Tuesday, 19 May 2009
Seanad Eireann Debate
This amendment seeks to substitute a new subsection (2) to section 92. It relates to the procedure whereby an application may be made to the High Court to correct, amend or make an entry in the register of inter-country adoptions. The substantive change the amendment would introduce is to provide that the High Court, in any such application, would give its direction having regard for the welfare of the child as the first and paramount consideration.
This point was raised previously by Senator Fitzgerald in the debate on this Bill. This is the underlying principle on which the whole Bill must be based. We spoke earlier on the Order of Business about the Minister of State’s comments to The Irish Times, as published in its edition today, in respect of the agreements with Vietnam in particular and the concern that in conducting an agreement with that jurisdiction, matters had come to his attention which meant he was not happy, I understand, in signing off on the agreement. Certainly, those were matters relating very closely to the welfare of children.
It is a matter of great concern to all of us to read these reports which I believe go beyond what was said in the House last week. We were sensitive in our approach in the House last week because we believed there were things the Minister of State could not say about difficulties in the agreement with Vietnam. What we read in The Irish Times today made it clear to us that particular issues had been raised in respect of fees that apparently are being paid to adoption agencies in Vietnam. There are issues around consent, potentially the valid consents by birth parents in Vietnam.
I see the Minister of State shaking his head so I would like to get some clarification from him for the Seanad record as to the exact nature of the concerns about the agreement with Vietnam. We have all read heart-rending e-mails from prospective adopters in Ireland who, understandably, are deeply distressed about the circumstances in which they find themselves. In many cases they were in the final stages of having an adoption carried out and indeed understood they had children waiting for them in Vietnam, yet now are no longer in a position to proceed. This is very distressing both for them and, very importantly, the children in Vietnam. We need to know the position in respect of the agreement.
The welfare of the child as the first and paramount consideration is what guides us all in this. It has been raised before in this debate, however, that had we had a constitutional amendment on this, it might have meant there would have been no need to have inserted it in every provision. Given that we do not have an amendment to the Constitution which provides for that, it is especially important we insert it, where necessary, into provisions in the Bill and that is what Senator Norris and I have sought to do. At a broader level, when we are looking at the welfare of the child, we need to know the particular issues that have made it difficult to finalise the adoption agreement with Vietnam. The Minister of State is on the record in saying last week in the Seanad that he has trust in the agency in Vietnam with which Irish couples are dealing, namely, the Helping Hands Adoption and Mediation Agency. I believe there is only one agency with which prospective Irish adopters are dealing.
We need some clarity because the report in The Irish Times refers to difficulties in the USA and Sweden and issues raised in those countries. These go to the core of the welfare of children and raise concerns about this and the position of birth parents in Vietnam. We need to know the position for Irish prospective adopters and, perhaps more importantly, the position regarding the welfare of the children in Vietnam about whom we are all concerned.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I second the amendment. I expect the Minister of State will take the opportunity to put on the record of this House what he told The Irish Times. The report by Carol Coulter is very good and I have no problem with it. However, I have difficulty with the fact that the Minister of State was asked in the House on quite a number of occasions whether there were particular difficulties. The Seanad, I believe, took it in good faith that he was trying to resolve particular difficulties, as I still do. None the less, there are details in The Irish Times article that he did not put before this House when we were discussing this issue. He did not confirm that national oversight in Vietnam was one of his concerns. He did raise the issue of the level of fees paid by parents and where these went. It is said in The Irish Times the Minister of State would like a closer relationship with the Helping Hands Adoption and Mediation Agency. I am concerned prospective parents have read about these issues today, and yet the Seanad did not have the opportunity of having a reasonable and detailed discussion about these three issues because the Minister of State did not outline them as being among the difficulties he was having in concluding the agreement with Vietnam.
Given that we have spent quite a number of days discussing the Adoption Bill in the House, I believe the Minister of State should have outlined those difficulties. We should have had an opportunity to hear his concerns, as should the prospective parents, so that we might have teased out some of these issues and perhaps made some suggestions. At least we should have been told that these were the barriers against the Minister of State concluding the agreement. Everyone involved is very concerned about this and wants what Senators Norris and Bacik have in this amendment, namely, the best interests of the child as the first and paramount consideration. I shall speak in a moment about the fact that we have not had the amendment to the Constitution on the protection of children’s rights. If that amendment were in place I believe that in some respects we would be having a very different type of Adoption Bill. Several of the provisions would be different, as the Minister of State has allowed, and I regret that the amendment is not in place prior to our discussion of this Adoption Bill.
I want to point out the type of things parents are saying and I again ask the Minister of State to clarify the situation. Perhaps it was not this Minister of State but rather previous incumbents who were negligent in looking at these agreements. If it has taken so long to get clarity on the Vietnam bilateral agreement, what will happen, for example, to the bilateral agreements with Ethiopia and Russia? Fine Gael gave the Minister of State an opportunity in an amendment, rejected on Committee Stage and which he might re-examine on Committee Stage in the Dáil, to be able to place a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas saying whether it was intended to conclude a particular bilateral agreement, the stage the negotiations were at and highlighting any difficulties. That would have provided an opportunity to bring such matters to the attention of the Houses, alert Departments as to what needed to be done and the timeframe that would have been necessary.
I will not quote the whole letter but it goes on to outline the impact this has had. It may well be since the Minister of State has taken over this brief that he has highlighted this and that the resources of the Department are totally engaged in this respect. I do not doubt for a minute the good intentions of the officials involved and the hard work they put in, but there are serious questions about whether an adequate timeframe was put in place before the deadline had expired to deal with the issues the Minister of State outlined to The Irish Times today and which he did not outline to this House. He took the opportunity to make a statement last week and I ask him to do the same today giving the same detail that was given in The Irish Times article and of which we were not made aware during our detailed discussions in the House. Can these issues be resolved? The current lack of clarity leaves parents distressed and concerned whether they will be taken out of this limbo. Given what has happened in recent weeks and whatever negotiations are taking place, can we expect more clarity? When will the Minister of State go to Vietnam? How does he plan to deal with this issue?
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. This will be our last chance to debate this Bill in the Seanad. It is important, therefore, that the Minister of State comes clean on this issue so that couples are updated. I support the amendment but I want to hear how couples will receive information from the Minister of State, given that the Bill will not be discussed in the Seanad after today.
Will a bilateral agreement be made with Vietnam, will it be in place before the summer recess and when will the Minister of State visit that country? Last week, he told me privately that he had some concerns about standards in Vietnam.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: In the article in The Irish Times the Minister of State dealt with issues such as national oversight, fees and the Helping Hands agency. I ask the Minister of State to share his observations with the House. Why does he discuss these concerns with the legal affairs editor of The Irish Times and not with legislators? This brings the House into disrepute and puts the Seanad down.
When we have left the House today, how will couples know what is happening? How will the Minister of State communicate the day-by-day progress of the bilateral negotiations? That is what these couples need in the interest of the babies they want to bring into their homes. Couples need this information. Where will it be made available to them? Can we infer from the newspaper article that, because of his concerns, the Minister of State has chosen not to renew the agreement with Vietnam? If so, why did he not tell the House? We are all here in the interest of the child. Why does he put couples through such misery?
I reiterate my questions. After today, how will couples know what is happening? What means will the Minister of State choose to reach them? Will a bilateral agreement be made with Vietnam and will it be in place before the summer recess?
Senator David Norris: I apologise to the House for my lateness. I had a long-standing appointment to meet the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy Martin Cullen, on two very serious issues. Senator Ivana Bacik kindly moved my amendment in my absence and there was a useful and interesting discussion on it.
I hope the Minister of State can make some movement on this issue. The amendment proposes that where an adoption has been rendered void by the state in which it is to take place, the High Court should review the status of the adoption order under the law of this State and not of any other. The High Court should then give a direction implementing the welfare of the child.
Specific arguments regarding the amendment have been made. I would like to look at the wider context in which the amendment is set. A significantly large number of people have invested emotionally in this area, embarked on the process but not actually achieved the adoption. They are, naturally, very anxious. They are at different stages along the road to adoption and they feel very passionately. One understands that. However, we are dealing with the welfare of the child. If I had to choose — and it would be a judgment of Solomon — between the welfare of a child and the emotional needs of a parent, I would have to choose the welfare of the child. It is for that reason we must listen carefully to what the Minister of State has said.
This matter has already been raised with regard to the Minister of State’s disclosure of material to The Irish Times. I read the two articles and I remember them reasonably well. I recall they were both written by Carol Coulter. In reading one, I deduced that the Minister of State had been contacted by the writer of the article and had responded in a manner not unlike that in which he responded to this House. I did not see a huge amount of information which was not either placed on the record of the House or could not be drawn by inference from what the Minister of State said. All went back to the welfare of the child.
Similar unease has been displayed by two other friendly jurisdictions. I referred to this matter in the past week but I cannot quite remember where I did so. It may have been in this House. Both these jurisdictions, Sweden and the United States, are well disposed to the interests of children. We are not alone in having these difficulties.
When we debated the Bill on Wednesday last, I asked the Minister of State if the difficulties were at this end or principally at the Vietnamese end. In these circumstances, the Minister of State must be a diplomat as well as a legislator. He would probably not regard it as wise to make a blistering attack on the Vietnamese system while attempting to negotiate an agreement. The lethargy on the Vietnamese side, if such it be, is not something the Minister of State can control immediately or effectively, beyond using his diplomatic skills.
I understood from the debate on that day that a team from the Department had visited Vietnam three times in recent months. I had the impression the Minister of State had been on one of those visits. Apparently, this is not the case but I ask the Minister of State to clarify this point. If he has not visited Vietnam, now may be the time to go. He may agree that in the Orient the question of status can be quite important, irrelevant though it ought to be. The Civil Service is dealing with this matter all the time but a visit by someone of the status of the Minister of State might help to unblock a logjam.
The matters raised in the newspaper articles, especially the use of fees, have been adverted to by my colleagues. I do not accuse any Irish people of this, but the article makes an implicit suggestion that there is some degree of unfairness to natural parents who have what they would regard as considerable sums of money dangled in front of them by orphanages. That is a real and striking human condition. As the welfare of the child is paramount, should we not consider those circumstances? Would it not be a humane thing to support such families, see if they wish to stay together and discover why they are giving up children? People no longer give up children in this environment. What is so different about Vietnam?
Senator David Norris: Those families should also be considered. As human beings we must ask ourselves why so many children are being given up there but not here and what we can do in the best interests of the children. I am not at all antagonistic and I understand the human feelings of people in this country who want children, but that is not sufficient. It must be the welfare of the child. I say that with the greatest respect to people who wish to adopt and I am quite sure several of them will do so.
The Minister of State, in his comments to the House, was circumspect in the way in which he dealt with it. He indicated that he was interested in the rights of the child. On reflection, every person in the House would recognise the human feelings of adults, people who have a need to have children and particularly people who believe they had been on the path of getting children but then that was very cruelly taken away from them. All this must be taken into account. However, the welfare of the children and the circumstances in which they came up for adoption is paramount.
Let us bear in mind we can all be very pious and sanctimonious here and we can all write and so on and succumb to the sometimes very civilised but sometimes very ignorant and blistering correspondence we receive from people who are desperate to have children. I do not pull my punches in writing back to the people who are ignorant to me or who tell me that my secretary will spend the rest of her life answering their e-mails or letters. No she will not and they are going straight into the bin where they belong. However, how would the House feel if in ten years’ time a Government report, a statutory inquiry or an international commission were held and things emerged not to the advantage of the children? How would people feel then? They might believe we should have been cautious and circumspect. It is the case that we must respect the feelings of the prospective parents, but we must also bear in mind the welfare of the children as paramount at the end of the day.
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy Barry Andrews): I met representative associations last Friday and we discussed some of the issues that have been raised in the Seanad. I also spoke to The Irish Times and the matter of fees and consents was mentioned. We discussed the circumstances in which the Government made a decision last December based on a visit to Vietnam, the report arising from that visit and the circumstances in which the Government would continue with the process of seeking a bilateral agreement with Vietnam. We were able to make the distinctions between the concerns about such issues as fees, consents etc. that were ventilated by other countries. We made the distinction in the way adoptions occurred in Ireland and it is very important that one reads that very carefully.
There is a danger in speaking in public on this very sensitive and emotive issue at this very sensitive and emotive time. Nevertheless, the Americans compiled a report during the autumn setting out its concerns. It would have had an influence in our decision not to roll over the existing bilateral agreement at that time. It would have informed the way we were thinking in the autumn about how to approach this issue. As Senator Norris correctly stated, at all times one must ensure the welfare of the child is paramount. We are not on the same sheet on this issue, but the primary importance of the child’s rights are always at the top of our considerations.
Deputy Barry Andrews: It is very unfair that Senator Healy Eames should ventilate in public what I said to her in private. In my professional life as a school teacher, a barrister and a politician, I never experienced someone betraying such a confidence. It is despicable. It is highly unfair to have such a matter discussed or referred to in any other circumstances. I cannot “un-say” what the Senator said but I must mark my cards in future in talking to her as a colleague in the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Deputy Barry Andrews: I have answered the questions asked. The distinction is that at the time we were considering this in the autumn, those issues were raised by another jurisdiction. We were satisfied that we had safeguards in place, which I also underlined and to which I referred in the article that caused such upset. We have safeguards in place. I also mentioned that we seek relations with countries with which we have bilateral relations because adoptions would carry on anyway even if we did not have bilateral agreements. That is the least attractive option as far as I am concerned. There is a value in having a bilateral agreement in any case.
I meant no offence to the House and I stated time and again that the process of having Committee Stage and Report Stage in the House has been very productive. It has enhanced my knowledge of this area and the experience of the people who spoke in their professional capacity has been of great assistance to me.
In respect of travel, I indicated that I will go at the earliest opportunity when I believe it will be useful to the process. I underlined this point to the associations I met last Friday. This remains the position and I am ready to go whenever I believe it will be useful to the process. The underlying point is that the Government remains very anxious to have a bilateral agreement with the Vietnamese Government.
I refer to the amendment under discussion and the background to the concerns raised. We have safe and secure adoptions and once an adoption order is made, it is considered safe and secure. The amendment suggests the High Court would have a review mechanism that would automatically kick in. It shall review the status of the adoption under the law of this State where it has been annulled in another country. There is already a right in the Act under section 49(3) for the adoption authority to refer any matter of law to the High Court. The authority shall refer to the High Court for determination any question in respect of public policy arising with respect to entries in the register of inter-country adoption. Section 19 states that the first and primary consideration shall be the best interests of children. These matters are dealt with in the legislation.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I am grateful to the Minister of State for giving a considered response. Clearly, there are still issues the details of which we are not fully aware. As I mentioned, we appreciate the sensitivities in this case and that the Minister cannot provide the full picture of what is taking place. As the Minister remarked, we are all concerned about the welfare of the child, whether in Vietnam or here. The welfare of the child is the paramount consideration. We are also conscious of our history in Ireland and the problems in the past with adoption procedures not being robust and not having sufficient safeguards for the birth parents. We are all very concerned to ensure no birth parents should give up a child for adoption under duress of any form. This must be foremost in our minds. We all very much support the principle behind the Bill and the principle enshrined in the Hague conference. These points are all important.
I accept the Minister of State’s point that the provision to the effect that the welfare of the child is the first and paramount consideration is contained elsewhere, but it is still important that it is contained here. Neither Senator Norris nor I propose to push the amendment, but we ask the Minister of State to consider whether it could be inserted in a more general provision elsewhere, perhaps in section 92.
Some of the later amendments relate to the importance of tracing. We are conscious of that need when talking about ensuring watertight adoption agreements are made with specific countries, that there is no duress and people give consent freely to relinquishing children. The other side of this is we need to ensure tracing services are in place for children who have been adopted. Later on they are often caused great distress because they cannot trace their birth parents. This is one of the reasons we must ensure any agreements we make with other countries are robust and the systems in place in those countries have sufficient safeguards for the birth parents to ensure there is no duress, coercion or undue influence brought to bear on parents placing children for adoption. We must bear all this in mind while at the same time recognising the distress of the prospective adopters here who are being left in an uncertain position. However, I do not propose to push the amendment.
There is no provision for the development of post adoption services in the Bill. The welfare of the child is at the heart of this amendment. There is a real need for this amendment because there are situations and instances where the provision of post adoption services are vital to the welfare of the child. I acknowledge the highly emotive aspect of this. It can be an overwhelming experience to receive a child. Therefore, the legislation should ensure that services are provided that acknowledge the integration of the child into the society it has come to. This is important.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I second the amendment and support it. I know the Minister of State was angry earlier, but it was patronising to say the contribution of Senator Healy Eames was hysterical. I do not believe it was. There is a long history of women being called hysterical when people do not like what they are saying.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: This is an important amendment. Currently, adoption agencies provide intermediary information and tracing services to birth parents, adopted adults and adoptive families. The legislation does not provide any legislative basis for this work. We have had a number of discussions about the changing face of adoption, open adoptions, ongoing contact etc. and the legislation will become out of date quickly if we do not incorporate some of these aspects. I understand the Minister of State is constrained constitutionally in terms of what he can do with regard to some of these aspects. However, there is concern with regard to the issue of tracing because there is no legislative basis to provide services that currently operate.
Many of the agencies working in this area believe the adoption authority, as well as having responsibility for adoption services, should also undertake research projects and activities on adoption and post adoption services. There will be significant demand in the area of tracing, not just nationally, but internationally. Therefore, I urge the Minister of State to consider accepting this amendment. Will he indicate whether the amendment is one he will consider when the legislation goes to the Dáil?
Senator David Norris: I support the amendment. The development of post adoptive services needs a legislative basis. Like almost everybody in the House, I have been contacted over the years by numerous people who needed to trace relatives, people who had been placed in various well-meaning adoption societies, particularly some of the Church of Ireland ones. Many societies seem to have dumped their records for some reason or lost them or the agency has closed, with no attempt made to retrieve, preserve or transfer the records to a more sophisticated, mechanised method. This has the effect of depriving people of a significant part of their emotional heritage and lineage. Therefore, I support the amendment.
I do not in any sense challenge the ruling of the Chair; I would not have the temerity to do so. However, I notice that amendment No. 71 in my name, which proposed adding an additional provision, “(d) undertaking or assisting in research project and activities relating to adoption and post adoption services;”, has been ruled out of order because it did not arise from Committee proceedings. If it did not arise from the Committee proceedings, it is a mystery to me how the amendment that survives on the Order Paper did, because it deals with precisely the same area and could not be more germane. The mind of the Cathaoirleach is a mystery to me.
Senator David Norris: I feel that as amendment No. 69 was allowed, discussion of amendment No. 71 should also have been allowed. If the Minister of State proposes to accept the idea of promoting the development of post adoption services, I put it to him — this shows my ingenuity — that among the areas that might be developed should be the undertaking of or assisting in research projects and activities related to adoption and post adoption. That is development. I am aware of the weight “development” can carry as a word and it is a word included in both amendments. Therefore, there should be no constraint whatever on the Minister of State in his response in taking into account the question of research projects and activities relating to adoption, because they are germane and as relevant as the positive amendment we have been discussing.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I support the amendment. Post adoption services will increase in importance. There is a great deal of awareness of the need for adults adopted as children to be able to acquire information about their past, their birth parents and their lineage. This is true for both national and international adoptions. Therefore, post adoption services will be of increasing importance. We have had difficulties in the past where records have been destroyed or gone missing. This has made the situation difficult and distressing for adopted persons when they find they cannot access the information. We need to ensure there is a statutory basis for services, to include the tracing services that must be encompassed in any sort of post adoption services.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Before I speak in support of the amendment I wish to clarify for the Minister of State that I broke no confidence before he did so himself in The Irish Times. I expect he will respect that.
I support this amendment on the need to promote the development of post adoption services. We all support the key issue, the welfare of the child. If we are serious about the welfare of children being adopted, post adoption services should be put in place. Otherwise, the circle is not closed. The child is always at the centre of the assessment process. The child’s needs come first and the needs of the birth mother are second. Only after these needs are taken care of do the wishes of the adoptive family come into play. We speak over and over about the welfare of the child as if that is not primary in this jurisdiction. It is the primary issue. I know that categorically, having been through an adoption process assessment twice and from having spoken to many other adoptive couples.
Once a child is placed for adoption, post adoption services will be needed. One of the post-adoption services that will be critical in future will be the tracing service that may be needed by some people. Other services may be needed sooner. I refer to health information, for example. It is critical we find a way of ensuring that post-adoption services are built into the legislation in some way. There should not be a breakdown at the point of adoption. We should complete the circle by ensuring the Bill accounts for the provision of post-adoption services.
Deputy Barry Andrews: This amendment suggests the adoption authority should be involved in “promoting the development of post adoption services”. The use of the word “promoting” tends to suggest something should be encouraged in some way, for example to ensure it happens. The use of that word needs to be examined in the first instance. It has been said many times in this House that the assessment process is a tough one. Support and information is given to parents during that exhaustive process. Nobody who has a child in a natural way has to go through such a process. Supports are available before an adoption occurs. I have made it clear previously that the protection of the Child Care Act 1991, which applies to any child who is a citizen of this country, is afforded to children when an adoption occurs. All children are treated in exactly the same way. That is how adoption is understood in this country. The psychological, health and child protection needs of a child who is being adopted are catered for under the Child Care Act 1991 in the same way as those of any other child. We have to underline that point. It is clear that there should be no distinction between adopted children and other children. Under this legislation, when an adoption has taken place, the adoption authority and the HSE must be notified of it. I accept the records of many adoption societies, which were compiled when Ireland was effecting adoptions as a sending state, are gathering dust. Many of those records are not being well maintained. I have met representatives of the adopted persons society to see if there is some way of maintaining or centralising such records. Such a process would attract significant problems, but we are considering it nonetheless. As I have already said, I will give further consideration to the issue of tracing, which was mentioned in the context of an earlier amendment. I will reflect further on it when this Bill is being debated in the Dáil.
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Coffey, Paudie.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||Fitzgerald, Frances.|
|Healy Eames, Fidelma.||McFadden, Nicky.|
|Mullen, Rónán.||Norris, David.|
|O’Toole, Joe.||Prendergast, Phil.|
|Regan, Eugene.||Ross, Shane.|
|Brady, Martin.||Butler, Larry.|
|Callely, Ivor.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|Ellis, John.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Hanafin, John.|
|Leyden, Terry.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|McDonald, Lisa.||Ó Domhnaill, Brian.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||O'Brien, Francis.|
|O'Donovan, Denis.||O'Sullivan, Ned.|
|Ormonde, Ann.||Phelan, Kieran.|
|Walsh, Jim.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
An Cathaoirleach: Amendment No. 70 is out of order because it does not arise from Committee proceedings. Amendment No. 71 in the names of Senators Norris and Bacik is also out of order because it does not arise from Committee proceedings.
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Coffey, Paudie.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||Fitzgerald, Frances.|
|Healy Eames, Fidelma.||McFadden, Nicky.|
|Mullen, Rónán.||Norris, David.|
|O’Toole, Joe.||Prendergast, Phil.|
|Brady, Martin.||Butler, Larry.|
|Callely, Ivor.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|Ellis, John.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Leyden, Terry.|
|MacSharry, Marc.||McDonald, Lisa.|
|Ó Domhnaill, Brian.||Ó Murchú, Labhrás.|
|O’Brien, Francis.||O’Donovan, Denis.|
|O’Sullivan, Ned.||Ormonde, Ann.|
|Phelan, Kieran.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
Deputy Barry Andrews: Section 98 of the Bill covers membership of the authority. The Government amendment is proposed to replace references to “Medical Practitioners Act 1978” with “Medical Practitioners Act 2007”. It is a technical amendment that arises because the register of medical practitioners referred to in section 98(3)(d), which was established under section 26 of the Medical Practitioners Act 1978, has been replaced by a new register established under section 43 of the Medical Practitioners Act 2007, as amended by the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2007. The relevant section was commenced on 16 March 2009.
Senator David Norris: I would be interested in an explanation for this as amendment No. 81 simply states: “one shall be a person with direct personal experience of adoption, namely an adopted person”. It is simply a back-up. The position will be filled and paid anyway. I am astonished at this. It defies common sense that the amendment could possibly create a charge on the Exchequer that does not already exist.
I will explain it as follows. Let us suppose six people are to be appointed to the Seanad at a cost of €50,000 each. If there is an amendment stating that one of these shall be a Mormon, that could not be held to create a charge on the Exchequer because there is no additional cost. It is simply qualifying who the person shall be. With the greatest respect, a Chathaoirligh, I ask for your guidance in this matter because it may well be something I have not seen and the Minister of State’s advisers may be able to comment through you or the Minister of State. It seems to defy logic. I am not defying the ruling of the Cathaoirleach; I am simply asking if it is possible to have an explanation.
Senator David Norris: Yes. The amendment simply states that one of the people shall be something or other. I have just explained it in terms of six people nominated to the Seanad under legislation, each of which costs €50,000. If an amendment stated that one of them must be a Roman Catholic or one of them must be from Ulster, that is a qualification but it does not create a charge on the Exchequer. I do not see how it possibly could. It could not. It is just absurd. If the Cathaoirleach would permit some discussion of this technical point without discussing the amendment, perhaps my colleagues or the Minister of State could comment on it.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Amendment No. 80 has been ruled out of order for the same reason. I ask the Minister of State to consider these amendments when he brings this legislation to the Dáil. It is general practice now to include in such authorities people who are affected by legislation and to bring their experience on board when key decisions are being taken. It is important, given the number of people who are adopted and the number experiencing inter-country adoptions, that amendment No. 80 be considered by the Minister of State and that such representatives be included if at all possible. It may not, as Senator Norris has said, represent any extra cost to the Exchequer.
Senator David Norris: Where did this ruling come from? It did not come from the Cathaoirleach; that is a polite fiction. It must have come from the Department of Finance. It does not know what it is talking about. I agree with the point made by Senator Fitzgerald, but whatever the argument about amendment No. 80, which might appear to add additional personnel, mine does not. It simply adds a qualification. I really must ask for a proper explanation. Otherwise the House is being treated with contempt. Nothing could more clearly illustrate how idiotic it is to have this restriction on the Upper House of the Oireachtas. I will not even go into the state of the country. No one in the House, however challenged intellectually, could make a worse hames of the economy, including the Department of Finance. I do not accept it and I want a ruling to which I can give some assent. This is absurd.
Deputy Barry Andrews: Whatever about the issue of a charge on the Exchequer, we are asked to consider the membership on the adoption authority of a person who has been adopted. It is open to members of Fine Gael and the Labour Party to introduce this amendment in the Dáil. I do not mean any slight against the Seanad in that regard. It is not for me to explain the issue of the charge on the Exchequer. I have given no consideration to that issue.
Senator David Norris: I will leave it at that, but I want the record of the House to show that it is a complete absurdity and that there is no possible charge on the Exchequer. Once again this is being used to get an amendment out of the remit of the Seanad. They shove it down as a charge on the Exchequer. It is patent rubbish.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I support my colleague Senator Norris on this point. It is far too easy to rule amendments out of order for reasons that do not stand up. I do not blame the Minister of State for not being in a position to explain it, but this follows on from an earlier discussion we had about the perceived relevance of the Seanad. If rulings are to be made that certain amendments are not to be discussed because they are out of order, we need a reason for those decisions. Senator Norris says he will not press it any further.
Senator Rónán Mullen: Can the Cathaoirleach reverse this decision? Is it in the power of the Cathaoirleach under Standing Orders to change his mind at this point and allow the amendment to be discussed?
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: The key point on this issue is the make-up of the membership of the adoption authority. There should be at least one person who has been adopted or is a birth parent or adoptive parent. I do not mind whether there is a net cost. That is not the issue. Can the Minister of State assure the House that the authority will have representatives with this unique experience on it? Any mainstream parent or birth child would not necessarily have such experience. If the Minister of State could ensure the authority had that type of membership, I would be happy.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson: I agree with Senator Norris with regard to this amendment, which is quite sensible. I ask the Minister of State to consider changing this himself in the Dáil rather than expecting members of the Opposition to put forward amendments. It is sensible to ask that one member would be a person with direct personal experience of adoption, namely, an adopted person. Who better than someone who has experienced this process him or herself? It is quite sensible. I ask the Minister of State to consider amending the Bill himself in this regard.
Senator David Norris: It must go on the record that the Government spokesperson has said it is a good amendment. He thinks it is correct and that it does not create a charge on the Exchequer, and he has asked the Minister of State to consider the issue. That is an important point. In light of this, we need to review our procedures in the House. I say that with no disrespect to the Cathaoirleach or the staff of the House. We want to play as vital a role as possible in the parliamentary procedures of this country.
I had a problem with the Bill as originally drafted because I did not know why members of local authorities were disqualified from the adoption board. It is an example of how the role of councillors is not seen as all-encompassing, although I believe it is. The purpose of the amendment is to widen the remit. I believe councillors have an important role to play.
Deputy Barry Andrews: The proposed amendment would allow local authority members to be eligible for appointment as members of the authority or its committees. The authority is an expert board with quasi-judicial functions and, as such, it is not just local authority members who are excluded; members of the European Parliament and Oireachtas Members are also excluded, to ensure there is no political influence in a matter where a quasi-judicial function is exercised.
The International Adoption Association has a view on this. Under current provisions, any support organisation may be required to become an accredited body, subject to oversight by the Adoption Board. The association does not condone any practice that would be ill-informed or that would involve a lack of oversight. We should recognise that it provides invaluable support and education for the adoptive community. It feels it could be constrained by having to seek and maintain registration. It is not clear why this incorporation would be required or the extent to which it would be required. The association feels that any such requirement for registration in respect of non-direct arrangements for adoption could act to undermine democratic advocacy on behalf of the community.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I second the amendment. The support groups would find it difficult to continue with the work they are doing currently and would find some of these demands too onerous. We want high standards and regulation, however, so I would like to hear what the Minister of State has to say about any possible difficulties for advocacy bodies or lobbying groups if this provision remains in the legislation.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I agree with Senator Fitzgerald. These support and advocacy groups are critical to couples going through the adoption process. The International Adoption Association has offered great support throughout this process for many couples and it would be a shame if the association was hindered because these couples would otherwise be alone.
Deputy Barry Andrews: The amendment relates to section 151(1), which states, “Without prejudice to the generality of section 150, the Minister shall make such regulations as he or she thinks appropriate for the purpose of ensuring that the activities specified in sections 4 and 5 are carried on only by accredited bodies.” We all recognise that accredited bodies play a vital role. We have all been under pressure as Oireachtas Members on this issue. All the agencies have helped to keep people up to date in an area where it is difficult to disseminate information because we are negotiating with another jurisdiction.
The purpose of section 151 of the Bill is to enable the Minister to make regulations under the Act. The purpose of those regulations is to regulate the activities of accredited bodies rather than to promote them. An accredited body may apply to be registered for the activities related to the making of arrangements for the adoption of a child, including those activities specified in sections 4and 5.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: This has been a long and detailed debate. This Bill incorporates into Irish law the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. Since Ireland ratified that convention, 16 years have elapsed so we have waited a long time for the legislation. It is important that the Bill brings all aspects of legislation into line with the Hague Convention and brings us closer to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
When we are dealing with this area, the legislation before the House is just one aspect of adoption and huge issues arise on the implementation of the legislation, waiting lists for couples and the need for an agency other than the HSE to be involved. The Minister of State indicated that he would support this. During the debate we also raised important issues about guardianship, post-adoption services and the need for ongoing support for all involved in the adoption process.
A key issue that came up in the debate was that of bilateral agreements. At the conclusion of the debate, we are still in an unsatisfactory position as far as those agreements are concerned. Fine Gael had suggested a mechanism by which the Minister would have to come back to the Dáil or Seanad six months before the lapse of any bilateral agreement to inform the Houses about progress. If such a measure had been in place for the Vietnamese situation, there would have been discussion at an earlier point on the issue. It would have helped the Minister of State and I regret that he did not accept the amendment on that issue.
This Bill leaves the House with a degree of uncertainty about the bilateral agreements with Vietnam, Ethiopia and Russia. There is a great deal to be done by the Minister of State and the Department on these agreements, given the inter-country nature of the work. I hope the Minister of State is given the necessary resources. I have no doubt that the demand on departmental resources in regard to concluding these agreements is extensive. I hope progress will be reported on this issue when this legislation goes to the Dáil.
The Minister of State indicated that he would consider a range of amendments we put forward. He more or less accepted a number of potential amendments but did not bring forward similar amendments and I regret that. I am disappointed he did not do so but I hope they will be brought forward when the Bill is taken in the Dáil. They are useful and their inclusion would strengthen the legislation.
A number of areas are not addressed in the legislation. Given that we have had to wait 16 years for this legislation, to some degree, it deals with an era when adoption was dealt with somewhat differently. The issues about contact, ongoing contact and tracing are not dealt with. Given the changing face of adoption and the increasing number of inter-country adoptions, these issues will increase. The fact that there is no legislative base for many of them is problematic and needs to be addressed. One of the reasons some of these issues could not be addressed during this debate is that the amendment on the rights of the child was not brought forward by the Government. If it had been, we would be dealing with some provisions of the legislation in a different way.
I welcome the introduction of this Bill. I regret more amendments were not accepted during this debate but I acknowledge the willingness of the Minister of State to bring forward such amendments when the Bill is taken in the Dáil and l welcome his response to many of them.
I regret that the Minister of State briefed The Irish Times rather than this House on several aspects of the legislation. We have already had a long discussion on that matter today and I will not repeat it. There has been much debate recently on reform of this House. If the Seanad, as well as the Dáil and committees, is to be taken seriously, Opposition amendments must be accepted by the Government. Senator Wilson spoke in favour of an amendment tabled by this side of the House. I have had experience of the acceptance of Opposition amendments by some Ministers in committees over the years. It is a mark of maturity to accept and incorporate in legislation amendments from the other side of the House. That is what should happen in both Houses. It strengthens democracy and the work of this House and lends increased credibility to the Houses.
I look forward to seeing what further amendments the Minister of State will bring forward when the Bill is taken in the Dáil. I thank his officials for the time, energy and effort they put into preparing this legislation. I hope they have success in concluding the bilateral agreements, which are of importance to many people and are a cause of great concern and deep emotional upset to families currently caught in this situation.
Senator David Norris: With the greatest respect, I challenge the Cathaoirleach’s view on that. I have served here for 21 years and, traditionally, Members spoke, at some moderate length, particularly on an important Bill such as this one. It would not be appropriate to close such provision and I am glad the Cathaoirleach, in his wisdom, did not do so.
I welcome this Bill. I believe everybody would agree that for Ireland finally to be brought into line with the Hague Convention in this respect must be a good measure. Senator Fitzgerald stated this clearly. The Minister of State and the Civil Service can be complimented on doing that. There are divided opinions about other aspects of the Bill.
We have learned that considerable emotional charges surround this Bill. This is understandable in a human sense. In terms of the blunt instrument of a mass e-mail campaign — I hope the canvassing and lobbying groups will also learn a little bit from this — it is not intelligent to catch people who are on one’s side in friendly fire. That simply eliminates support or, perhaps, can even negative it. This mass scattergun approach does not always help politics. If the approach were more focused, that would help all of us. I say that as somebody who loves to get a good brief.
With regard to the Minister of State, I am not sure that there were any huge areas that were not at least stated or implied; I make that point to be positive. I would like to place on record my gratitude to Carol Coulter for once again writing an absolutely excellent series of articles on this important subject in which she raised significant issues.
I had to leave the Chamber briefly during which time I managed to put in ear plugs and listen to a contemporaneous debate on RTE Radio 1 on which a number of international experts were discussing this Bill and the Vietnamese situation. The kinds of phrases used were about buying and selling children and whether this could happen. This was the concern of the Americans and Swedes. We would be well advised to take this into consideration. The Bill presented a good opportunity for us to examine this idea and to make sure this does not happen.
It should also be placed on record, because it was placed on record over the airwaves for the Irish public, that the Department and the Minister of State were not insensitive to the feelings of people. A practical, professional approach was taken when Mr. Geoffrey Shannon, the leading authority in this country in this area, was sent, as one of the principal officers of the Department, as a member of a delegation to Vietnam to explore this situation. That seems to be a proper, professional way to address this issue. However, it may well be that the visit by a Minister would be helpful because of the way in which these matters are regarded in the Orient, the question of status, saving face and such matters. I am glad that the Minister of State has given a commitment that he will go there.
I was glad to take part in this debate and I learned a great deal from it. There were some exciting amendments, including my own. I got quite snotty occasionally, but I also learned a good deal from the passionate contributions of others. It was interesting that many of the most passionate speakers were women. The contributions were led by Senator Fitzgerald on this side, ably backed by Senator Healy Eames, Senator Bacik on our side, Senator Prendergast of the Labour Party and Senator Mary White of Fianna Fáil. I felt as in the title of a John McGahern novel “Amongst Women” and I was very glad and comfortable to be among women.
I welcome the passage of this Bill through the House. It may not be perfect, but legislation rarely is. Something most interesting occurred during this debate and I say this in a non-contentious way. Senator Wilson, my good friend, whom I respect greatly, had the honesty to acknowledge that an amendment I put forward was a good one and that in his view — he was persuaded by the irrefutable logic of what I said — it did not create a charge on the Exchequer. In terms of Seanad reform, we need to examine this method of the ruling out of amendments. I thank my colleagues for informing me and opening my mind in as far as it can be opened. I thank the Minister of State and his staff for passing what will be a positive step in safeguarding the welfare of children in this country.
Senator Phil Prendergast: I will not repeat the points that have been made as they are many and varied and they echo my thoughts on this subject. I am not being contentious in saying that I had no difficulty with the quality or the quantity of e-mails received.
Senator Phil Prendergast: People express themselves in the best way they know how and sometimes frustration can lead them to couch their views in a certain way. It is our job not to take such comments personally. I can understand why people might do that because I worked for many years in dealing with people who were infertile and undergoing the many treatments involved in that respect and it gave me an insight into what I could contribute to this debate. I am delighted and I thank the Minister for listening to us and taking part in the debate. I thank the officials, the Cathaoirleach and everybody connected with this.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson: I welcome this Bill and thank the Minister and his officials for the work and effort they put into it. Like Senator Norris, I pay tribute to those who contributed to it. I will begin by complimenting Senator Mary White, our spokesperson, and all the other Senators, including Senators Fitzgerald, Healy Eames and Prendergast, who contributed to this very worthy Bill. It is a very emotive and sensitive issue which is very close to my heart. We would like to see more amendments accepted in this House. Much debate takes place here, probably more detailed debate than takes place in the other House. The Minister will make every effort to take on board the points of view made by my colleagues on both sides and take on board some of the amendments in the Lower House.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I welcome the introduction of the Bill in the Seanad. It is not over yet as it still has to be concluded in the Dáil. This is a historical step in terms of adoption in this country. We are ratifying and bringing into law the Hague Convention and are strengthening the standards of child protection and child welfare in this country. I thank the Minister for bringing it to the House and the officials for working so closely with him. The families affected by adoption and the whole adoptive community have also brought much to this debate.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: They have taught us much and that needs to be noted. They even caused a briefing for the Fianna Fáil Party by the Minister, and anything that brings about that is worthy of note.
I have regrets about some of the amendments that were not taken on board by the Minister, but I am hopeful that he will examine them in the Dáil. My main regret is that at the conclusion of the Bill in the Seanad, the bilateral agreement with Vietnam is not yet sorted. For anybody involved in adoption this is intensely personal and private and is about the creation of families. It is important that the Minister, I and everybody here learn much about not letting the bilateral agreements with the Russian Federation and Ethiopia end up in the same place as the one with Vietnam, and I ask the Minister to begin the preparatory work. The post-placement records with the Russian Federation need to be concluded. In his final words to the House, the Minister gave an assurance that he will provide regular updates to the adoptive community until the bilateral agreements are sorted. That would be most helpful. I look forward to the conclusion of the Bill in the Dáil.
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy Barry Andrews): I thank everybody for their contributions. Senator Wilson said that more amendments could have been accepted. It is my first time bringing substantial legislation through any House or committee. The Bill will certainly have the fingerprints of the Seanad on it, whether the amendments were accepted in this House or later. Senator Fitzgerald said it has taken a very long time to get this far. As I said, the debate in the Seanad has been extremely helpful to me. It has improved the legislation and widened our knowledge on this constantly developing area. I, too, regret that the bilateral agreement with Vietnam has not been resolved and I remain committed to resolving it.
I thank the Members for the forbearance they have shown in the debates we have had on this very emotive issue. I hope in future I will be in a position to be more responsive to amendments. I tried to accept the spirit of the amendments as far as I could within the advice I received. I acknowledge Senator Norris, who is anxious that I would travel — I think he wants to get rid of me. I will do that as soon as possible, as I indicated. Senator Healy Eames and I will not fall out with each other on a permanent basis. Things are said in the heat of debate.
Deputy Barry Andrews: I thank Senator Prendergast and the Labour Party and I thank Senator Bacik for all she contributed to this. I thank Senator Mary White who contributed considerably on behalf of Fianna Fáil.
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