Order of Business, 20 July 2011

20th July 2011

I too take the opportunity to congratulate Senator Trevor Clochartaigh on his new addition. Here is another child whose rights we must fight for and I assure the Senator we will continue to do so.

I echo what Senator Darragh O’Brien said in regard to the European leaders summit. I am extremely concerned, as are many citizens, at the way in which Europe has dragged its feet and has not taken the necessary decisions to address the crisis. The latest signals are not encouraging in advance of tomorrows summit. When the Heads of State meet at an EU leaders summit, we expect action. We should send a clear message in this regard.

I join Senator Ivana Bacik in congratulating Mrs. Justice Susan Denham’s appointment as the first female Chief Justice in the history of the State. She is an excellent role model and it is encouraging that the two most senior legal positions in the State are now occupied by women. We are in safe hands for the future.

We have taken a welcome step forward in the provision of a new national children’s hospital with the Minister’s approval of submissions of plans to An Bord Pleanala. I was very much involved in the debate on the location of the new hospital and have come to the position that we need a national children’s hospital and must put our full support behind it. This House must do everything it can to support that process, notwithstanding the many obstacles that will undoubtedly be put in the way.

I remind Members of the Private Members’ motion my colleagues and I will put forward this evening on the important issue of the social, personal and health education programme in schools. This programme incorporates the relationship and sexuality education programme which, despite being a mandatory part of the curriculum, evidence suggests many schools are failing to implement. I encourage Members to contribute to the debate.

Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2009 – Seanad Bill amended by the Dail – Report and Final Stages

20th July 2011

I am pleased this Bill strengthens the powers of the newly-established Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Last week, the Minister referred to the unsatisfactory situation in 2010 when an independent review group on child deaths, established by the then Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs, Barry Andrews, was furnished with preliminary information by the HSE but refused access to individual cases files. This was due to legal concerns identified by the HSE on the provision of information to the group. It is vital to the success of the new Department and both natural and obvious that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is given direct access to files as she needs them in a safe and proper way, bearing in mind the sensitive nature of some of the information required. This will help her ensure full accountability in the arena of child protection.

Strengthening the powers of the new Department is also important in ensuring consistency in the collection of child protection data from around the country. This is the best way to ensure that a consistent threshold is maintained with regards to children being taken into care.

As the Minister outlined in the past week, there is a big job ahead in strengthening child protection systems. The new Department will have an agency dedicated to family and children services. This will remove the child protection component out of the ambit of the HSE which will re-balance that dynamic and power more favourably towards the new Department.

This Bill is an important step towards strengthening child protection systems. I note the Minister will introduce legislation later this year to create the new child welfare and support services agency. I offer her our support on this as it is in all our interests to bring it forward as quickly as possible. I hope the legislation is comprehensive to allow for the proper lines of accountability at administrative, executive and political levels to ensure the failings that occurred in the setting up of the HSE in that regard are not repeated.

This is the appropriate time to comment on special care orders. This element of the Bill, which relates to special care orders, is highly positive and pertinent. It also relates to one of most serious of all State powers, namely, the power to detain a child in a centre such as Ballydowd. This power must always be used with the utmost care and in absolute deference to the rights of each individual child.

A previous issue of concern was that the relevant provisions of the Child Care Act 1991 were not operational. As a result, it fell to the High Court to hear applications for special care orders. I welcome the provision to afford to the Health Service Executive the power to apply to the High Court for a special care order for a child. I am pleased the previous ambiguity has been removed and the Bill sets out in unequivocal terms the processes to be followed by the HSE. These include the steps to be taken from the initial consideration of the child for special care, the application for the order, the hearing of the case, the granting of the order and the care of the child under the order through to the discharge of the order. I also welcome the role the Health Information and Quality Authority will have in this respect as a result of the amendments proposed by the Minister.

Although I support the Bill, I am concerned about the failure to address the issue of after care. I am aware this issue has been debated extensively but this legislation remains a missed opportunity. I am concerned that an amendment has not been included to make the provision of after care an automatic legal entitlement where a child has an identified need. The obligation to provide after care should be clearly stated in law. When the State assumes parental responsibility for a child in care there should be a corresponding obligation on the State, within legislation, making it crystal clear what are the State’s obligations, including the obligation to ensure the child is cared for and not abandoned when he or she turns 18 years of age.

I listened intently to the Minister’s comments on after care in the Dail last week. Research reports have continually shown that children leaving care need support, as confirmed again by a recent report by Empowering People in Care, EPIC, formerly the Irish Association of Young People in Care, IAYPIC. An amendment to legislation on the issue of after care has been sought by many organisations, including Barnardos. It is also one of the primary demands of the action for after care coalition. While I am aware the Minister intends to return to the issue of after care and much work is being done on it, an opportunity has been missed to address the issue in this legislation.

Residential Institutions (Redress) Bill 2011 – Second Stage

19th July 2011

I thank the Minister for his presentation. I also thank Senator Jim D’Arcy for his early support of our motion tomorrow evening. This debate is extremely timely given that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, is, as we speak, launching the second progress report on the recommendations arising from the Ryan report.

In considering the legislation before us, I take the opportunity to acknowledge the substantial work carried out by the redress board since its inception in 2002. However, behind all the facts and figures lies the suffering of thousands of children who were entitled to be cared for, cherished and loved at a time when they could not have been more vulnerable. Instead, as we learned from the Ryan report, physical and emotional abuse and neglect were features of the institutions in which these children were detained. Sexual abuse occurred in many, particularly boys institutions. A climate of fear created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment permeated most of the institutions. Children lived with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating would come from. Seeing or hearing other children being beaten was a frightening experience that stayed with many survivors for all of their lives. Children who ran away were severely beaten, often publicly, and were often humiliated in public and had their heads shaven. Prolonged, excessive beatings with implements intended to cause maximum pain occurred with the knowledge of staff and management.

In a week where the Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, reminded us of her concern that a hierarchy of abuse was being drawn up by social workers today, with neglect often placed at the bottom, let us not forget what the Ryan report said about the neglect of children. Children were frequently hungry and food was inadequate, inedible and badly prepared in many schools. Survivors spoke of scavenging for food in waste bins and animal feed. Inspectors found that malnourishment was a serious problem in schools run by the nuns in the late 1940s and, although improvements were made, food was meagre and basic. Sanitary provision was primitive, hygiene facilities were poor and sanitary protection for girls in menstruation was generally inadequate. Emotional abuse was suffered and the redress board heard cases of witnesses being belittled and ridiculed. Humiliating practices of underwear inspections and displaying soiled or wet sheets were conducted throughout the industrial schools system. Private matters such as bodily functions and personal hygiene were used as opportunities for degradation and humiliation. There was constant criticism and verbal abuse and children were told they were worthless.

It is important we remember this because when we consider the work of the redress board and review the legislation, we should be mindful of the experiences of so many young children that prompted the need for it in the first place. It is unfortunate to learn from many of the organisations supporting survivors that, in some cases, their experience of the redress board caused additional distress. Many were upset when told that they could not discuss their financial awards publicly. They took this to mean they could not talk publicly about the redress and that there was blanket secrecy, which added to the whole feeling of secrecy and humiliation. Once they accepted a settlement, they believed they could not speak about their childhood experiences, which reinforced the feeling of secrecy and the point about their reputation. This hurt them badly.

As Senator Norris said, it is regrettable that the Government has repeatedly refused to allow Bethany Home – a combined detention centre, children’s home and maternity home in Dublin – to be included on the list of qualifying institutions for the residential institutions redress scheme. This deprived survivors of the opportunity to present their cases to the redress board and seek some semblance of justice and compensation for abuse suffered as children there. The passing of this legislation is a timely reminder that survivors of Bethany Home have not had justice and redress. At this late stage, I urge the Government to find a way to address the needs of Bethany Home survivors, for an inquiry into the activities there and for the survivors to be allowed to access some form of reasonable redress.

As this legislation is before the House at a time when there is public debate about the overall cost of redress and specifically by whom the cost should be met, I fully support the Minister in his efforts to ensure the taxpayer is not left to pay a disproportionate amount of the cost of redress. There are clearly others who should pay their fair share, giving the role they played in causing so much harm to so many.

Order of Business, 19 July 2011

19th July 2011

I join with the leaders of other groups in thanking the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and the Leader for bringing forward motions Nos. 1 and 2. These will give life to the motion which, though put forward by the Independent group, was worked on by Senators from all sides together. It is great to see this expression of our joint work. I hope we can reap the riches of this in the months ahead and demonstrate the importance of this House.

I ask the Leader to allow time for the House to inform and guide policy and legislation to underpin the safety, welfare, protection and rights of children. In the past week we had the Cloyne report, which was debated during the Order of Business last week. We have had much debate on this matter over the last few days. I send a strong message to all adults that there is only one State authority. If one has reasonable grounds for concern about the abuse of a child one should report it to the HSE or the Garda. That is the only answer.

Yesterday, we saw the conviction of Mr. Michael Ferry, from Donegal. He had been convicted but yet was allowed to continue to work in a school in Derrybeg, Donegal despite that conviction. This resonated with me because I went to summer school in Derrybeg, Donegal.

Later today, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs will lay before the Oireachtas the second progress report on the Ryan report, which is something to which the House should give consideration. This report contains 99 actions. It could greatly improve outcomes for children. I note that the Minister, despite previous resistance, decided a few months ago that the oversight group should be more than just a public service group and invited a non-governmental organisation, the Children’s Rights Alliance, to be part of the group. I welcome her decision and I look forward to seeing the report.

It is natural that we Senators should express our hurt, anger or shock at the recent reports, but the House has a stronger role to play. We need to remember that children are being abused in Ireland today. This is not about the past. It is about the here and now. On Friday, the Minister published Children First: National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children, and will bring forward legislation. The House could help inform that legislation. We should have a debate on what needs to be done. There is fear among the public about statutory reporting. We should also talk about mandatory protection to ensure that State agencies co-operate and share information.

I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on what the Seanad can do to underpin the safety, welfare, protection and rights of children in Ireland today.

Address by President of the European Parliament

12th July 2011

I welcome President Buzek to Seanad Éireann. It is an honour for me to speak to somebody who is such a great defender of human rights and European values. I have heard him say that: “There is no ‘us’ and ‘you’. We can say loud and clear that. . . Europe belongs to us all”. In this time of recession, however, that feeling of “us” is fast diminishing. I am a committed European and believe we need more of Europe to get us out of this crisis. We need to get the Europe 2020 strategy back on track. However, President Buzek raised the multi-annual financial framework which includes a welcome proposal to set up an interparliamentary conference with national parliaments. That is of interest both to the European Parliament and to us in Seanad Éireann. President Buzek also said that Europe needs a strong and stable budget, but do we need to increase the European budget by 5% at this time? What message does that send to people? The multi-annual financial framework includes proposals to increase its own resources through revenue raising measures such as a financial transaction tax and a new VAT resource. In the current climate, is this really the best way to connect citizens and help engender that feeling of “us”?

I thank President Buzek for his solidarity.

Civil Law – Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2011 – Second Stage

30th June 2011

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive overview. I take this opportunity to welcome the citizenship ceremony held last week in Dublin Castle. This was a very important ceremony and several people noted it as a very welcome initiative by the Minister.

When reading the Bill last weekend I wondered whether the title should be changed to the lost and found Bill because it was certainly an eclectic collection of albeit very important measures. It has certainly tested my mettle in my breadth of knowledge. I cannot claim to have knowledge in all the areas covered so I will limit my comments to areas on which I wish to comment or to measures I wish to note.

I welcome the Minister’s proposals on civil legal aid in section 26 of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 which will allow the Legal Aid Board to provide legal advice on criminal matters to victims or alleged victims of trafficking. This is a very positive measure as this is an important extension of powers so that any alleged victim of human trafficking will be able to get legal advice. However, I note that this does not appear to extend to representation for the victims in court proceedings nor will it protect the victims of the sex trade who do not come within the narrow definition of trafficking. I do not know if anything can be done at this stage with regard to this issue. I am concerned that while this is a very welcome measure to allow the Legal Aid Board to give legal advice to victims or alleged victims of human trafficking, it does not include legal representation.

Part 3 refers to proposals on good Samaritans. I read this section with particular interest because I am a long-standing volunteer with the Irish Girl Guides and I am bringing 22 girls on a trip this weekend to a 500-strong camp. If I am a little tired on Tuesday I will ask my colleagues to bear with me.

I have paid particular attention to this proposal which I welcome. It is important to discuss and encourage good Samaritans and volunteerism. This section will be a welcome addition to any discussion on community life. I read the Law Reform Commission report on civil liability of good Samaritans and volunteers and I note that many of the recommendations in that report are encompassed here. The proposal to deal with the civil liability of good Samaritans and volunteers is important. The Minister also accommodates the range of individuals who may constitute a Good Samaritan or a volunteer or the organisations or types of intervention. While it may be difficult to define, any measure to support people to take the initiative, is important.

I am involved in several voluntary organisations and I have noted an undue expectation of a duty of care. This may arise where, as a result of an accident, a case is brought against an individual or an organisation by a concerned parent. The problem is that the insurance companies will urge organisations to settle before it goes to court, thereby not allowing the courts to intervene as is proposed in this Bill. This results in an increase in insurance costs for the voluntary organisations. I can provide examples of where this has happened.

Part 5 deals with intoxicating liquor and I particularly welcome these provisions and the Minister’s words on this issue. I have been a rapporteur on two significant EU reports on alcohol-related harm. This experience has changed my opinion because I would have been slightly more moderate in my view on the issue of alcohol-related harm but the evidence speaks for itself. As the Minister observed, the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008, which came into force in August 2008, introduces firmer penalties for those who sell alcohol to under-18s and it contains other welcome measures. However, enforcement has been limited and weak. I know this Bill cannot change this but I wish to bring this to the attention of the Minister while he is in the House.

Stricter government regulation is required to govern alcohol advertising and marketing. Alcohol advertising and marketing shapes children’s attitudes to alcohol from an early age and it plays a significant role in their decision to drink and how to drink. A review of longitudinal studies was carried out in 2009. This showed that the volume of alcohol advertisement in media seen by teenagers increases the likelihood that they will start to drink, the amount they drink and the amount they drink on any one occasion.

The Minister referred to the voluntary code. In 2003, draft legislation was prepared which was aimed at significantly reducing children’s exposure to alcohol advertising and marketing. Had this legislation been enacted it would have restricted the placement of alcohol advertisements, limited their content and banned the drinks industry sponsorship of youth leisure activities. This draft legislation went to Cabinet and had been approved. There then followed a change of Ministers and subsequently a voluntary code was introduced in place of the draft legislation. I note that this voluntary code mirrors exactly what was produced by the industry, including the grammatical errors. Therefore, the Minister’s comments this morning are all the more pertinent. I welcome the proposals in this Bill but I stress that any consultation cannot just be with the industry. This is an issue that affects society and there needs to be wider consultation. It is clear that a voluntary code alone is insufficient to address the problems and this view is supported by the World Health Organisation which has stated that self-regulation seems to work only to the extent that there is a current and credible threat of regulation by government. I endorse this view.

Part 7 proposes amendment of the Bankruptcy Act 1988. There has been much public debate in recent months with regard to bankruptcy and I welcome the proposals in the Bill. However, I also welcome the proposal by Senator O’Donovan to reduce the term to three years.

Part 8 proposes the amendment of the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act 1976 and this is to be welcomed. It is an area in which the Minister has a wide experience and he is aware of its direct impact. These new measures will provide for a clear distinction between those who cannot pay maintenance and those who actively choose not to pay it.

Part 13 proposes the amendment of the Registration of Title Act 1964. My understanding is that the proposed section 31 which inserts a new section 49A into the 1964 Act, now provides that an individual can make application to register a right of way as a burden which will first require the consent of the landowner and second, this will only apply in circumstances where the land is registered land. The benefit of this measure is that court applications will be avoided where all parties consent and that registration and the ownership of the lands is registered with the Land Registry. It would appear that this section will not provide assistance to those individuals who are seeking to claim an easement over unregistered lands but, hopefully, this will be eased over time, as compulsory registration with the Land Registry is extended across the country.

My understanding is that section 28 proposes will extend the current deadline of December 2012. Is that correct?
I welcome Part 15 of the Bill which deals with miscellaneous measures. In particular I welcome the amendment of the Domestic Violence Act 1996. This is a critical amendment which is long overdue. I am pleased the Minister has taken this opportunity to amend the Act. Women who have a child with an abuser, for example, but who have never lived together or married, are currently a very vulnerable group. Where there is a child in common, there is often continued contact between the parents after the relationship ends and this contact gives further opportunity to abuse. The Minister’s proposal in this section is very important and will have a direct effect.
Women’s Aid has drawn my attention to a lacuna in the current provisions whereby dating partners who are not cohabiting and women being stalked and abused by ex-partners are totally unprotected under the Domestic Violence Act 1996 and will remain so. Protection from domestic violence should not be contingent on current or previous cohabitation and, therefore, safety orders should be available to all parties who are or have been in intimate relationships, as set out in the United Nations guidelines on domestic violence legislation. I hope there will be further progress in this area, and I welcome the steps taken in this regard in the Bill.

I thank the Minister for introducing the legislation to the Seanad. I look forward to our future co-operation.

Whistleblower Legislation – Motion

29th June 2011

I, too, welcome the opportunity to discuss whistleblowing legislation. I welcome the work done by Senator Mullen in tabling this motion. I also acknowledge the work of Transparency International in this area. It provided an excellent briefing for us which assisted us in our preparations.

In preparing for the debate on this motion, I talked to many NGOs because they are often left to deal with some of the consequences in this regard. I refer in particular to NGOs working in the area of older people, such as Age Action, whose representatives speak about front-line carers being the ones who have the exchanges with older people and who are seen as a trusted source. We need to ensure appropriate legislation is in place. An inspector will not simply inspect a premises and automatically see what is happening there. We need to protect workers whereby, if they come forward with an allegation, first, it is seriously considered and, second, action is taken.

The whistleblowers who came forward in the case of the Rostrevor nursing home did the State an excellent service. They risked everything to stop abuse happening. This took courage and integrity. The position of migrant workers has been highlighted by Migrant Rights Centre Ireland. Many migrant workers are particularly vulnerable because their work permits are connected to their employer. Therefore, there is a fundamental problem in encouraging them to be whistleblowers, where necessary. Senator Mullen answered a question I was going to ask about the 16% of workers in the Irish labour force who are migrant workers. I understand this is 16% of health and home care sector workers. I was surprised at that high figure.

We need to protect our whistleblowers because, if we do not, it sends a message to those in power that they can use that power. I understand what Senator Quinn said in this respect. Whistleblowing is not about running to the newspapers; it is about responsible employers and taking action. It is the carrot and stick approach. People need to feel that, if they do not take action, something will happen and that there will be consequences. That is the way life works. For me, that is a strong point as to why we need whistleblowing legislation. The State needs this protection for whistleblowers. It needs to ensure workers are confident, feel protected and feel they can put the welfare of people such as the patients in the Rostrevor nursing home first and foremost rather than having to be concerned about their residency status, worker permits and other related issues. This legislation is extremely important because it will a law that will challenge the culture of secrecy in Ireland. Senator O’Keeffe spoke on that issue. She rightly said that we cannot legislate for people to tell the truth. We can, however, protect people and ensure there is an appropriate culture to ensure people come forward and tell.

On that note, I acknowledge the words of Senator O’Donovan. The promised referendum on childrens rights is long overdue. I acknowledge that this legislation is not about children but it is about culture in Ireland. It is about listening to people and ensuring that, if people come forward with an allegation, we will listen. People believe that has all been accepted, but six years ago I started working with the Children’s Rights Alliance. I did an interview with a very well-renowned national broadcaster and talked about the need to listen to children. One would think that is a simple enough statement particularly when it comes to abuse. I was challenged on public radio with the response that children lie so why would we listen to children. Six years have past. I do not need to convince as many people that we need to listen to children but there is still a culture where people would claim that people lie, it is in their interests to lie so why would we listen.
There is twofold reason I am supportive of this legislation. I believe it will have the effect of changing our culture in Ireland, protecting employees and protecting employers in order that they can be responsible, take action and change that culture within their organisations. Successful businesses tell us that the culture of the organisation drives success. State agencies all too often have become complacent and we need to ensure we have that culture. We have seen the work of the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, recently. Increasing demands have been made on it to get involved in more areas, especially in the child care sector, because it is building up a reputation of being able to listen to people.

I support the motion. I note the commitment in the programme for Government to bringing forward legislation in this area and I hope we will see it shortly. For me, this is about reversing the culture of fear.

School Transport – Statements

28th June 2011

I thank the Minister of State for sharing his decision with Members today. I have yet to hear of a person who is opposed to the school transport system. While I realise the predicament we are in, I equally recognise the unprecedented financial times in which we find ourselves and that we have not been obliged to face such decisions heretofore. Moreover, I agree with the need to rein in expenditure. Although all these points are a given and are not up for debate, one must be careful in the actions one takes to avoid incurring additional expenditure in other areas through unintended consequences. My question to the Minister of State pertains to the displacement of pupils to which this decision potentially could give rise and which could lead to the need to increase school buildings in some areas and to the closure of schools in other areas because parents will take a decision, based on school transport costs, to change their children’s school. As it is known that such potential unintended consequences could occur, the Minister of State should indicate whether there has been an assessment of the school catchment areas. My understanding is they last were closely examined in the 1960s. How do we know what impact these decisions will have?
Moreover, although I listened carefully to the Minister of State’s contribution, I found it difficult to understand the issue and as a parent, I am trying to envisage how do parents understand the impact this decision will have. If one considers the constitutional right that the State shall provide for free primary education, I note that parents are being asked for voluntary contributions for water charges, school books and other costs, on to which another cost now is being heaped. These costs are being heaped upon the same parents and children. While one might state that this is a single charge, that is not the case as additional charges are being heaped upon the same households and families. The Minister of State noted that school transport eligibility for all new children entering post-primary education will be determined by attendance at and distance they reside from their nearest post-primary centre or school. I listened carefully last week to the Minister talking about parental choice at the forum on patronage. However, it is not parental choice if one then states the only way in which one can avail of school transport is based on distance to the school. Does this mean that children in urban areas will get to have parental choice and will get to choose the schools they wish to enter but that those living in rural areas will not have the same choice? Equally, parents and children will tell me about the fact they have changed schools because a bad situation, such as bullying, has occurred in their school and all of us, at times, need a fresh start. Are we to say that those children will not be allowed that same fresh start, that they will not get an opportunity? These are the unintended consequences. Listening to the Minister of State, I note he very carefully outlined some of the questions to which we need answers. However, we should take these decisions with these answers in hand because I agree there could be a short-term gain for us but I question at what price and whether there will be long-term pain. I am thinking of the child and the impact on that child when a parent has decided the child is going to a school because it is within the 3.2 km catchment area rather than looking at what is best for our children and the future of their education.

European Affairs – Statements

22nd June 2011

I am pleased the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs is present for this discussion on enterprise, innovation and job creation. She referred to reputation. Colleagues in other member states have told me how impressed they are with our new Minister of State following her visits to the Continent. I am delighted she is helping to rebuild our reputation.

I echo the Minister of State’s words about Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn who has taken an active role since taking up her job. The Commissioner’s portfolio is critical for Ireland. It is good for us to be seen in this light.

As Senators will be aware, I have been a member of the European Economic and Social Committee for 12 years and vice chair of the European Movement Ireland. Clearly, therefore, issues of a European nature are crucially important to me. Part of our success will be working together with our European counterparts and other member states. However, if I may make a slightly negative point, in working on European semesters we have a missed opportunity to target smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. All too often, the focus has been fiscal consolidation and labour market and pension reforms without consideration being given to how we can achieve inclusive growth or putting in place growth drivers to enable the fiscal consolidation to take place. I am concerned, therefore, by certain elements of the course we are pursuing.

I propose to focus on two of the flagship initiatives under the 2020 strategy, namely, the new agenda for skills and jobs and the Youth on the Move initiative. The latter tackles the high levels of youth unemployment across the European Union. When one considers the variation in youth unemployment rates – in the Netherlands, my husband’s home country, it stands at 4.3% whereas in Spain it is currently 20.5% – one sees the challenge facing us. While each member state faces individual challenges, the European Union must meet collective challenges in countering youth unemployment. As a flagship initiative, I am pleased Youth on the Move has been given its own space. All too often, when the subject of youth is discussed, it is done purely in the employment sphere and associated matters such as entrepreneurship, training and education are overlooked. Youth on the Move claims it will unleash the potential of all young people. To achieve this objective we must give young people a solid basis in life.

The Minister of State referred to sanctions. All too often member states are willing to agree to lofty ideals but unwilling to set clear and measurable targets. As I indicated, unemployment rates vary considerably across member states although many of the challenges facing them are the same. We could set clear and measurable targets and indicators for each of the member states. If they were not met, some form of sanctions should be imposed. The rewards would clearly speak for themselves. With regard to young people, I have concerns that in dealing with our economic crisis focusing on reducing sovereign debt, we are reducing public investment in education and training, the very areas we will need to develop in the future. The teaching of languages is very important as are what are often called the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We need to focus on attracting more young people to take up those subjects. The early study and career guidance looking at the labour market needs and the skills of young people and providing entrepreneurship at all levels of education are also important. The Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs programme was launched a few years ago and we could encourage more young Irish people to get involved. This Erasmus programme will give a young person the opportunity to go to another member state and look at opportunities of entrepreneurship there and bring them back. The Minister referred to the growth in the German market and we need to be thinking in this way.

I was in China recently with the Chinese economic and social committee. We were looking at areas such as inclusive regional development and the green economy. We often talk about our young people leaving Ireland and we see them as being gone forever. I was impressed that China is encouraging its young people to leave, but come back after a year or two and bring that knowledge back. That is a message we should be giving to our young people. While the jobs are not here, that will not necessarily be the case for life. We should be looking at training opportunities and upskilling. We should be exposing them to innovative and creative markets, and entrepreneurship. I recognise the Every Job Counts: Youth Solutions initiative to encourage entrepreneurship launched recently by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

We can learn from some of our counterparts in other states about additional training opportunities for early school leavers and low-skilled workers. We have an issue of access to apprenticeships. We are often told that the best way a young boy can get an apprenticeship is to join the Army, which offers some of the best apprenticeships in the State. We should draw on some of that knowledge that it does so well and create apprenticeships to develop those skills.

The validation and certification of skills across educational settings is very important. This is true not just of the formal education setting but also in the informal education setting – looking at us buying into European skills passports, etc., so that when our young people go to other countries they are able to transfer that accreditation and qualification.

The big questions are on the spending programmes of the Europe 2020 strategy, such as research and development, and education. I am very conscious that we are lining up in Europe for a battle royale. They are likely to be reducing funding across all our multi-funding spending lines. I know that next week Commissioner Barroso will announce the financial framework beyond 2012 and I know the battle lines are being drawn up on this debate. It is a crucial time for the future of Europe and for Ireland. This is funding that has benefited Ireland greatly but how do we ensure we can maximise it? I am concerned as to how we, as Senators and others, can support Ireland’s role in tackling the funding crisis that will potentially loom as the funding reduces at a time when we should be investing more.

I am organising an event in September with representatives from several member states. I will contact the Minister of State in that regard. We are trying to bring experiences from different countries to try to use that knowledge and hopefully come up with some creative solutions and ideas that can be used in several member states.

Order of Business, 21 June 2011

21st June 2011

My first question is on special needs assistants because the lack of clarity is deeply worrying. We know the important role special needs assistants play. If we looked at it in a purely fiscal way we would see that we save money in the long term by supporting children in the early years to mainstream education. Special needs assistance was an indication of a major move from an old Ireland where we hid our problems behind closed doors but instead we have become a society of which we all wish to be a part. It is very important that we get clarity around special needs assistants and that children are allowed to be educated together as we would hope them to grow up in society together.

Second, I ask that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs would update us on the national vetting bureau Bill and her intention to put the Children First guidelines on a statutory basis. That is often talked about but as we know reports will be forthcoming, not least the Cloyne report. It is a serious discussion because we make the statement that we should put the Children First guidelines on a statutory basis but in terms of the way we will do that this House could play a role in framing that.

My third question is on youth mental health. There are many actions in this area but they are not often co-ordinated among Departments. We should consider a debate to examine the various aspects of youth mental health, not just in terms of hospital beds but in schools also and the long waiting lists for children to be seen after a teacher has identified a need.