I propose to take Questions Nos. 94 and 96 together.
The Children First National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children, which I published in 2011, provides for clarity and guidance for individuals and organisations in identifying and responding appropriately to child abuse and neglect. It also sets out what organisations which care for or work with children should do to ensure they are safe while in the care of such organisations. The Government has committed, as a priority, to the introduction of legislation to underpin the Children First guidelines and the heads of a Bill have been prepared and submitted to the Joint Committee for Health and Children for its consideration. Quite a number of the organisations which work directly with children have given evidence to the committee in recent weeks. I understand the committee plans to hold further hearings. While the draft heads of the Bill have been prepared, they will only be finalised when the committee has concluded its deliberations. A very broad consultation process is taking place across Departments and agencies. Aspects of the details of the draft heads of the Bill may change and I am open to listening to what the committee and the organisations which either have already or will come before it have to say in this regard. As is the case with all legislation and as part of the preparatory process relating to the Bill, we will be carrying out a regulatory impact analysis which will further quantify the potential costs associated with compliance and enforcement. This will be submitted to the Government when I am seeking approval to draft the Bill.
Experience in other countries indicates that guidance for those responsible for reporting and the effective screening of all reports are important in designing an effective filtering system which deploys resources appropriately, based on child protection criteria. In that context, I will be developing guidance for reporting abuse to assist organisations to deal with issues such as definitions, thresholds and appropriate channels for the reporting of abuse. The guidance will require the designated officers and professionals named in the legislation to consider a number of factors in order to determine whether the concern reaches the threshold of a report under the legislation. It is important to state I have been previously been assured by Mr. Gordon Jeyes, the HSE's national director for children and family services, that all referrals, when initially received, are assessed and that the action taken is prioritised by risk.
Huge resources have been put in place in the past ten years in respect of Children First. Massive developments have taken place and the HSE and the Garda Síochána work closely together on this matter. The HSE has provided a great deal of training, information and advice on the implementation of Children First. I pay tribute to the organisations - representatives from many of which I have met - which work directly with children and have taken the Children First guidelines so seriously since their introduction. I refer, for example, to the Irish Sports Council, the GAA, groups representing teachers, etc., have all taken the guidelines on board and examined how they apply to their organisations. I recently attended a meeting held in Croke Park when over 200 volunteers from the GAA came together in order to discuss their work on this matter and how they might develop it in the future. The position in this regard in the context of a range of other voluntary organisations is the same. A great deal of work has been done and much experience has been gained during the period in which the Children First guidelines have been in place.
In addition to the existing structures in place to support Children First, there has been an increase in the number of social workers operating in the child welfare and protection area. The recruitment of these additional social workers was recommended in the Ryan report implementation plan and some 220 were taken on.
I, along with the Government and other parties in this House, gave a commitment over the years to put the Children First guidelines on a statutory basis. It was felt it was important to change the culture of ambivalence which we had regarding the reporting of child abuse, one which was most recently seen when the Cloyne report was published. We decided the important thing to do was to be very clear that if someone was concerned about abuse, it should be reported. That is why we have decided it should be placed on a statutory basis.
This is only one part of a wider reform agenda in this area. We also have a range of other actions such as the setting up a new child and family support agency which will be a key element of the reform of this area.