Child poverty

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1 Debates Child and Family Agency Bill, 2013

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald, introduced the Child and Family Agency Bill, 2013, which builds on the work of the Family Support Agency and transfers thereto the child protection services of the Health Service Executive (HSE) (Dail Eireann, Debates, 17th July 2013, 87-138).   The minister mentioned that only earlier that week, she had launched the Family Support Agency commissioned study Families living at risk of poverty in Ireland.

 

There was broad support and welcome for the Bill.  Robert Troy (FF, Longford Westmeath) complimented the work of voluntary organizations in the area of child protection and children’s rights, such as the Children’s Rights Alliance, ISPCC, Barnardos, Focus Ireland and Empowering Young People in Care (EPIC) but continued:

While §9 envisages the assistance of voluntary bodies in the delivery of child protection services, it does not stipulate by what means exactly and how they will assist.  There are in excess of 90 agencies working in the area of child protection and welfare.  Therefore, we should have an open and transparent mechanism for selecting a particular agency for the delivery of a service.  I understand that in Australia one-third of child protection work is dealt with by NGOs. …  There should be a clear framework for dealing with NGOs. Such a framework would instill confidence and remove any suspicion that one NGO could be favoured over another.

 

Caoimhghin O’Caolain (SF, Cavan Monaghan) described the budget of the minister’s department as modest at €439m, albeit an improvement on 2012.  He contrasted the tens of billions of euros shoveled into the cesspit of Anglo-Irish Banks with the money allocated to the welfare of children.  The state was allocating €2.5m for area-based responses to child poverty, in a programme for which the bulk of funding, €29m, comes from Atlantic Philanthropies (> See News, below).   There was a bitter irony in the state topping up a grant from an international charity to address child poverty, while the government itself was through its austerity policies increasing child poverty.  While €2.5m was going to a handful of areas to address child poverty, there was a 2013 full-year cut to child benefit of €142m.  Child benefit was the most direct and beneficial payment to families and children in danger of child poverty.  This single cut had pushed more families into poverty.  This was undermining the positive work of her department and the new agency.  Although the Bill required the new agency to consult with children on certain matters, it did not require it to listen to their views pertaining to their lives and welfare.  

 

He also asked why the word ‘support’ had been dropped from the title of the new body.  The board of the old Family Support Agency had representation from the Family Resource Centre National Forum: would it be represented on the new board and, if not, why not?  There was considerable concern amongst those involved in the network of family resource centres that without that critical representation, its character, ethos, and long-established focus would be placed at risk.  The Family Resource Centre National Forum should have representation on the board of the new agency.

 

Sandra McLellan (SF, Cork E) cited Barnardos’ campaign for a joined-up approach, a single agency and clear lines of responsibility.  She pleaded for more resources to be made available to make the new agency work successfully.  The Children’s Rights Alliance had argued that it not inherit a €20m deficit from HSE child and family services.  She strongly criticized the continued use, by government of direct provision, which was a form of detention in breach of international law and continued: 

Under the current asylum process, an entire early childhood can be spent in direct provision accommodation.   Almost a third of asylum seekers are children.   They have no autonomy or liberty and in my opinion they could certainly be considered to be in detention.   These places are not remotely suitable for children.   Progress has been very slow on the legislation to reform the area I hope the new agency and the minister will take responsibility for safeguarding these children and ensuring their welfare – as they would in the case of other children – and take whatever steps are necessary to vindicate their rights.

 

Catherine Murphy (ind, Kildare N) welcomed the Bill as the biggest and probably first real attempt in the history of the state to restructure children’s services.  She commended the proposals on the new agency from Barnardos and the Children’s Rights Alliance.  She wanted to see a commitment to aftercare in the new agency.  Simon Harris (FG, Wicklow) asked how would the agency be made accountable: the removal of the HSE from political accountability was an unmitigated disaster and he wanted the minister to continue to be able to take parliamentary questions about the new agency. Joe O’Reilly (FG, Cavan Monaghan) welcomed the minister’s continued commitment to the work of the Family Resource Centres.  There was widespread welcome for the appointment of Norah Gibbons as chairperson of the new agency, but a sharp personal attack on her, the chief executive, Fergus Finlay and ‘the carry-on’ in Barnardos by Mattie McGrath (ind, Tipperary S).

 

Patrick O’Donovan (FG, Limerick) complained that in naming people who were not members and in a position to defend themselves that this was an abuse of parliamentary privilege.  They had heard their names thrown around in an absolutely shocking fashion and in a cowardly way.  People outside the house were entitled to their good name.  He formally complained to the Leas Cheann Comhairle.  Acrimonious exchanges between the two continued for some time.  Mattie McGrath:

Do we need a totally new agency?  Will it be another quango?  I know we have a new minister and I am pleased about that, but must we have another agency with a vast budget and 4,000 staff?  Will we be able to siphon the staff from the HSE?  Will they be let go? Will it become another quango that the minister will be unable to control?  I certainly hope not, because I am sick and tired of quangos throughout the country, many of which are self-appointed.  The government promised that it would get rid of them and instead it has increased them and they are not accountable to anyone.  I accept the bona fides of the minister and I know she will do her best, but some of these people become more powerful than the quango that they act for.

 

Regina Doherty (FG, Meath E) described the Bill as a fresh start and the new agency the most significant development for child and family services for 20 years.  Concluding the debate, the minister assured the house that she would continue to answer parliamentary questions about it.  The Bill was passed nem con and referred to committee.

 

> Text of Families living at risk of poverty in Ireland. http://www.fsa.ie/fileadmin/user_upload/Files/Family_Wellbeing_on_a_Limited_Income-_FINAL_July_2013.pdf