated as a remand centre. I intend to consider this issue in more detail before Committee Stage. While I appreciate the intention to keep children detained on remand separate from children committed to detention to the greatest extent possible and where it is in the best interests of the child, I am concerned that we are starting from a point of non-compliance with our international human rights obligations, for example, in respect of Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Ireland currently has a reservation.The Minister will recall the concluding observation of the human rights committee last July that Ireland should establish a concrete timeline for the achievement of complete separation of remand and sentenced prisoners, juvenile and adult prisoners and detained immigrants and sentenced prisoners.
Finally, I call on the Minister to discuss with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, the issue of 18 to 20 year old males sentenced to detention who are now accommodated in a separate dedicated unit in Wheatfield. I wonder if, in keeping with the latest recommendation of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, IPRT, all agencies that comprise the criminal justice system should recognise the 18-24 age group as one with distinct and specific needs, with the cut-off age for accommodation in the separate dedicated unit extended to 24 years. The IPRT recommendation follows extensive research.
The IPRT report, Turnaround Youth: Young Adults (18-24) in the Criminal Justice System, published earlier this week, makes a compelling case for a distinct approach to this age cohort which, although it is disproportionately represented in the prison population, making up 9% of the overall population and 24% of the prison population, is also the age of opportunity with peak capacity to change. I recommend that the Minister reads this report and brings it to the attention of his Cabinet colleagues, given his remit regarding children and young people.
On the issue of spent convictions, my understanding is that the spent convictions Bill will already expunge the records for those under 18. Perhaps the Minister can advise me. I warmly welcome the Bill and will do all in my power to support and strengthen it to ensure that it is what we all envisage. It is very exciting and long overdue.
I start with a declaration of interest. I am chair of Early Childhood Ireland, but it is a governance role. The Minister is very welcome to the House to discuss this issue. I applaud him for the work he is doing in setting up an interdepartmental group on future investment in child care. It is very encouraging to see the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs taking ownership of and showing leadership in the area.
I was surprised recently when I saw a map of the State, Department and agencies involvement developed by Mr. Thomas Walsh of NUI Maynooth. The list was large and I wonder about resources and costs, purely on the State side. That issue needs to be re-examined to ensure the system is streamlined. The map is an exemplar of the role of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, for which I applaud it. The role of the Minister is to co-ordinate and bring people together and to fulfil the missions of the strategy of the Government in Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures.
I hope the template will give us all an agreed map in order that we can declare where we need to go to. Difficult choices will have to be made, but at least we can agree at last what needs to happen. Parallel to this, as the Minister will be aware, the Joint Committee on Health and Children is having hearings on this issue. Deputy Sandra McLellan is our rapporteur, under the excellent chairmanship of Deputy Jerry Buttimer. The hearings have started and last week Early Childhood Ireland, Start Strong, the NWCI and the Children’s Rights Alliance came before the committee to set the scene for the issue. We have already had a good debate.
I want to discuss special needs and additional needs, which came up at the hearings last week. I mentioned the fact that the Department of Education and Skills provides more than 6,500 SNAs in primary schools, yet, apart from some local resources, none is allocated to children in early years education. I know that very often the focus is, correctly, on a child with needs, but we all know, and it was stated in the hearings last week, that the importance of inclusion and mainstreaming for all children in a setting cannot be overestimated. What came out of it was that perhaps the special needs assistant model is not the right model, so I hope the Minister is examining other models. It was about how they could access resources to support children in order that they were included in the settings and about adequately resourcing the preschool setting to include and mainstream the child rather than having a shadow with the child, . I advise the Minister to examine some of the answers we received from the organisations at that hearing.
What also came out very strongly from each of the organisations that presented was the importance of the first year of the child’s life, and that we must do everything we can to ensure this first year is at home. This came from all the organisations and it is something I ask the Minister to bring into his consideration. Perhaps over time, as we are trying to be ambitious, the Minister could look at how we ensure we have maternity and paternity leave. In Sweden either parent must take three months of the leave and it is up to them to work out how it is done. We need to look more inventively at this.
I strongly urge the Minister to ensure any money allowed goes into investment and not into cash transfers. We do not have to look too far back in history in this regard. The early child care supplement was withdrawn by the former Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, and the free preschool year was started at the beginning of the recession. I am hugely surprised to see that Fianna Fáil has gone back to tax credits in its plans. For me it is about investment. I urge the Minister to examine this.
I welcome the Tánaiste. It is with pride that I second the motion. The result of inadequate income for many one-parent families is food poverty, fuel poverty, over-indebtedness, difficulty with education-related costs, cutting out extra-curricular activities and children’s hobbies, living in poor quality housing, risk of homelessness, and homelessness. The latest SILC data for 2013 revealed that in lone parent households, the at-risk-of-poverty rate was 31.7%, the deprivation rate was 63.2% and the consistent poverty rate was 23%.
The particular and distinct vulnerability of this group is further shown by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul which has confirmed that one-parent families constitute one of the major groups to which it provides services. The financial assistance the Society of St. Vincent de Paul provides is connected with their low and inadequate incomes, particularly those in receipt of one-parent family payment. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has advised that despite incredibly careful budgeting, there simply is not enough money in the house, and they find they need a payment to buy food or meet the costs of school, energy and housing.
Parents who work part-time find that their pay is low and unlikely to rise significantly as they often have low educational levels because of the situation they are in. Child care is an issue in terms of cost of child care and the salaries for those working in child care because all too often jobs that are considered to be women’s work get lower rates of pay.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul also supports both two and one-parent homeless families that are in emergency hotel accommodation, in the majority of cases because of the major shortage in social housing or having been pushed out of the unregulated monopolistic private rental sector where market rate far exceeds rent supplement caps and where the housing assistance payment is only available from selected housing authorities. That is an issue that differs around the country.
Society of St. Vincent de Paul volunteers report that their members are finding that the move from one-parent family payment to the jobseeker’s transition allowance is causing them considerable uncertainty and fear, particularly among those who have received the letter from the Department. This is something I found repeatedly as I talked to groups in preparation for this debate.
The proposed changes regarding the one-parent family payment have also caused considerable stress, upset and confusion with Doras Buí, a community-development organisation centre that provides high quality supports and services to one-parent families living in the Coolock area of Dublin. That organisation outlined some of its concerns. Obviously a major cause of concern is the provision of adequate, quality and affordable child care in that area. It claims that the provision of the after-school subvention scheme is not adequate. First, not all private child care providers have taken up this scheme and many parents are unable to find a provider to collect their child from their school. It is great to say that one has the scheme in one place and the child somewhere else, but how is the child supposed to get to the scheme? Second, the subsidised scheme only lasts for 52 weeks. What are parents to do after the first year of the scheme finishes? The Department has advised parents to contact their child care committee after this time.
Many parents have expressed concerns regarding their current working arrangements and qualifying conditions for jobseeker’s allowance. Some are working ten to 15 hours per week, broken down to two to three hours per day for five days, in order to fit around child care arrangements. While working these hours, they do not qualify for jobseeker’s allowance because they work for more than three days per week. Many parents and their employers are not in a position to increase working hours to at least 19 hours, which would allow parents to be eligible for FIS and the back to work dividend. Another example has been clearly illustrated by the Dunnes Stores workers who work 15 hours per week. We see the precarious position they have been put in. A person may be called in to work thinking they might have five hours, and organise child care on that basis, only to go in to find out they have one hour of work.
Due to the current housing crisis and the lack of social housing, many lone parents are in receipt of rent supplement. Under the conditions of rent allowance a recipient cannot work more than 30 hours per week, so we are moving up the scale. If they do, they lose their rent supplement, so parents are left with a choice between working full time and keeping their home.
While there are child care education and training support programmes available for parents who are studying a FETAC level 5 course to help towards the cost of further education, there is no such funding for parents who want to go to degree level. This is limiting their education choices, which in turn limits their ability to gain full-time well paid employment.
I will end by mentioning a lone parent involved in Doras Buí who asked me to share her story with the House. Her name is Leanne and she is a single mother of one. She says:
The new changes in the One Parent Family Payment will really affect me in a bad way. My son turns 7 years old on the 14th of July, so this will affect me immediately. My son has been diagnosed with ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder and takes daily medication. I attend monthly and sometimes weekly appointments in the Mater CAMHS hospital. I am currently working part time and I face a drop of 70/80 euro a week, basically between 280/320 a month. This is a huge stress on a lone parent like me, trying to better myself for my son by getting out and working part time and this strain is unbelievable. I attend counselling over these stresses. I cannot work full time as I don’t have a minder for my child and with these changes I won’t be able to afford one any time soon.
This really illustrates how a number of factors that I have tried to demonstrate come together and compound this downward spiral at a time when we should be supporting and lifting up lone parents and giving them the opportunities we say we wish to give them. I cannot see the evidence of investment in child care and after-school care. There has been investment, but there are no guidelines, no clear structures and no regulations, so the reality is that when people try to access services, be they housing or employment, all these obstacles are in the way. We really need to tackle this issue to lift lone parents and their children out of poverty.
I welcome the Minister and her officials to the House. I thank her for the consultation in advance of the debate and the opportunity for pre-legislative hearings on the general scheme of the Bill in committee. My colleague, Senator Katherine Zappone, was very active in the committee on that issue.
As a person who has advocated for children’s rights for many years and has the privilege of being a voice in the legislative process, this feels like a really important day, and I believe it is. The Children and Family Relationships Bill will bring about essential and long overdue reform, modernisation and legal clarity to many aspects of family law, particularly to diverse parenting situations and diverse family forms. When I say overdue, that is not a criticism of the Government. I commend the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, her predecessor, Deputy Alan Shatter, and the officials in the Department of Justice and Equality on their courage and expertise in drafting the Bill and bringing it before the Houses. It is an indictment rather of many previous Governments that it has taken us all until now in 2015 to introduce what will be the greatest reform of child and family law for a generation and finally to put children at the heart of family law. It is the first major reform of guardianship laws since the 1960s. I read an article by Colette Browne in the Irish Independentin February in which she noted that 3% of births in the 1960s were to an unmarried mother. I looked at figures in preparation for today’s debate solely in regard to these areas as married families can break down and issues can happen. Figures which I received from the Children’s Rights Alliance show that 308,000 children are living with 186,000 lone parents, 104,000 children are living with 60,000 unmarried cohabiting couples, 43,000 children are living with 29,000 lone fathers, and there are 230 same-sex couples with children. I want us all to have a perspective on the figures and to understand that these are many of the children we are talking about in debating the legislation.
As indicated by the figures, an increasing number of children live in diverse parenting situations and diverse family forms other than the traditional model of a household headed by married parents. I could use all my time to outline the areas I think will significantly contribute to children’s lives and their positive outcomes. For me the Bill is very much based on children’s rights. It is based on the best interests of the child being the paramount consideration and ensures issues such as continuity of care, right to identity, and the voice of the child are all becoming normalised and part of the legislative process. That is welcome.
I will use my time to indicate the areas where I think we could go further. For example, the Bill does not include definitions of guardianship, custody and access which would be essential to reduce the level of family conflict that may take place when relationships break down and to avoid the existing confusion among the public, professionals and the Judiciary. I understand the options about guardianships and the different levels of guardianship, but will it be difficult for the public to understand which levels of guardianship one person has vis-à-vis another? In future Bills, perhaps we should be look at the Law Reform Commission report of 2010 which examined the legal aspects of family relationships. It suggested new terms such as parental responsibility, day-to-day care and contact rather than the word “access”. These are much more child-friendly terms and state the roles the adult would play in the child’s life. However, I recognise and support the Bill as a monumental step in the right direction and the foundation from which child and family law can continue to be developed and bolstered to meet the needs of our ever-evolving society.
Given the breadth of the Bill, it is disappointing that the debate around it has been limited to a few narrow strands, albeit challenging and emotive issues by nouveauchildren’s rights proponents, whose premise I do not always agree is children’s rights centred. I am especially saddened by the talk of a hierarchy of family structures or some sort of Olympics of family structures meeting gold a medal standard where we now have silver and bronze who do not even get to compete. I am conscious that there are children who will listen to parts of the debate. I am not suggesting that they would be tuning in to the Seanad, although they come and visit us regularly, but I am concerned that in some way we are putting affirmation on one sort of family form or another. There are many different reasons for different family forms. We do not need to look too far beyond our families to understand the different types and diverse types of families in which children are living.
On Committee Stage I will be looking at section 63 which deals with the best interests of the child, particularly in relation to the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964. It provides a new and detailed definition in Irish law of the best interests of the child. The factors and circumstances enumerated thereunder are not exhaustive, and therefore the court will be capable of looking beyond them in making a determination concerning the child. The Bill will allow the courts to consider the physical, emotional, psychological, educational and social needs of the child, including his or her need for stability, having regard to age and stage of development. That is welcome.
As has been mentioned, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, special rapporteur on child protection, suggests that in tandem with this welcome legislative development, structural reform also needs to take place, namely, we need to establish a distinct and separate system of family courts. I am aware that is a commitment in the programme for Government to provide a fair and effective forum to vindicate the rights of children and families.
The Child Care Act 1991 is silent on the qualifications, roles and duties of guardians ad litem. A properly funded guardian ad litemagency in Ireland is long overdue. We have a blueprint for this in the Children Acts Advisory Board report of 2009 which gives a voice to children’s wishes, feelings and interests. I hope that as we progress the Bill, we can ensure the voice of the child is certain and guaranteed.
An issue that has been raised with me by Barnardos is the court welfare service. This service would provide a crucial link between the family and the Judiciary, offering services such as mediation, undertaking assessments of the child’s welfare and best interests, ascertaining their view through a child view expert, guardians ad litemand conducting family risk assessments. It would ensure judges received up-to-date holistic information on each case to help them in making their decision. The service would also provide, where appropriate, support such as child contact centres to assist the children in highly contentious and acrimonious splits.Perhaps we should look at other systems in operation, such as the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service in the UK.
I will move on to the issue of the right to identity, which my colleague Senator Power has raised. When I see all our colleagues raising the issue of right to identity, I wish many of them had been here when we were debating the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill, but we will wait and see. I am concerned that people are misrepresenting and misconstruing the principle underlying a child’s right to identity to fit their own agenda. They are talking about the child’s right to identity from the mother’s and father’s perspectives, rather than from the child’s perspective. This Bill approaches the issue from the child’s perspective, based on children’s rights. We had a good debate in the Seanad on the Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill, during which I tabled an amendment on the child’s right to identity. Hopefully, as we evolve in our thinking, we can assert this right to identity more and more. The focus of these groups is often selective, to further an ideological end, rather than a genuine concern for the vindication of the child’s right to his or her identity. This is the crux of our continuous failure on the issue of a child’s right to identity. Historically and culturally, we have constructed a hierarchy of rights, a veil of secrecy, to deny children the right to their identity. What the Minister is putting forward in this Bill and in the Bill on assisted human reproduction is to be welcomed. There are groups that wish we would go further or that we would allow for anonymous donation. The Minister has struck the right balance. I have sympathy with the position of Senator Power in that I would like to see the right to identity here. We have a history of not acknowledging it, but this is a welcome start. The transition period the Minister has proposed is fair and pragmatic. I would prefer that a child have a right to his or her identity, but I am willing to accept what the Minister is putting forward as a strong change, with a focus on children’s rights and ensuring they have their right to identity.
I also want to raise the issue of unmarried fathers. I am worried that we still have a long way to go on this issue. We often feed into the negative stereotypes of unmarried fathers as feckless, irresponsible flakes. It is all too easy for us to do this. Worse still, the justification for not granting automatic guardianship rights to fathers appears to have been conflated with concerns about domestic and sexual violence. These heinous crimes can happen in any type of family, not just unmarried ones. It is wrong, prejudicial and discriminatory to link it exclusively to unmarried parents. The law should presume that the majority of unmarried parents are responsible and reasonable. Where they are not, this should be addressed through relevant legislation. The solution is not to penalise the majority. Colette Browne, in her article on the Children and Family Relationships Bill, says that it compounds our unfair treatment of unmarried parents. She says that currently unmarried fathers have zero legal rights over their children, which means that:
[…] if your partner is away and your child falls ill, you cannot authorise medical treatment. It means that if your relationship breaks up and your partner decides to move abroad with your child, you are powerless to stop her. It also means that you have no automatic right to custody or access to your child. By law, the mother is entitled to sole custody of the child if the father has not been made a guardian. Imagine a worst-case scenario in which your partner dies and you are left alone to care for your child.
How can we make it more natural and how can we ensure that guardianship rights are there?
I have much more to say, but one of the issues I want to raise relates to statutory declarations. All of us have lost precious documents. For example, I lost my driving licence years ago. We are talking about a piece of paper. If one loses it, it is gone and one’s rights are extinguished. I welcome the Minister’s suggestion of piloting a repository. I wonder if we need to do more than that. I acknowledge what she is saying – that she does not want to make it compulsory and add another hurdle – but we have to find a way in which those statutory declarations can be lodged.
I want to be absolutely clear, so that there is no misunderstanding, in saying that I wholeheartedly welcome this Bill. I support it and I will do everything I can do ensure it is brought into law. Its potential is manifold, but at its heart it is about children’s rights. I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill to the House.
Progression of the Gender Recognition Bill 2014 can be followed here
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 5, between lines 21 and 22, to insert the following:“ “child” means a person under the age of 18 years;”.
I welcome our visitors to the Visitors’ Gallery and I congratulate Senator Zappone. I did not speak on that amendment because I intend to say a great deal on this substantive point. I do not plan to speak on other matters, but this is an issue that is very close to my heart. I thank my colleagues Senators Mac Conghail and Zappone for supporting me in the grouping of amendments I tabled. I see that colleagues have similar intentions with the amendments they have put forward. I also thank the Minister for engaging with us.
I will outline the reason for this amendment. I do not intend to push it to a vote today but I intend to press it, or a similar wording of it, to a vote on Report Stage as I am very passionate about this issue.
The rationale behind the amendments I have tabled derives from what will be Article 42A.1 of the Constitution, depending on the Supreme Court judgment, which 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.”
In my Irish Mirror column yesterday I spoke about Ireland’s shocking record in respect of the treatment, welfare and well-being of children in Ireland, especially vulnerable children whose vulnerability we appear to compound systematically.
I noted the significance of the successful passage of the children’s rights referendum on 10 November 2012, which sought to incorporate into Irish constitutional law the principles that children have rights as individual human beings, independent of adults and that their best interests and opinions are vital when important decisions are being made about their lives. The Irish people have spoken out and spoken up for children.
To my great frustration, these principles, which Ireland is already bound to respect under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, have not yet taken constitutional effect because we are still awaiting a final decision from the Supreme Court on the legal challenge to the referendum. I am very aware of the pressure and backlog of cases at the Supreme Court but part of me wonders why, after 26 months of delay, we do not have a public outcry. Despite a systemic change of mind set in recent years, we still have a long way to go to fully embrace the urgency of children’s rights.
It is very clear to me, having actively engaged at all levels of the consultation and debate around the wording of the constitutional amendment, that it was the intention of the Legislature and of the people in passing the referendum to enshrine children’s rights in the Constitution so that their rights will be safeguarded and vindicated in all future legislation.
The aforementioned UN convention, which Ireland ratified in 1992, sets out an integrated and holistic approach to the rights of children and is internationally accepted as the model of implementation at domestic level.
As far as I am concerned, in the drafting of any Bill which impacts on children’s lives, it is now incumbent on us as legislators to ensure that the best interests of the child are the paramount consideration, the views of the child are heard when key decisions are being made about the child’s life and that the evolving capacity of the child is facilitated.
I believe that this Bill, specifically section 11 as currently drafted, fails to safeguard and vindicate children’s rights in accordance with international law and the constitutional imperatives. In fact, the rights of children under the age of 16 are not even open to consideration.
I will refer now to amendments Nos. 15 and 17.
Gender recognition is an established human right to which children, as individual rights holders, should be entitled.
The development of gender identity in children:
In preparing for this debate today, I have looked for commentary or evidence about the age at which gender identity develops and was struck by the real dearth of research into transgender children. In fact, there is no incidence or prevalence data from Ireland or the UK on the number of transgender young people under 18. Of the research that was available, I noted that some paediatric specialists put the age of gender identity in children, whether transgender or not, at two or three. Other research cites gender identity development as occurring between three and five years of age.
Elizabeth Reilly et al published a very interesting piece of qualitative research on the issue which solicited the views of transgender adults about the needs of gender-variant children and their parents in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy – the peer-reviewed scientific journal published by Routledge – in 2013.
The researchers found that 94% of transgender adults had identified their gender before the age of 18, some 48% had identified their gender between zero and five years of age, while 44% had identified their gender between the age of six and 14.Only 2% identified their gender between 13 and 18 and only 2% after the age of 18, while 4% of the respondents did not reply. That is a pretty good indication of what period of a child’s life is important in terms of gender identification and goes to the essence of what we are talking about here.
There was a time in Ireland, during the last century, when it was widely believed that people did not become aware of their sexual orientation until they reached adulthood. It was commonly believed that this was something a person decided or determined but thankfully, we are more enlightened as a society now and more understanding of the reality. When it comes to gender recognition, however, we are still back in the last century and that way of thinking. I would like us to understand that it is actually at an earlier age that one’s gender identity is realised and understood. We need to accepted that fact.
The exclusion of children under 16 years from the Bill:
That is why I have an issue with this Bill, which actively excludes children under 16 from its provisions for making an application for a gender recognition certificate. It denies outright any consideration of their best interests in the context of their personal circumstances. I believe that this runs contrary to the best interest of the child principle.
A good example of how this outright denial has serious implications for the transgender and intersex child is seen in the S v. Bord Uchtála case of 2009.
That case involved an intersex child, born abroad, who had been registered as female at birth, was subject to a foreign adoption order and brought to Ireland to live. Upon examination by medical experts in Ireland and the United States, it was concluded that the child would most likely identify as a male and the decision was taken by the adoptive parents to raise the child as a boy. The parents sought an amendment of the register of foreign adoptions so that the child’s paperwork would reflect his gender of rearing and so that he could be registered at the local boy’s school. The Adoption Board refused the application on the basis that it did not believe it had the authority to grant this request. On judicial review in the High Court, Mr. Justice Sheehan granted the request but the difficulty is that this was an ex tempore judgment and not a precedent.
I am concerned that a different judge, even in similar circumstances, might feel that he or she lacked the authority to grant such an order, given the discourse on this issue. In fact, I am worried that by introducing this legislation and being deliberately silent on children under 16, we are sending a clear message to the courts that they should never grant such an order. I will be seeking advice on this because a judge in a future case, similar to the one to which I referred, may find it extremely difficult to make a similar order.
In the aforementioned case, those involved – both the parents and the child – agreed with the order. With this legislation, we are saying, “We know best. Go to a girl’s school”. We would be telling a young boy to go to a girl’s school because we know best what is good for him and what is in his best interests. I believe that the best interests of that child were served by allowing him to be identified with the gender of his preference, with which his parents concurred.
In terms of international precedent, in October 2013 the Argentinian authorities granted a female identification card and amended birth certificate to a transgender six year old Luna, formerly Manuel, under that country’s ground-breaking gender identity law which allows people to change their name and sex without approval from either a doctor or a judge.
Under Argentinian gender identity law, individuals have the right to the recognition of their gender identity. Individuals are also legally entitled to the free development of their person according to their gender identity and to be treated according to that identity, particularly to be identified in that way in the documents proving their identity, including the first name, image and sex recorded there.
According to the law, gender identity is understood as the internal and individual way in which a gender is perceived by persons that can correspond, or not, to the gender assigned at birth including the personal experience of the body. This can involve modifying bodily appearance or functions but it can also include other expressions of gender, such as dress, ways of speaking and gestures.
I have heard this legislation before us described as progressive but as I speak, similar legislation is being debated in Malta which definitely is progressive. That legislation takes into consideration the lived life which is what we should be aspiring to here.
The Gender Identity Bill, which is today having its second reading in Malta’s Parliament and is expected to pass with cross-party support, proposes to change its civil rights legislation by removing the requirement that a child be given a gender at birth.
The Bill states: “The persons exercising parental authority over the minor, or the tutor of the minor whose gender has not been declared at birth, shall, before the minor attains the age of 14, by means of a public deed, declare the gender of the minor”.
I thought that perhaps Malta would not face the same issues as we do in the context of single sex schools but I discovered that the majority of State-run secondary schools there are also single sex. Malta is able to deal with this issue and ensure that it acts in the best interest of the child.
Access to education in the child’s preferred gender:
I am particularly concerned about the mechanisms we need to have in place to minimise the challenges currently faced by transsexual and intersex children in Ireland.
Examples of challenges are the segregated nature of our educational system and the requirement that parents must submit birth certificates for registration. Education, on which there is an amendment tabled, is a specific area to be considered but there are other settings in which children experience challenges. We may find a work-around.
Efforts being made in other jurisdictions:
In preparing for this debate, I was looking for examples.
In California in January 2014, Assembly Bill 1266, or the school Success and Opportunity Act, came into effect for K-12 students, who are between four and 19 years old, in the public school system.
The law inserted the following provision into the existing legislation: “A pupil shall be permitted to participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records.”
In response to the new provision, Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco, stated: “Now, every transgender student in California will be able to get up in the morning knowing that when they go to school as their authentic self they will have the same fair chance at success as their classmates.”
Transsexual and intersex children are inherently vulnerable because of their age and lack of legal protection. We have an opportunity to lessen this vulnerability but instead we choose to turn a blind eye or put up an artificial barrier, despite the fact that evidence suggests, and adults have said, that it is in children’s younger years that their gender identity is developed.
I am thinking of the six year old child who has clearly articulated his preferred gender and which has been fully embraced by his parents, friends, extended family and community. Is this young child, a boy, really going to be forced to go through a girls’ school wearing a girl’s uniform and using the wrong name and pronouns to gain access to the education available in his locality? That is what we are doing to children in these circumstances.
Are we really preparing to stand over legislation that in the case of the boy in question would cause unnecessary distress, embarrassment and humiliation, and potentially serious psychological harm, for ten years before he is eligible to apply to have his gender identity recognised?
Legislation that fails to listen to the voice of children or consider their best interests is not legislation I want to stand over.
Where a child has clearly articulated views regarding his or her preferred gender, or where the child has an intersex condition that might merit a change in gender and legal recognition, he or she should be facilitated in achieving this end, especially where all parties agree.
We do not even have a system where all parties can agree. In the amendments we have tabled, we have sought to find ways in which all parties can agree and, where they do not, where disagreement can be dealt with.
Issues around consent:
According to the Bill as currently drafted, 16 and 17 year olds will need an order from the court allowing them to apply to the Minister for a gender recognition certificate. The amendment I have tabled puts the best interest of the child front and centre in the court’s consideration, which is where it should be. I do not believe it should be a matter for any medical practitioner or psychologist. We should allow cases to be dealt with in court to ensure the child’s rights are upheld and protected.
The amendment is to secure the consent of the person referred to in subsection (4)(a) since the current drafting means the court has no authority to override the non-consent of an individual.
We need to have the measure I propose because we need to adhere to the principle of the best interest of the child. We do this with other types of legislation, such as adoption legislation.For me, the current provisions fly in the face of the requirement to ensure in our laws that the child’s best interest should determine the process.
Furthermore, the fact that the process for achieving gender recognition is open only to 16 and 17 year olds on consent does not make sense to me. Under the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997, 16 and 17 year old children can choose, if they wish, to seek medical services as part of a medical transition process in their own right. They have full consent to go through the medical processes, yet the Bill requires parental consent to apply for a gender recognition certificate. The thinking is that children can undergo any medical procedure they wish but, to get the piece of paper, we need to protect them and involve their parents. It just does not add up.
I am genuinely concerned about the absence of a provision ensuring the best interest of the child. When the general scheme of the legislation was made available, the Ombudsman for Children advised that, if we had this process, an “illogical situation would arise in which the State would countenance a young person receiving the relevant medical treatment on the strength of his or her own consent, yet that consent would be insufficient to obtain legal recognition of the young person’s preferred gender and the outcome of that treatment”.
I hope the constitutional amendment will come into effect shortly. In any case, we have an obligation, having ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to ensure we have the best interest of the child at the heart of all our legislation.
That we are silent about those aged 16 and below would not allow for the court case I spoke of or any other court cases in which a judge could use his or her discretion. As legislators, we cannot stand over that. We need to go back to the drawing board and consider the best interest of the child and find a mechanism on which everyone can agree, allowing children to live their lives as they desire.
Can you imagine trying to live your life as another person with a different identity? One might regard oneself as a “she” but be called “he” and be expected to conform by wearing certain clothing. We know clothing is a big issue for young people in schools. Are we really to deny their voice, best interests and what we now know about children, that is, that they have an evolving capacity and are able to make these decisions? We can find a structure that safeguards them and regards their best interest as paramount.
I welcome the Minister (Minster for Education Jan O’Sullivan TD) to the Seanad. She is particularly welcome as she is dealing with the issue of early years education. I know her personal commitment to and experience of the issue. The steps she made in the early days in terms of examining the early years and setting up the work she will do in this area are welcome. We have had many excellent debates in this House on the importance of the early years and I do not need to rehearse them. My colleagues have articulated the importance of early years education.
I should start with a declaration of interest. I am chair of Early Childhood Ireland, but it is a governance role. In speaking here today, I am not speaking in that role. I chair the board in the organisation in a governance role.
In her speech the Minister mentioned inspections and the importance of the inspectors she will appoint, which I welcome. It is an excellent decision. She said the inspectors will complement, not duplicate, the type of inspections carried out by the Child and Family Agency. At the moment early childhood care and education settings are inspected by Pobal and the Child and Family Agency, and will now be inspected by the Department of Education and Skills. I do not see why we need all of these inspections and different types of people doing the inspecting. It represents a mentality we have, namely, a silo effect of Government. We need to be much wider and broader.
I would welcome the Department of Education taking the lead in inspections. Would we accept multiple agencies and public health nurses inspecting the work being done in our primary and secondary schools? How many of us would say that makes sense? It does not make sense in terms of the use of public health nurses or the education and care of our children and young people.
In my experience, the Department of Education and Skills has built up a recognised and approved inspectorate. The Minister receives a lot of criticism, but it is rare that I hear criticism levelled at the inspection system. There is scope for us to examine how we develop an inspection system for early childhood care and education settings that is led by the Department of Education and Skills., and not have other Departments involved in the inspection process. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs can play an important part in the delivery and provision of settings, but we have to consider a much more co-ordinated approach. It is something I would urge the Government to reconsider.
I take the Minister at her word when she says this will complement inspections, but the reality is that I meet owners of child care settings who tell me two different inspectors will arrive, coincidentally, on the same day who are looking at slightly different things within their settings. They do not have extra staff to allocate to these inspectors. We need to be careful about what we are trying to achieve with the inspections. Are we really trying to ensure that the quality and standards improve? Are we trying to ensure that Síolta and Aistear are implemented in our child care settings or are we trying to make sure that a sink is in the right place? What are we trying to achieve with the inspections? What is the primary consideration for the inspections? I ask the Minister to go back to her colleagues in Government and ask whether we can re-examine this and find a better way.
I am greatly concerned about the investment by Government in child care settings. It is not adequate. We have to consider how we will increase it. Everybody agrees on the importance of the period from birth to six years of age, but early child care settings are only open for 39 weeks of the year. I would like to see the number of weeks provided for children in early child care and educations settings greatly extended. I would like to ensure that the staff are qualified. We will hear more in February about those who are on low and minimum wages, part-time contracts and go on the dole for the summer. One does not get paid for any non-access hours or child-free time. Teachers will get non-contact time, but those working in early child care settings do not, yet we are asking them to drive for quality while paying them the minimum wage or lower.
We have to examine how we can raise the quality bar and encourage teachers in early child care settings to get further education to be able to deliver the type of services we want to have. It is important that we build this up.
The other area of concern is children with special needs. This is not within the scope of the Minister’s Department, but the current system does not allow flexibility for children with special needs. Everybody agrees that we should extend the amount of time special needs children receive and that they would at least get a second year, as all children should get. The Department said it will have flexibility in regard to such children, but the ratios operate at a local level. A parent might know that a child with special needs can attend two or three days in a week. Nobody knows on a Monday the two or three days that will be used, so the setting has to provide the necessary staff. The State will only pay the service for the days the child attends. It does not compute.
We have to re-examine this issue because we need to ensure such children are in the system. We know early identification of special needs issues can often equip children to develop their full potential and be much more able to deal with and be part of life. We need to determine how to provide a facility whereby children with special needs and parents can feel they do not have to say they are fully in or out of the special needs early education system.
There is an issue in that the State is engaged in providing the free preschool year. I have had major debates on the issue of rates in this House, which the State sets in every county. I acknowledge that this does not come within the scope of the Minister’s Department, but it is a cost for child care facilities. In different services in different areas of the country, charges, be they rates, water charges or other charges, differ by area, yet the State decides how much a child care facility gets paid per child, the space required per child and the number of early years educators per child. It sets all these parameters and specifies that child care facilities cannot charge parents anything extra, which I support and with which I am in agreement. Different child care facilities, depending on where they are based in the country, are viable or not viable because of external costs such as rates or other charges related to the premises. This is an issue in that the State cannot say it is responsible for all these pieces, but it is responsible for the setting of rates. It is an area we need we need to revisit and in respect of which we need to look forward.
We need to ensure that we treat all children equally, and that is why I am a big supporter of the free preschool year. I would like it extended and for the State to invest more in services. As I said when we debated the Social Welfare and Pensions (No. 2) Bill, at the start of the recession we were lectured, and I use that word wisely, to the effect that it was not about cash transfers and that the way we could improve outcomes for children was by investing directly in the services and in the infrastructure to support such better outcomes. I hope, as we see an upturn in the economy, that those words will be acted on and that we will start investing in children’s health care and education and not go back to a system of cash transfers, which we know do not necessarily deliver better outcomes for children. I would encourage the Minister to say that we need a co-ordinated approach and a single system of inspection in order that it is clear both to parents and to those running child care facilities that our intention is to improve outcomes for children. I encourage the Minister in what she is trying to do and I welcome this debate.