I propose to take Questions Nos. 8, 11 and 14 together.
In July 2011, I launched the revised Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children. The guidance deals with the recognition, reporting and management of child safety concerns. It emphasises the need to safeguard and protect children and stresses that the safety and welfare of children is everyone's responsibility and children will have safer lives where everyone is attentive to their well being. People who work with children across a range of areas must be clear in understanding their responsibility for safe practice and the reporting of concerns. The guidance sets out specific protocols for HSE social workers, gardaí and other front line staff in dealing with suspected abuse. The scope of Children First extends beyond the reporting of suspected abuse. It emphasises the importance of multidisciplinary, inter-agency working in the management of such concerns. Key to this is the sharing of information between agencies and disciplines in the best interests of children and the need for full co-operation to ensure better outcomes.
There is an acknowledged need for greater consistency in the implementation of the Children First guidance across all sectors and organisations working with children. This was highlighted by the Ryan commission which recommended that Children First should be uniformly and consistently implemented throughout the State.
In recognition of this and following publication of the guidelines, an interdepartmental committee was established to oversee the implementation of Children First across all sectors. The committee is chaired by my Department and a meeting I attended recently included representatives from the various Departments involved in the provision of services to children.
It is important we have this cross-departmental group working so that those involved can ensure in each of their areas of responsibility that the agencies under their remit are carrying out the work envisaged in the child protection handbook and in Children First. For example, the Department with responsibility for sport can work with the Sports Council and with the various clubs, such as the GAA and others, who are doing an excellent job with regard to the implementation of Children First. Arrangements are also in place between the HSE and the Garda Síochána to monitor the implementation of Children First across the two statutory agencies which have specific responsibilities to assess and investigate child protection and welfare concerns.
We have also committed, as a priority, to the introduction of legislation to underpin Children First. I am in the process of developing detailed policy proposals in this regard which I will bring to Government. I expect to do this in the coming months. Consideration will be also given, in conjunction with the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children, to having the heads of the Bill considered at that committee. I look forward to the committee's response to that. It is my intention that the legislation will reflect a broad based approach to compliance, with obligations extending beyond reporting to one of safeguarding children at risk. The objective will be to ensure the greater protection of children by strengthening the existing system for reporting and responding to suspected child abuse.
It must be emphasised in this context that Children First is already well established among those delivering services to children and there are already in place very significant resources to support the implementation of Children First, which was first introduced in 1999. In the case of the HSE and An Garda Síochána, the two statutory agencies with particular responsibilities for the assessment and investigation of child welfare and protection concerns, Children First forms an integral part of their existing operations and practices. I have been very impressed by the training being done by the Garda and within the HSE with regard to the roll-out of Children First. The new child welfare and protection practice handbook has been given to all staff and training has begun. I attended four regional meetings around the country where representatives of An Garda Síochána and the HSE participated and discussed the ongoing implementation of Children First.
We have already discussed here the additional resources being provided to the HSE, including an increase of 200 last year in the number of social workers in the child welfare and protection area. I already mentioned today the additional 60 social workers who will be in place by the end of this year. The recruitment of these additional social workers was included in the Ryan report implementation plan, as was the commitment to place the Children First guidelines on a statutory basis. This additional resource will be of particular assistance to the HSE in driving forward the implementation of Children First.
Since taking up office, I have had discussions right across the country with organisations and staff working in the child protection area and I have signalled the Government's intentions with regard to the safeguarding of children, including the introduction of legislation to underpin Children First. I visited each of the four HSE regions and met with frontline staff, the gardaí and representatives from other sectors and had the opportunity to hear at first hand the views of the key stakeholders. The response with regard to the Government's intentions was very positive and informative. I will continue to consult widely. We will have the opportunity to discuss the legislation in committee and I will work with the other Departments, the relevant professional regulatory bodies and other relevant agencies as the legislation is developed. The legislation will reflect what has been in the guidance over the past ten years. It is not simply about reporting, as happened in other countries, but it is also about working together, sharing information and inter-agency co-operation. This is essential if we intend to support and protect children and families.