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Priority Questions - Constitutional Amendment on Children

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 765 No. 3

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 88.  Deputy Charlie McConalogue Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue  asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald  if she will provide an update on drafting of the adoption legislation to accompany the children’s rights referendum; if this legislation will be published before the Dáil summer recess; if she will confirm that the children’s rights referendum will take place in 2012; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24075/12]

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald Officials in my Department and I are continuing a substantial engagement with the Attorney General and her officials to progress the Government’s commitment to hold a referendum to amend the Constitution to ensure children’s rights are strengthened along the lines recommended by the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children. The immediate focus of this engagement is the preparation of a draft wording to be put to the people for consideration during the current year. The process is strongly focused on ensuring the proposed wording of the constitutional amendment reflects the deliberations and conclusions of the joint committee and the commitment in the programme for Government.

In parallel with bringing forward the proposed constitutional change in favour of children’s rights, there is a need to provide for clarity around related proposals for legislative change regarding adoption. Work is ongoing in this regard and the matter has been the subject of comprehensive legal and administrative analysis, including by officials of my Department. Consideration of the policy issues which will arise from the proposed amendment to the Constitution in regard to adoption is at an advanced stage. The draft heads of the Bill and the general scheme will reflect the policy in this area. One of the policy objectives of the proposed legislation is to provide for the situation of children of marriage who remain in long-term foster care without the option of adoption. Some of these children are in need of a permanent alternative family and adoption would be in their best interests. It is intended to publish the draft [226]legislation on adoption policy at the same time as the draft wording of the proposed amendment to the Constitution.

The referendum on children’s rights is a programme for Government priority. The Government is satisfied that the nature of the referendum is such that it will be a stand-alone matter to allow for full attention and engagement by the public in the interests of children. As indicated, I intend to be in a position to seek approval from the Government for the proposed wording with a view to holding the referendum this year.

Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue It is critical that the referendum on children’s rights is held this year, with the introduction of the accompanying legislation on adoption. The issue has been the subject of interparliamentary discussion for a number of years. There was an agreed report from the all-party Oireachtas committee, following which a draft wording was published by the last Government before the general election. I have been concerned, since taking on this role and the Minister took up her position, that the date for the referendum is being pushed back. Pledges made during the election that it would take place within the first year at the same time as the Presidential election slipped. We should have seen the adoption legislation before now. It is important that the heads or, preferably, the Bill itself be published and brought before the children’s committee before the summer. It is important that it be published in advance of the referendum Bill and we be given appropriate time to assess it in the Houses of the Oireachtas. That will enhance the chances of success in the referendum which I hope will take place before the end of the year. Will the Minister give a commitment that the adoption legislation will be published before the end of the summer? There has been plenty of time for it to be drafted. Why have we not seen it before now and will the Minister commit to publishing it before the summer?

Deputy Frances Fitzgerald: Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald I made a decision shortly after taking office when I examined the issues involved relating to the referendum that it would be in the public interest to publish the heads of the Bill, the legislation on adoption that would accompany the referendum, to give the public more information on the implications of the referendum. I agree with the Deputy that there is a need to consider carefully and understand the issues involved. On taking office I found that work had not been done on the legislation needed and I had to initiate work on the legislation and policy required in that regard. The issues are substantial and until now my focus has been on developing and agreeing the policy from which the legislation will arise. The key policy issues we will have to include in such a Bill include the nature and threshold of parental failure to justify an adoption, the duration of such a failure regarding the age of the child, the process to be used for such adoptions, the process to be used for the voluntary adoption of children of married parents and questions around consent and the role of the High Court in that regard. These are substantial issues and, as I stated, I have initiated the policy work from which the legislation will emerge. I assure the House that this work and the legislation are high priorities on which the Department is working steadily. I am not in a position to provide a precise date for the publication of the Bill as the Department is working on a number of Bills. It is, however, my intention to publish it alongside the legislation on the referendum. I concur with Deputy McConalogue that a full discussion will be required given the seriousness of the issues I have outlined.

Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue I thank the Minister for her response. While I agree with her that many important issues must be addressed in respect of the legislation, it is not acceptable to publish the Bill at the same time as the referendum Bill. The former must be published in advance of the latter.

[227]I note the Minister’s comment that in many areas delays arose because work on the relevant issues had not started before she took office. After the Government came to power, the Minister and Taoiseach gave a commitment to hold the referendum at the same time as the presidential election. This was followed by a further commitment to hold it within one year. The referendum is now to be held by the end of this year. The Minister became aware of the position as regards the Bill when she took office. Since then, progress has been slower than it should have been. It is crucial the Bill is published before the summer to ensure we secure all-party agreement and thrash out important issues in advance of the referendum campaign commencing.

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