I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on her handling of this very sensitive issue. It has been recognised for years that a constitutional amendment was required to guarantee that children's interests are foremost when the State is dealing with their rights. I take this opportunity to thank Deputy Barry Cowen for his contribution. It is heartening to see a Government proposal receiving such a resoundingly positive response from the Opposition. It goes to show that when we get it right, everybody is an agreement.
The family plays a very important role in Irish society, but the concept of "family" has changed over the years. We must seek to recognise these changes while always ensuring that the welfare of the child is protected. The balance between the rights of parents and children was always a sensitive issue and the Constitution has strong provisions protecting parents' and family rights. The inclusion of the exceptional circumstances proviso seeks to maintain this balance by ensuring the State will intervene only where parents are totally incapable of looking after the best interests of their children. Unfortunately, several recent cases have shown the need for such intervention by the State.
It has been argued that this type of intervention is already possibly through the application of existing laws. The reality, however, is that the current position sets up a conflict between the rights of parents and the rights of children, a lack of clarity which inevitably leaves matters open to interpretation by the courts. This constitutional amendment, along with the accompanying legislation, clarifies the whole area by putting the rights of children to the forefront. In future, all legislation will have to be proofed against its provisions.
I particularly welcome the provision that children in foster care may, in certain circumstances, be adopted. Again, the wording is well balanced:
Provision shall be made by law for the adoption of any child where the parents have failed for such a period of time as may be prescribed by law in their duty towards the child and where the best interest of the child so requires.
The practice in Ireland up to now is that children in long-term foster care placements were being adopted just before their 18th birthday. Long-term foster parents have adopted this approach so that the child they have fostered for many years can avail of all the legal rights offered to adopted children.
Given that the Constitution promises to cherish all the children of the nation equally, it is astonishing that the unjust circumstances pertaining to adoption have been allowed to continue for so long. Even in Britain, which does not have a constitution enshrining a promise to cherish the country's children, the adoption of children who have been in foster care for 12 months is permitted.
Under the proposed adoption legislation, children of married parents will be eligible for adoption once they have been fostered for 36 months. The key element in this proposal is that the time envisaged will ensure a child's parents have every opportunity to prove they have the capability of caring for their child should they wish to do so. The proposed law will also mean a child must spend 18 months in the foster care of his or her proposed adoptive parents. As a result, the adoptive parents and child will have sufficient time to ensure adoption is the desired option.
The new legislation recognises the right of children to be heard. Where children are capable of having a voice, their voice must be taken into account. The views of the child will be taken into consideration and given due weight in accordance with his or her age and maturity. For the first time, input about a child's welfare will not be made solely by adults because the opinions of the child in question must be taken into consideration.
This referendum has the potential to change children's lives for the better by enshrining their rights in the Constitution. I am pleased this major step forward in promoting the legal, emotional and social needs of all our children who remain vulnerable is being fully supported by all political parties and organisations dealing with child welfare. I believe that on polling day a large majority will vote in favour of this amendment to the Constitution. I concur with Deputy Cowen's point that if nothing else is achieved in this Dáil, the children's referendum will at least be remembered.
I congratulate the Minister on recently finalising agreement with the Vietnamese Government on the adoption issue that has been ongoing between Ireland and Vietnam. I understand Vietnam has signed up to the Hague Convention, which has allowed the Minister to sign an agreement that will resolve many of the difficulties experienced by Irish couples seeking to adopt Vietnamese children.
Protecting the rights of children and giving them a better life must always be at the heart of society. For this reason, I am very pleased the Bill is before the House and that, on 10 November, people will be given a chance to vote on an important and necessary change to our Constitution. I am, therefore, pleased to commend this Bill to the House.