Contribution to the Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015: Second Stage (Resumed)

February 26th, 2015 - Pat Breen

This is an important Bill. I commend the Minister on her introduction of the legislation. As most previous speakers have said, it is complex, challenging and lengthy. One thing about this legislation is that it is a watershed in the development of Irish family law, and that is to be welcomed.

We must all accept that the family unit, as we traditionally know it, has changed dramatically in the country in the past 50 years. The constitutional definition of the family no longer reflects the diverse family units that exist in the country today. The reality is that one in three families in Ireland have departed from the traditional model of the nuclear family, which defined a family group as consisting of a pair of adults and their children.

In my research for the debate I read about the Households and Family Structures in Ireland survey, carried out by the Family Support Agency and produced by the ERSI and UCD, which was published in December 2012. It reported that one in three families no longer belong to the traditional model. The statistics speak for themselves. The survey findings are reflected throughout the world in respect of the family unit. In the United Kingdom, the number of nuclear families fell from 39% of all households in 1968 to 28% in 1992, while in the United States in 2000 the number of nuclear families had fallen to 24.1%, down from 40.3% in 1970.

These are the challenges and changes in society. One in three children in Ireland are now born to parents who are not married to each other, and one in five children live in one-parent families. Thus, one in three families do not conform to the traditional model which I spoke of earlier. We cannot legislate for every eventuality in this House, but as legislators we must recognise the changes in the social fabric of our society. We cannot ignore what is happening. There is an onus on us to legislate to protect the parental rights of children living in these diverse family units. I commend the Minister on bringing forward this legislation.
The Bill before the House aims to address the needs of children living with married parents, unmarried parents or a parent and partner, as well as children living with grandparents or other relatives who have taken on a parenting role.

The Bill is in the interests of the child and that is its primary consideration. It is centred on the family unit in all its forms in the Ireland of 2015. I imagine the Minister would agree that the Bill in no way threatens the rights of children who continue to live in the traditional family unit. This is something we need to reinforce all the way along when we are bringing the legislation through the House.

Part 3 of the Bill sets out the procedures for accessing information from the national donor-conceived person register. A donor-conceived child, once he reaches 18 years of age, will be able to seek personal details held on the register. In time, this proposal will encourage parents to tell their children about their donor origins. Laws in other jurisdictions have been introduced precisely for this reason. In 2010, a law passed in Victoria, Australia, which required that donor-conceived children born after 1 January 2010 who apply for their birth certificate as an adult receive an addendum stating that additional information is available about their donor origins. I have listened to the arguments from several speakers to the effect that the disclosure of this information can have a devastating effect on the donor-conceived child, and that the problems he may face in his efforts to trace the donor may have a psychological effect on the child and affect his relationship with his parents. However, on balance, I believe that the pre-eminent right is for such children to have this information once they are 18 years old.

The ability to access information is important for people. This is an issue that several adopted adults have raised with me on numerous occasions. During the debate on the Adoption (Identity and Information) Bill in the Seanad, this matter was raised. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is currently drafting legislation to address it. I am aware that there are many complex constitutional issues to be addressed, but I hope that the legislation can be finalised as soon as possible.

I look forward to debating it when it comes before the House.

As others have said, it is a lengthy Bill and there are many areas to be considered. Part 4 introduces reforms to guardianship. The legislation confers automatic guardianship on unmarried fathers if they cohabit with the mother of their child for 12 months. The Bill also provides a cohabiting partner who is not the child’s guardian to apply to the courts for guardianship once they are living with the parent for three years or more. A similar provision will apply to a grandparent, aunt or uncle who is looking after the child.

The issue of guardianship is one that is causing many anomalies for cohabiting couples in the practicalities of everyday life. Let us take the example of an application for a third level grant. If a cohabiting couple applies for a top-up grant for their child, their reckonable income must include an eligible long-term social welfare payment. If the social welfare payment for that entire family unit is in the partner’s name and that partner is not the legal guardian, then, because the payment is not actually in the name of the parent with whom the partner and child resides, they will not qualify for the top-up grant. I have had an example of this in my own constituency office in Ennis. While this is an issue for the Department of Education and Skills, it highlights the problems this type of family unit faces day to day, and there are other examples. Addressing the guardianship issue for cohabiting couples is important in order that we can bring an end to anomalies which penalise the children involved.

We have a history in this country of referendum debates being dominated by issues which are about everything under the sun except the referendum itself. While this Bill is not directly related to the upcoming referendum on marriage equality on 22 May, which it is hoped will be the day it will be held, it is important to have these matters dealt with before the referendum in order that there is no confusion and people do not bring up issues which have nothing at all to do with the referendum. This can frighten people, as we saw in previous referendums such as the Lisbon treaty referendum. It is important that we focus solely on the referendum and it will help if this Bill has gone through both Houses and is passed.

This is lengthy but timely and marvellous legislation. Obviously, we would have liked to have seen it brought through sooner but it is now being debated in the House. I support its passage through the House today.