Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Child Care Inspectorate.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn

Question:

6 Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn asked the Minister for Health if the child care inspectorate he announced in the media recently will operate independently of his Department; the reason calls for a national child care authority have been rejected by his Department; and the reason he has not met with representatives of Focus Ireland which has proposed a national child care authority and has sought a direct meeting with him. [5846/96]

As the Deputy is aware the Minister for Health and I have decided to establish, on a statutory basis, an inspectorate of social services in the Department of Health. The inspectorate will,inter alia, be responsible for quality assurance and audit of child care practice and will undertake inquiries on behalf of the Minister for Health.

Under the Child Care Act, 1991, responsibility for monitoring standards in children's residential centres rests with the relevant health boards in the case of centres operated by voluntary bodies while responsibility for monitoring standards in centres run by health boards rests with the Department of Health.

The social services inspectorate will be associated with the Department of Health which is also the approach which has been taken in Northern Ireland. I intend to ensure that the inspectorate is sufficiently empowered to perform its task in an effective and efficient manner. My intention is that the proposed inspectorate will function with at least the same degree of independence as the inspector of mental hospitals.

As the Deputy is aware the Focus Ireland study on residential child care published recently recommended that a national child care authority be established with statutory powers. It is not true to say that I have not met representatives of Focus Ireland, I met them on this issue on 21 February. At that meeting I explained in some detail why the establishment of a national child care authority is not currently justified. I also outlined my thinking on this issue in my opening address to the Focus Ireland conference on 5 March.

I do not consider that the establishment of a national child care authority is justified having regard to the substantial progress being achieved in the development and implementation of national policy on child care services.

First, 61 of the 79 sections of the Child Care Act, 1991, are now in force including the key provisions of Parts III to VI of the legislation which deal with the protection of children in emergencies, care proceedings and the powers and duties of health boards in relation to children in their care. The implementation of these provisions involved three sets of new regulations in relation to the placement by health boards of children in residential care, foster care and with relatives. The regulations require health boards to visit, supervise and review children in their care on a more systematic basis than before. The remaining 18 sections of the Act are to be brought into operation by the end of this year including Part VIII which relates to the registration of children's residential centres. The Child Care Act represents a major reform of the law on the care of children.

Second, the report, in calling for a national child care authority, failed to take account of the impact of my co-ordinating role as Minister of State at the Departments of Health, Education and Justice. Powers have been formally delegated to me in these Departments for the co-ordination of policy and services on child protection, young homeless, truancy and juvenile justice. One of my first initiatives on taking up office was to establish a co-ordinating committee representative of senior officials of the Departments of Health, Education and Justice.

Tangible evidence that this co-ordination mechanism has been successful is illustrated by the fact that agreement has been reached on a draft scheme of the Juvenile Justice Bill. This Bill was the subject of intensive debate between the three Departments involved because of disagreement on core issues which would not have been resolved so easily if my office did not exist. The Bill is currently with the parliamentary draftsman and I am pleased to report it should be published well before the summer recess.

As Minister of State at the Department of Education, I have also attached particular importance to addressing the problem of school truancy and legislation to deal with this problem is currently at an advanced state of preparation.

Third, as already mentioned, a social services inspectorate will be established and this will have major implications for the implementation of child care policy, including the development of national guidelines and codes of good practice.

In view of the substantial progress that has been made, much of it due to my co-ordinating role as Minister of State, I have come to the conclusion that the establishment of a national child care authority is not currently justified. It is only if existing structures fail that an alternative structure such as an authority might be contemplated. However, I note that it was recommended that a national child care authority should,inter alia, have a research function. I am aware of the lack of research on child care policy in this country at present. I have a particular interest in promoting research and will announce a number of initiatives in this regard later this year.

I understand Sr. Stan requested a meeting with the Minister for Health. That was driven by the absolute frustration at the lack of progress following Focus Ireland's meeting with the Minister of State. Perhaps he might arrange to meet Focus Ireland. Why has the Minister set his face against an independent inspectorate? I am disappointed that he has decided to locate it within the Department. With the best will in the world the public perception will be that it is not independent.

I understood it was a satisfactory meeting from the point of view of Focus Ireland. We covered a wide range of subjects and a number of requests were made, one of which I was able to accede to almost immediately. I attended its conference and delivered a long address. My officials were present over the course of the two day conference and explained my position on the matters mentioned. At the end of the conference our positions were understood.

I intend to ensure that the inspectorate is sufficiently empowered to perform its task in an effective and efficient manner. The proposed inspectorate will function with the same degree of independence as the inspector of mental hospitals. Its independence to carry out the task it has been set has not been called into question. It has been successful. It is quite a good model and if we can improve on it we most certainly will.

During the exchange on the first question which was rather acrimonious the Minister admitted one of two things, either there is no standard procedure when a health board is advised that a child who is on the at risk register in another jurisdiction will come under their care or that the Minister is not aware of the standard procedures that apply. Does he accept that as long as there is no national child care authority or independent inspectorate outside the remit of the Department that will continue to be the case and people will not have confidence in relation to the child care area? Would he not agree that is reason in itself to set up a national child care authority?

No, I do not accept that. The public perception of a lack of independence will be created if Members continually allege it will not be sufficiently independent. I have mentioned already that the role of the inspector of mental hospitals is perceived to be successful.

What the Deputy described as an acrimonious exchange was, I would have thought, the cut and thrust of politics.

We could not get answers from the Minister of State.

The Deputy is not correct in making either deduction.

Why could the Minister not answer the questions?

I did answer the questions.

I welcome the announcement that it is intended to establish an independent inspectorate of social services. Will this promised inspectorate be fit for the stated purpose, in other words will it be able to carry out an inquiry and publish its findings? Will it be able to discipline persons who are found to have breached their duty and to fire such persons? Will the situation be different in future? We find after an independent inquiry into a set of circumstances in a health board that the health board is unable to publish the report because of a contingent threat of legal proceedings by persons in the health board. Will the new inspectorate be similarly hoist by its own petard by threatened legal proceedings?

I have told the House already that the inspectorate of social services willinter alia be responsible for quality assurance and audit of child care practice and will undertake inquiries on behalf of the Minister for Health. It will be fit for the purpose. I have described the frustration I experienced in relation to the reports we were discussing earlier. The Minister for Health and I want to make these reports publicly available so that everything is seen to be above board and we have given encouragement to the preparation of reports in a form suitable for publication. That is why we will ensure that the inspectorate's reports will be presented to this House and will be available to the public.

The timescale is absolutely vital. The Minister of State indicated in October that he was seeking advice as a matter of urgency from the Attorney General about the legal difficulties connected with the publication of reports. If it was urgent in October it is more urgent now. This urgently needed legislation will be passed with the support of all sides of the House. What is the timescale for its introduction? Does he agree that in the interests of protecting children it is not morally possible to postpone this legislation?

No time will be lost in bringing this inspectorate into being but we have to do so in a way which will achieve the stated purpose, that is that the reports of such an inspectorate will be available to the public and will be presented in such a form that there will not be the threat of legal action which has prevented the publication of the three reports we discussed earlier. That means that the reports will have to be privileged. Problems have arisen with that in the past. The problems go back as far as to the 1970s on the question of the privilege of committees of this House. It is our determination that the reports will be privileged and that we will avoid the frustrations of the past.

I asked earlier whether it was possible for the Minister or Minister of State to overrule the decision of the Western Health Board and to publish in this House the Kelly Fitzgerald report. The Minister of State seemed to indicate that it was not possible to do so, but while he was on his feet the Minister was shaking his head vigorously. Has the Minister the power to overrule the Western Health Board and go ahead with the publication under privilege of this report where there is no danger of a legal threat? If that is the case will the Minister please publish it? Second, the Minister of State stated in October that he was consulting the Attorney General urgently on this matter but I do not think the passage of five months indicates any sense of urgency. Does he agree with me?

I think we spent long enough on Question No. 2 and I have nothing further to add. I have emphasised our determination in this matter. I repeat that the report we were discussing earlier is a report that was organised by the Western Health Board and the people who carried out the inquiry were appointed by them and it was their report. We have devolved responsibility to the health board to do particular things and as a result——

Can the Minister overrule them?

No, we cannot overrule them and as a result of that experience we are taking the action I outlined in my reply, particularly in relation to the inspectorate.

Is the Minister of State confirming that it will be necessary to bring forward legislation to establish an inspectorate of social services? Will he confirm to the House that the inspectorate will have the powers to investigate not only child care facilities within the remit of the Department of Health but also powers to investigate child centres under the control of the Department of Education and secure detention centres under the Department of Justice? Will the remit of the inspectorate go that far? If not it is already flawed.

Today we are dealing with health questions and the Deputy might direct the other questions to me in my capacity as Minister of State at the Department of Justice or at the Department of Education.

I thought the Minister of State was wearing all hats.

It has been announced that an inspectorate is to be established under the aegis of the Department of Education and in my role I will ensure it is co-ordinated to the best possible advantage.

It is possible to establish an inspectorate without legislation, but if we want to set it up properly and ensure it does the job it is set up to do in terms of the publication of reports among other things, and where the question of privilege is an important element, legislation is needed. Unless privilege is covered, I doubt if it is worthwhile introducing legislation.