Missing Persons

I thank the office of the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me the opportunity to raise this matter this evening and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, for taking this issue.

For the first time in the country's history, there is a full Cabinet Minister with specific responsibility for children and all the various issues that encompass children and families. This is an opportunity to finally put issues relating to children's welfare, safety and protection front and centre on both the political and social agendas. This Department could get off to a good start if it could be seen to be used as a tool to bring together all the various agencies and perhaps other Departments to finally deliver on an issue on which the State has failed to deliver to date, namely, a specific missing children's phone number. This is a matter pertaining to the well-being of every child in this country and is an issue of concern that probably is at the back of the mind of every parent.

The role of this number is intended to be three-fold. First, it is to take calls on missing children and liaise with An Garda Síochána. Second, it is to provide a point of support and guidance for parents and family members of missing children and third, it is to support ongoing investigative efforts. We are told repeatedly, as I am sure all Members are aware, that when a child goes missing, time is of the essence. This State must and should do everything in its power to ensure the safety of its children and this includes providing timely assistance and intervention and ensuring that all processes and procedures are in place to protect children who go missing.

The European Commission has created a dedicated number to act as a single point of contact across all European states. However, after more than four years, Ireland has failed thus far to introduce this number, 116000, which has been introduced in 15 other countries. This delay is utterly unacceptable and at this point is becoming embarrassing in Europe. We must have policies and procedures in place to deal with cases of missing children and to ensure immediate and co-ordinated action can be taken whenever a child goes missing.

The necessity of this was brought home to me recently in my constituency when there was an attempted abduction of a young girl in Bray. Fortunately, in this case the young girl concerned managed to escape to safety but the incident has brought to the minds of everyone in Bray, County Wicklow and nationwide, the need to put in place these appropriate measures. There is a need to communicate the message to the Minister with responsibility for children that there is a need for her and the Department to co-ordinate the activities of the various agencies involved and to talk to organisations in the charity and NGO sectors which have been involved for a number of years in providing helplines on children's issues. The country needs to consult them and harness their expertise. It is one thing being the poor relation in Europe economically, but we must not become the poor relation when it comes to issues of child protection. I urge the Minister to take action on this issue which has been dragging on for far too long.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter of the 116 000 hotline for missing children. The establishment of this hotline is a cross-departmental issue and the Minister intends to ensure every effort is made to have the hotline up and running as soon as possible. Under revised EU telecoms rules agreed in 2009 and, in particular, Article 27a of the universal service directive,

Member states were required to "make every effort to ensure that citizens have access to a service operating a hotline to report cases of missing children. The hotline shall be available on the number 116 000." The same directive also requires member states to "ensure that citizens are adequately informed of the existence and use of services provided under the 116 numbering range, in particular, through initiatives specifically targeting persons travelling between member states". The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is responsible for transposing the directive into national law.

The purpose of the number range is to ensure the citizens of the member states, including disabled users, and those travelling in other member states will be able to reach certain services that have a social value by using the same recognisable numbers in all member states. The combination of having the same number for the same service is intended to ensure a specific service, regardless of the member state one is in, will always be associated with a specific number within the community. It was expected that this would provide the services with a pan-European identity to the benefit of the European citizen who would know that the same number dialled would give access to the same type of service in member states. In essence, the purpose of the 116 000 telephone number is to provide a contact number for families if children go missing.

The allocation of specific numbers in the 116 number range in Ireland is managed by the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg. To date ComReg has designated the following numbers: 116111 is assigned to Childline; 116123 is assigned to Samaritans; 116006 was assigned to the crime victims helpline; and 116000 was assigned to missing children. While these numbers have been assigned, the crime victims helpline is, like the missing child hotline, not yet operational.

As of the beginning of 2011, the 116 000 telephone number is active in only 11 of the 27 EU member states. It has been assigned in 13 member states. The process of developing the 116 000 hotline has, to date, involved the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Health, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, the Department of Justice and Equality, the HSE and ComReg. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has in recent months met other Departments and will co-ordinate their activities and ensure the 116 000 hotline is established.

The input of the Garda Síochána is central to the issue of missing children and the force has ultimate responsibility for the investigation of these matters. In recent years the Garda Síochána and the HSE have worked closely on this matter. As the major statutory child care authority in Ireland, the HSE recognises the value of an EU common freefone hotline for missing children. It is of the view that access to a hotline telephone number can be of great assistance to parents when a child goes missing from home, while travelling or on holidays in another European country. It has statutory responsibility for the welfare of all children and a primary responsibility for the welfare of children missing from care. The Garda Síochána and the HSE take every incident of missing children extremely seriously and are committed to ensuring no vulnerable children are exploited or ill-treated as part of its responsibility to provide care for any children in the state who are deemed not to have appropriate or satisfactory care arrangements. This includes separated children seeking asylum.

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs intends to ensure the hotline is established. She will write to her colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, to make arrangements for the progression of this issue. I again thank the Deputy who has been campaigning for the establishment of the hotline for some time. This reply indicates positive news in this regard.

The Dáil adjourned at 6.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 28 June 2011.