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.