Contribution to Thirty-First Amendment of the Constitution (Children) Bill 2012: Second Stage (Resumed)

October 4th, 2012 - Pat Breen

Deputy Pat Breen: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. It is heartening to observe the support that is forthcoming from all sides of the House for the proposal that is before us. The universal approval that greeted the publication of the proposed wording of the referendum is a testament to the determination of the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, since she took office 18 months ago. The compliments she has received from Members of all parties and none are well deserved.

The need for constitutional change to enshrine the rights of children was first voiced by the former Supreme Court judge Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness in 1993. However, it has taken until now and the appointment of the Minister to bring proposals in this regard to fruition. In July 2011, just four months into her term, work was already under way between her Department and the Office of the Attorney General to devise a wording for the constitutional amendment. I concur with the Minister’s observation in the House last Tuesday that this referendum is one of the most important in the history of the State. Article 42 of the Constitution promises to cherish all of the children of the State equally. Given the various reports and revelations in the years since the Constitution was first adopted, it is right and proper at this stage in our history that the Irish people have an opportunity to update its provisions in order to ensure the rights of every child are protected, thereby ending any ambiguity that may persist.

I welcome the announcement that polling will take place on a Saturday. A weekend ballot will prevent disruption to schools, many of which have had to close on previous occasions to facilitate voting. A Saturday vote will also facilitate students and people who work away from home from Monday to Friday. It will be interesting for all of us in the House to see what effect this will have on voter turnout. Traditionally, turnout in referendums has been low, averaging 50% or less and as low as 28% on more than one occasion. Given the importance of this referendum, it is to be hoped that large numbers of people will come out to cast their votes. In this regard, I welcome the commitment from Members opposite to canvass for the ratification of the referendum proposal.

It is extremely important, in the interests of democracy, to encourage people to vote.

I note the concerns regarding the media debate on the referendum and fears that it could lack balance arising from the Coughlan and McKenna judgments. It is important that there is a full debate. Notwithstanding universal support for the referendum among parties in and organisations outside the House, we must not be complacent. The Minister is conscious of this issue and I urge the Referendum Commission, in conjunction with the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, to determine how these concerns can be overcome. The media must be given guidance to ensure we have full debates in order that people have all the information they need before voting.

It is sad indictment of this country that 17 major reports on child protection failings have been published since 1980. Without these reports, the true extent of child abuse and neglect inflicted on children who were in the care of the church and State institutions may not have come to light. We must never forget the victims who displayed such courage in speaking out and making these reports possible.

The referendum is only one of a range of measures the Government is introducing to afford greater legislative protection for children. As I stated last week, the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill, Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill and Children First Bill will contribute to strengthening our child protection laws. The constitutional amendment will not only provide protection for children but will support families and, of equal importance, remove the inequalities in the adoption system.

On the issue of adoption, I compliment the Minister on the work she has done in rebuilding our bilateral relationship with Vietnam. I was pleased to note the Vietnamese justice Minister visited Ireland during the week to sign a new bilateral agreement which will pave the way for the resumption of adoptions between Ireland and Vietnam. I was glad to play a small role in assisting the Minister when I met the justice Minister, Mr. Ha Hung Cuong, during a visit to Vietnam last year. Adoptions from Vietnam have been on hold since 2010, which has left many families in limbo. From speaking to these families, many of whom I have been working with for years, they are grateful to the Minister for prioritising the need to bring this matter to a successful conclusion.

While the majority of children are fortunate to be born into homes where they are loved and cared for all of their lives, a number of children have not been so fortunate. It is estimated that up to 900 teenagers are homeless in Dublin, with the problem of homelessness also prevalent in other cities. The Simon Community in Cork, for example, reported that of the 621 people who were homeless on the streets of the city last year, 19% were under 26 years. I do not know how many Deputies had the opportunity to watch “The Secret Millionaire”, which was broadcast on RTE on Monday night. The programme featured Dublin businessman, Richard Mulcahy, going under cover in Limerick. I was struck by the number of young people who are surviving on the streets of the city. It is important to acknowledge and support the work many volunteers and organisations, including the Simon Community and Focus Ireland, do with young homeless persons.

Although children end up on the streets for many and varied reasons, in most cases the children in question do not get the start in life that many of us take for granted. Recently, I picked up a Focus Ireland leaflet which featured the slogan, “Without your home, your life develops differently.” This sums up the reason children who have been failed deserve to be adopted into loving families who will take care of them. According to the Health Service Executive performance monitoring report for quarter two, which was published in June, more than 6,000 children are in the care of the State, of whom approximately 91% are in foster care. The majority of children in foster care have a highly positive experience. Sometimes a child may remain in foster care for a longer period because it may not be possible for various reasons for him or her to return to his or her birth parents. In some cases, the child and foster parents wish to formalise the arrangement and move to adoption. This has not been possible in a number of cases because children of married parents could not be adopted.
The draft adoption Bill, which the Minister published in tandem with this referendum, will change this position and is an important and positive step by a Minister who has only been in office for 18 months.

If the referendum is passed, the High Court will be able to consider the relationship between the child, the natural parents and the prospective adoptive parents and its overriding concern will be best interest of the child. Since the draft adoption legislation was published on Monday last, I have received a number of inquiries from families who are in the process of adopting from abroad seeking to ascertain whether this legislation will have any implications for them. Perhaps the Minister will clarify this matter.

The passage of the referendum will be another major step in ensuring our legislative structure supports and protects our children. I support the proposed constitutional amendment and will campaign vigorously for a “Yes” vote in the coming weeks.