Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Child Abuse Reports.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn

Question:

2 Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn asked the Minister for Health the reason he did not request a copy of the report of the investigation into the Kelly Fitzgerald case until details of the report were leaked to the media; if he has sought copies of the other unpublished reports of child abuse investigations; if he will seek the immediate publication of the full findings of these investigations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5843/96]

Kathleen Lynch

Question:

8 Kathleen Lynch asked the Minister for Health whether the report of the inquiry into the death of Kelly Fitzgerald made substantial criticisms regarding the handling of the matter by the Western Health Board; and the procedural changes, if any, he feels should be made in view of the report. [5763/96]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 8 together.

As I explained to the House during the Adjournment debate on 7 March, the report of the investigation into the tragic case of the child Kelly Fitzgerald was commissioned by the chief executive officer of the Western Health Board. The terms of reference of the inquiry team appointed by the chief executive officer were: to inquire into the circumstances of the late Kelly Fitzgerald and her family and, having regard thereto, to examine the Western Health Board's child protection practices and procedures and to make such recommendations as were deemed necessary; to make such other recommendations as were considered relevant; and to report to the chief executive officer of the board in the matter as soon as possible for presentation by him to the board.

The inquiry team submitted its report to the chief executive officer on 14 November 1995 and he then sought legal advice in relation to the publication of the report. The opinion of the board's legal advisers was received on 6 February 1996. Further clarification of certain aspects of the legal opinion was sought from the legal advisers and this was received on 5 March 1996. I did not consider it appropriate to seek a copy of the report pending the outcome of the consultations between the chief executive officer and the board's legal advisers.

In anticipation of a special meeting of the board copies of the report were issued to members of the board, together with the legal opinion received and a report to the board from the chief executive officer on 6 March 1996. Parts of the report were published in theIrish Independent on 7 March 1996, in advance of the special meeting of the board. In the light of this development, the chief executive officer of the board provided a copy of the report to my Department together with a copy of the legal advice in relation to the report. This was received in the Department on 8 March 1996.

The Deputies will be aware that at the special meeting of the Board on 11 March 1996 the board decided, having considered the legal advice from senior counsel, to publish the general recommendations of the report. The board also decided to refer the recommendations to the community care committee and the child care advisory committee of the board for consideration.

I would like to acknowledge the difficult task undertaken by the inquiry team in good faith. There are valuable lessons to be learned from this tragic case and these are reflected in certain recommendations of the report. My Department is studying the report in detail and will consult with the Western Health Board on actions that need to be taken on foot of the report.

The other major child abuse investigations which involve the publication of reports concern Madonna House and the west of Ireland farmer case. The investigation into the operation of Madonna House was commissioned by the Religious Sisters of Charity. As I have previously indicated to the House, I have received legal advice that substantial parts of the report of that investigation cannot be published without running a serious risk of committing grave contempt and defamation. In accordance with the express wish of my colleague, the Minister for Health, and myself that as much as possible of that report should be published, a report on the investigation is being prepared by my Department.

As regards the west of Ireland farmer case, I have been informed by the health board concerned that the work of the group established to review that board's involvement in the case has been suspended on legal advice pending the outcome of civil proceedings instituted by the victims concerned. Therefore no report has been completed in this case.

Both the Minister for Health and I are extremely concerned about the difficulties impeding the publication of reports of inquiries into child abuse cases. It has been our unequivocal position since we took up office that as much information as possible should be put into the public domain. Above all, we are most anxious to avoid suggestions of a cover up in any case involving a health board or child care agency.

There is sufficient experience at this stage to determine that the current format of inquiries into child abuse cases is unsatisfactory. It has become increasingly clear that a change in the law is required to overcome the difficulties encountered in publishing recent reports of this nature. It is for this reason we have decided to establish, on a statutory basis, an inspectorate of social services within the Department of Health. This is not the only initiative that needs to be taken and I will be making an announcement in due course on an additional range of measures.

It is proposed that this inspectorate should have responsibility for quality assurance and audit of child care practice. It would be charged with undertaking inquiries on behalf of the Minister. It is our firm intention that the enabling legislation will provide for the privileged publication by the Minister of any report made to him by the proposed inspectorate.

My primary objective is to ensure that all the lessons that can be learned from this and other unfortunate cases are taken on board and that our policies, priorities and management arrangements are influenced positively by these lessons, now and in the future.

I request you, a Cheann Comhairle, to show leniency considering the Minister of State gave a full response, for which I thank him. It lasted seven minutes.

I would very much like to do that, but there are strictures laid down. In respect of the first three questions we have little discretion, but in relation to the latter two I do. That is of no help to the Deputy, unfortunately.

One specific part of my question asks if the Minister will seek the immediate publication of the full findings of these investigations. Perhaps the Minister of State will respond to this in his reply as he failed to do so in his initial answer. Will he agree that, unless there is openness, transparency and accountability about the mistakes of the past in this area, there will never be a way to ensure that the genuine efforts of Members of this House and officials of various Departments and health boards to improve services will be successful and that the only way to ensure this happens is to foster and strengthen the principles of openness, transparency and accountability? Is he concerned that the inquiry chairman who gave so much of his time and did so much hard work has expressed grave concern publicly about the fact that the full report is not being published?

I think I have made it clear that this is not my report, but that of the Western Health Board. It was initiated by that board which selected the members of the inquiry team. It has responsibility for its own report. It took the decision, based on legal advice, not to publish.

The Deputy asked whether I agreed that openness, transparency and accountability were necessary if we were to come to terms with all these problems. I hope the Minister and I have made it very clear that it is our wish that there should be the greatest degree of openness, transparency and accountability. We have made it clear from the very beginning that we wish to see all these reports published and debated in this House.

These three reports are not ours, but as a result of this experience we now intend to take action to try to ensure that in the future there will be openness and that these reports will be published. I cannot give any greater assurance to the House than that. If it were possible for me and the Minister to publish these reports, we would most certainly do so.

I have already stated my attitude to the report mentioned. I have seen some comment in relation to the position of the chairman who has written asking if he can come to see me. I replied immediately that my door most certainly will be open to him and that I will listen to any representations or anything else he wants to say to me.

Is the Minister of State saying that neither he nor the Minister has the power to overrule a decision by the health board not to publish? He appears to be indicating that that is not the case. Are he and the Minister prepared, therefore, to overrule the decision of the Western Health Board not to publish this report and lay it before both Houses of the Oireachtas so that it can be debated in full either in this House, the Seanad or the Select Committee on Social Affairs? What is the standard procedure when a health board is informed by a non-Irish social services agency that a child is or was on an at risk register and is now with a family domiciled here?

There has been an inquiry into this matter, the report on which we are discussing today.

That is not the question I asked.

This matter is dealt with in the report.

The Minister of State does not know.

That answer is sufficient to the question the Deputy asked.

On a point of order——

I would rather not hear a point of order now, Deputy.

With respect, I asked the Minister of State the standard procedure — I am not talking about the Kelly Fitzgerald case — where an authority in the United Kingdom informs a health board here that a child was on an at risk register.

The Chair is primarily concerned with the standard procedure in trying to get through these questions within the time limit laid down. Time is fast running out.

We are trying to help you.

I am very much in favour of transparency and accountability and will attempt to answer as fully as possible every question I am asked in the House. Let us take, for example, the relationship between the health boards in Northern Ireland and here. I have had discussions with my opposite number to ensure there will be no hiding place on this island. The standard procedure is that the chief executive officer of the health board here would be informed.

There would be a follow up. The Deputy will remember that in April last year I produced guidelines for the Garda and health boards. The standard procedure is to follow those guidelines.

They are voluntary.

What was the other part of the Deputy's question?

The Minister of State has not answered the question on standard procedure. When a child on an "at risk" register in the UK comes to live here, do the health authorities follow a standard procedure? The Minister of State indicated that a standard procedure is not followed and that only some type of willy-nilly procedure operates between health boards. I am not on a witch-hunt against anybody. I merely want to know the standard procedure — if there is one — set down by the Department in conjunction with health boards.

By outlining the experience in respect of Northern Ireland I thought I had answered that question. In such circumstances, I understand it is standard procedure for the health board in Northern Ireland to inform the relevant health board here. Presumably the extent to which such procedure was abided by in this case was investigated by the people who prepared the report. I will deal now with the first question the Deputy asked.

This cannot go on interminably. We are dealing with priority questions to which a rigid time limit applies. I am proceeding to Question No. 3 forthwith.

I need your help, Sir. I asked a simple question.

I will allow a brief question. I want to be of the utmost assistance but the Deputy knows my dilemma.

With respect, I did not ask about the standard procedure between a health board abroad and a health board here. I want to know what happens after, say, a health board in the UK informs a health board here that a child is at risk. What are the standard procedures that come into force in the health board here? I am not interested in the procedure adopted by the UK health board.

If a health board in another jurisdiction reports to a health board here that a child is at risk, presumably the health board here would respond accordingly.

Why is Kelly Fitzgerald dead?

Presumably because we do not know how the health board responded in this case.

The Minister of State has a copy of the report.

He does not want to tell the public.

The report is confidential.

This is outrageous.

It is not.

He knows, we know but the public cannot be told.

As I explained a number of times, it is not my report or that of the Department.

He is the Minister of State.

The Deputy knows a great deal about this because Deputies Morley and Kitt, two members of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party, were involved in the decision not to publish the report.

I disagree with them.