1. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to improve the regulation and inspection of child care facilities; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [32680/13]
Vol. 809 No. 4
1. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to improve the regulation and inspection of child care facilities; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [32680/13]
I welcome the greater priority focus being afforded to the early years and child care sector, as evidenced by the first two questions today. I have previously stated my commitment and that of the Government to improving quality in preschool services. Improving quality also represents an essential building block toward the extension of universal early years provision.
As previously indicated my Department and I are working on a comprehensive preschool quality agenda addressing actions in eight areas: publishing inspection reports online; strengthening the national inspection system; introducing new protocols on compliance and enforcement; increasing and widening the sanctions which can be taken for non-compliance; increasing the qualification requirements for all staff in preschool services; introducing in September a registration system for all preschool services; implementing the new National Quality Standards, which will impact on the quality of inspection reports; and supporting implementation of the Síolta framework and Aistear curriculum.
In response to the Deputy’s question, I wish to provide a further update on the actions relating to regulation and inspection.
The implementation of National Quality Standards for preschool services will commence later this year. The standards will replace previous guidelines and explanatory notes, which the inspectors currently use, and will set out the quality outcomes and supporting criteria against which the inspections under the preschool regulations will be measured.
A new registration system for preschool services will be introduced, commencing in September of this year. At present, child care providers are only required to notify the Health Service Executive, HSE, at least 28 days before they open. That is an extraordinary situation when one thinks about it. Under the new registration system services wishing to open will be required to register with the HSE and be deemed fully compliant and suitable for purpose before they will be permitted to operate.
The HSE pre-school inspectorate is working to put preschool service inspection reports online. In the first instance I want to inform the House the reports will be available from the Pobal website via a direct link on the HSE website. Background work has been done to ensure that happens. A commitment has been given to place new reports, once completed, online from last Monday, 1 July 2013, therefore any new reports that come into the system will be placed online as soon as they are available. Work is ongoing to ensure that any historic reports will be placed online also but it is important to emphasise that parents can contact providers and ask for reports. The inspectorate has been extremely busy with requests from parents and responding to parents in recent weeks and giving them information on inspections and report, and I would encourage that.
Information not given on the floor of the House
My Department is supporting the inspectorate and Pobal in this work, which will commence in August.
Management reforms are under way within the HSE in advance of the creation of the child and family agency. This includes a programme of work to strengthen the preschool inspectorate to ensure a greater nationwide consistency of practice in line with new National Quality Standards and to address concerns regarding local inconsistencies and fragmentation.
In addition, the HSE is currently reviewing the regional spread of resources including determining whether either additional resources or redeployment of existing inspectors is required. I am engaging with my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, on additional resource implications.
There is a need for greater clarity and consistency of approach as to how inspection reports record serious non-compliance and what happens as a result. For that reason I have directed that a new and different approach will be taken to enforcement, prosecution, closure, and suspension or termination of State funding. New protocols between the Department and the pre-school inspectorate and, as appropriate, with Pobal, will mean a more graduated approach where very serious non-compliance will be singled out from more minor breaches and steps taken, up to and including prosecution and closure, which are proportionate to the breaches.
I have previously stated that there must be a substantial deterrent for non-compliance. I have asked my Department to undertake a review of the penalties currently in place for breach of the pre-school regulations, as provided for under the Child Care Act 1991, so as to increase the range and severity of the existing penalties including the actions which can be taken by inspectors without recourse to court prosecution.
I believe an enhanced focus on regulation and inspection is essential in light of the unacceptable practices witnessed in a number of crèches. The measures which I have outlined will ensure a considerable strengthening of the regulatory and inspection systems.
I welcome the Minister's reply. I reiterate that we were all appalled, shocked and disgusted by the emotional abuse and physical heavy-handedness we all witnessed on the RTE programme. I welcome the Minister's renewed commitment that registrations for new child care facilities will be in place in September.
It is obvious that the inspections of these facilities are inadequate considering that one of the crèches featured in the RTE exposé had passed inspection the previous month. In the committee meeting of 11 June, the Minister committed to a change in the inspections by September 2013.
Will that target be met and are there adequate numbers of public health nurses and inspectors available to carry out inspections? In the previous two years inspections were not carried out in a number of areas as a result of a lack of the necessary personnel. Has the position been rectified and have adequate numbers of the staff required to carry out inspections throughout the country been appointed?
At the committee meeting to which I refer, the Minister gave a commitment to amend the Child Care Act before the summer recess. As she may be aware, I brought forward a Child Care (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill last week. I hope she will consider the Bill which, if enacted, would lead to the imposition of punitive penalties on any child care facility which breaches the current regulations. Given that 48% of child care facilities breached the regulation relating to the adult-child ratio, does the Minister remain of the view that, even though she was advised against it, the decision to increase the adult-child ratio which applies to the ECCE scheme from 1:10 to 1:11 was correct?
In the context of changing the inspection regime, it is clear that what will have the greatest impact will be the implementation of new standards with regard to the inspection of facilities. The new national quality standards will have precisely that impact. Work has been ongoing on those standards for many years. This area has been hugely neglected by previous Governments. We are now focusing on ensuring that national inspections will take place and that there will be national standards which must be adhered to. This matter has been dealt with in a very fragmented and local way. There are inspectors who have been committed to doing the work with which they have been tasked but they have not received the support they require on a national basis. The new national quality standards have been produced and the day care standards have been completed and are available online. We are in the process of completing the standards relating to the approximately 200 childminders throughout the country who are subject to inspection. Work is also being done in respect of after-care and part-time services.
I met the inspectors and they are very keen to implement the national quality standards, which will now provide the guidance that accompanies the regulations. They will focus on a range of areas which are very important. In the past, the focus was much narrower in scope. It must be pointed out, however, that section 5 of the existing regulations, which deals with how children are treated and how their health, welfare and development are supported and encouraged, should have come into play in the context of the examination of various matters. The footage shown on "Prime Time" was disgraceful. I do not want to say much more about that matter because an investigation is currently being carried out by the HSE and the Garda in respect of the material broadcast.
I am aware the Deputy has published legislation but I am not yet in possession of a copy of it. We will be amending the Child Care Act in order to put in place stronger penalties. In the context of regulation, we should take the approach which has been adopted in other areas whereby, depending on the level of the breach involved, a variety of responses can be applied. This is what we are doing in respect of failures to meet the standards. We require a regulatory system which recognises the different levels of breach which can occur.
The Minister initially stated that in recent years she has focused on the improvement of quality. She will recall that a number of weeks ago - prior to any reports on RTE television programmes - I raised the issue of quality in the context of the need to get matters right with regard to the initial free pre-school year before we consider the introduction of a second year. I am ad idem with the Minister in respect of the need ensure that we get matters right in the context of quality. Sometimes when listening to her, however, one would think that nothing was done in the area of child care in the 15 years prior to her appointment. I remind her of the huge investment that was made in order to put in place the physical infrastructure that was needed to ensure that there would be a sufficient number of child care places. I also remind her that a previous government was responsible for introducing the Aistear and Síolta frameworks and the workforce development plan and establishing the county and city child care committees. It is clear that work was done previously. In addition, the Minister alluded to section 5 of the existing regulations. It must be remembered that those regulations were introduced by a previous Administration in order to ensure that the health, welfare and development of children would be catered for in the pre-school sector. At the committee meeting to which I referred earlier, the Minister gave a commitment to amend the Child Care Act prior to the summer recess. Does that commitment stand?
Unfortunately, money was not invested in developing a national inspection system. Neither was it invested in quality measures. Both the Deputy and I have spoken about such measures recently. There is no doubt that money was not invested in a national service or in examining issues relating to quality. That is what we must do now. I accept that some work was done and that the Aistear and Síolta frameworks were introduced. However, there was no investment in the mentoring programme necessary to implement these. In other words, there was no implementation plan and anyone who works in the sector will attest to that. What is important is how we deal with these issues now and going forward.
As I stated in response to questions posed at committee meetings, I want a mentoring programme to be put in place.
The Deputy also inquired about the expansion of the directorate and further recruitment. I am currently involved in discussions with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, in respect of that matter in order to ensure that there will be sufficient numbers of staff available throughout the country. There are gaps in the service and if we want to carry out proper inspections, these must be filled.
2. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps she has taken to address the disturbing lack of management standards and the clear breaches of regulations exposed in the recent RTE "Prime Time" programme which focused on a number of crèches in the greater Dublin area; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [32643/13]
I have previously outlined to the Oireachtas that I found the scenes broadcast on the "Prime Time" programme distressing, shocking, and absolutely unacceptable. There is no question about that. The mistreatment of young children is currently, and rightly, the subject of a thorough and comprehensive investigation by the HSE and Garda.
The owners and managers of child care services, in deciding to offer care services to parents, assume important responsibilities. They are entrusted with the care of the youngest members of society. A primary responsibility of pre-school managers, as set out in the child care regulations, is that they must ensure that a sufficient number of suitable and competent adults are working directly with pre-school children at all times. As well as ensuring that staff receive Garda vetting, management must put in place proper human resource procedures for the recruitment of staff, including the seeking and careful scrutiny of references. The onus is on management to ensure that staff new to a service are supervised and monitored on an ongoing basis.
As advised in response to the previous question, I am working on a comprehensive pre-school quality agenda. This will make a difference to the quality of care provided. As already stated, this agenda includes the introduction of national quality standards which will be implemented later this year. These standards contain a section on organisation and management which includes the following criteria: that all staff should commence induction training in respect of all the policies and procedures of the service during their first week of employment; and that each staff member should receive regular supervision and support regarding all areas of their work. People were stunned by the lack of intervention in the footage broadcast on the "Prime Time" programme and inquired about the absence of supervision and support. Another criterion which will come into play in this regard relates to ensuring that the ongoing training needs of all staff will be identified, addressed and provided for on a regular basis.
It is essential that the owners and managers of child care services have in place proper management structures and procedures to ensure their staff are properly managed and supervised in order to make certain that children attending the service receive the highest quality care. A robust inspection regime provides a system of external verification but this reinforces - rather than replaces - the requirement for providers to have quality at the centre of the services they offer. That is what parents expect and it is what young children should receive.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
In line with my pre-school quality agenda, the pre-school inspection service will develop a clear set of national pre-school standards according to which services will be inspected; ensure that those wishing to operate in this sector will be subject to advance registration based upon an assessment of suitability; ensure the inspection system operates on a nationally consistent basis and is robust and proportionate in response to non-compliance; ensure that inspection reports are published online so that they will accessible to parents and the general public; and advise my Department in its review and updating of sanctions for non-compliance. There are many excellent providers who are motivated by the highest standards of care and professionalism. If there are any who are ambivalent on these matters they should engage themselves elsewhere. The pre-school inspection services will robustly tackle those who are in serious breach of the regulations and will have my fullest support in doing so.
I thank the Minister for her reply. It is appropriate to say that what we witnessed on our television screens in the "Prime Time" programme was absolutely appalling. It represented a dereliction of duty and care, the appalling mistreatment of children and examples of the poorest practice in terms of the conduct and management of care provision. Is there an update on the engagement by Pobal with the three child care providers featured in the "Prime Time" programme? Is there a further indication of the steps being undertaken to address those particular child care providers or those particular multiples, to which some of them clearly belong?
Mr. Gordon Jeyes, the CEO designate of the Child and Family Agency, has commissioned a review and analysis of past inspection reports to identify whether there is a pattern of non-compliance with particular reference to the for-profit chains. Will an interim report be published? When does the Minister expect to have receipt of it? That is hugely important.
I refer to the eight areas of action the Minister indicated at the last meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children at which we addressed this. The first of those was publishing inspection reports online as soon as possible. Has that happened? Can the Minister indicate when comprehensive online access will exist for parents throughout the country whose concerns are real as a result of the exposure of the incidents shown on "Prime Time"?
I can confirm that Pobal is in contact with the particular providers because it provides the compliance for my Department in regard to the early child care and education scheme. Those providers provide the ECCE scheme, so it would be appropriate that Pobal meet the providers and investigate the various issues in regard to compliance which arose. It is in the process of doing that and has completed some of those exchanges. I do not want to say anything which would prejudice, in any way, the investigation being carried out by the HSE and the Garda but that interaction is taking place.
That is important because Pobal has a role in regard to compliance in those services. I would want Pobal to discuss with those providers what I saw on television. I have also asked Pobal to make a link between the work it and the HSE inspectorate are doing, which was not happening in the past but which is very important.
I expect an interim report from Mr. Gordon Jeyes. Obviously, that had to go to tender. He has asked for the report in two parts - a preliminary report and a more substantial report later in the year. It will be a two part process and it should be published. I will arrange for its publication as soon as we have those reports. It is extremely important that we analyse the pattern of compliance in the voluntary and community sector and in the businesses which were under review in the television programme. That has not happened before.
I refer to the Deputy's question about accessing reports online. I repeat there has been a huge amount of contact from parents asking about reports. Parents will be given the details and they can ask providers for a copy of the report without having to go online at all. However, we have made arrangements with Pobal for it to host the online reports. From 1 July, any new reports done will go up as soon as they become available and the providers have had a chance to respond to them. We will also put up any reports done in recent weeks and months.
I thank the Minister for her reply. It is the case that only new reports will go up and it will take a period of time before there is a full complement of reports relevant to the various care facilities throughout the country. In some areas of the country, including in my own area, a situation is not in place for regular and repeat checks. It is clear from the information to hand that some areas of the country are less catered for but that is not to suggest for one moment that care providers in those parts of the country are in any way deleterious in regard to their responsibilities as, in my experience, the contrary is the case. However, I urge the Minister to look at what can be done to ensure that early reports are secured and that they are put up online. This is not just an issue of concern in the greater Dublin area but it is of concern to people throughout the jurisdiction.
One of the points the Minister highlighted at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children engagement was increasing and widening the sanctions which can be imposed for non-compliance. Would she like to comment further on that? I am interested to know if they will be imposed. Increased and wider sanctions are one thing but most people who saw the expose on "Prime Time" want to know that sanctions will be enforced.
In regard to the Deputy's question about access to inspection reports online, I have asked that any recent reports, reports prior to 1 July, which can be put online are put online. I have asked that any other reports, which are ready and are suitable, are put online, although there is a question about, and much background work to be done on, formats and there are legal, insurance issues etc. I expect we will see some of those more recent reports going online shortly.
The Deputy made the point about different parts of the country. The reports will go up online county by county. The Deputy was right that there are gaps in certain areas, which is unacceptable. I am in discussions with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, to ensure we have basic services throughout the country because inspectors from other areas are being asked to go in, on a priority basis, to counties where there is no inspection. That will be dealt with. What was the Deputy's third question?
It was about enforcement of the sanctions.
This is linked to the way the inspection reports are done. We need a very clear statement in those reports as to whether a prosecution is taking place. If a prosecution is deemed necessary, that must be very clearly indicated. We must start to put a range of sanctions in place because there is not a range of sanctions in place currently. There were three prosecutions last year, of which I informed the committee, but we need more clarity in the inspection reports where standards are not being met and we need a greater range of sanctions if there is not compliance. We need to implement them but I believe that will require changes to the legislation.
3. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs with the launch of the new 116000 number, the number of calls that have been received to date; the amount spent on advertising the line; where this advertising has been targeted; the number of countries that have an operational 116000 service; if long-term funding is now in place for the continuance of the service; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [32670/13]
I welcome the launch of the 116000 missing children hotline in Ireland which is being funded by my Department together with the EU. The 116000 missing children hotline is an EU-wide initiative designed to provide a single point of contact across the European Union for missing children and their families. The number is currently operational in 23 EU countries and the number has been allocated and is soon to be operational in a further four countries, including Croatia, the newest EU member state. In Ireland the service is operated by the ISPCC. I thank it for the work it has done on this. We have provided it with funding to establish this hotline.
It is now available 24 hours a day as a support for families in a dreadful position and also for children who are in a position to use it. Funding is provided through the Daphne funding system and the service is overseen by a cross-sectoral project team chaired by my Department. My Department provided €50,000 in 2012 to support the Irish Society for Protection of Cruelty to Children, ISPCC, in establishing the hotline and €88,000 this year. The funding received from both the EU Daphne project and my Department included the establishment costs and national promotion and advertisement of the service. In common with all Exchequer funding, requirements for the operation of the service in future years will be considered in the context of the usual Estimates process. We give very serious funding to the ISPCC in order for it to deliver the range of services it does so effectively.
The missing children hotline has been operating on a limited hours pilot basis in Ireland since December 2012 and on a full-time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week basis since April this year. The service was officially launched on 7 June and as it has been operating only for a very short period, reliable data on calls is not available at this time. Any available data at this point will necessarily include a substantial volume of test calls by groups such as the ISPCC, my own Department and others. We will have robust and more accurate data on calls to the service in the next quarter and after that on a quarterly basis. It is important to see how many children or family members are calling the service, and the ISPCC will provide that data on a quarterly basis.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
A key component of the service is a successful awareness programme. It is vital that those who could benefit from the service know that it exists and that users are aware of the scope of the service. During the initial set-up phase of the service, the ISPCC focused on community-based promotion of the service, and this included presentations to local community groups. Posters, flyers and business cards have been distributed to all Garda stations from Garda headquarters, and promotional material has been distributed to a variety of community-based projects in various locations throughout the country. Furthermore, the ISPCC has made extensive use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter to advertise this service on an ongoing basis. The successful launch of the service on 7 June 2013 also provided the opportunity to further promote the service.
The 116000 missing children hotline website, www.missingchildrenhotline.ie, has also been launched to promote the service. To date, €35,000 has been spent on awareness measures and this amount will be doubled for further awareness measures in the remainder of 2013. It is important to note that the 116000 number is not an emergency number. Emergency calls should always be directed to the 999 or 112 number in the first instance, where the relevant emergency responses, including the recently launched Garda missing children amber alert mechanism, may be activated. The establishment of the 116000 line will, however, be of valuable support and assistance to families of missing children and to missing children themselves.
We all welcome the introduction of the hotline number and many people have sought its introduction for a long time. I particularly mention Mr. Tom Brown, who has campaigned for a long time since his sister went missing.
The Minister indicated that the hotline would be used in 23 countries. There seems to be a problem with Finland. What is happening in that regard? The report of the third annual conference on missing children indicates that for the process to be effective across Europe, all countries must be involved. There are 250,000 children missing throughout the EU member states. I am also concerned about advertising and getting the number out there. What is being targeted in that respect? Are we looking to get the number into airports or perhaps getting it on the RTE news once a month? A lack of public awareness of the 116000 number was mentioned during the conference I attended.
During the initial set-up of the hotline, the ISPCC focused on community-based promotion of the service, holding many presentations for local community groups and producing posters, flyers and business cards for distribution to all Garda stations from headquarters. The Garda has been very co-operative in the development of this hotline and many businesses have also been informed. The ISPCC has used social media, including Facebook and Twitter, to advertise the service on an ongoing basis. When the service was launched there was much promotion, but if any businesses or media outlets want to offer support to the promotion of this hotline, I invite them to do so. It is a very important service. The Deputy mentioned airports and perhaps we could get some support from the airport authorities, so I will raise it with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, and see if we can take the initiative in that regard. We must ensure people are alert to the fact that the missing children hotline number is available and should be used by people if they have information or need support.
I attended the launch of the child helpline in Brussels two weeks ago which brought together data from European countries. It is extraordinary that there have been 58 million calls to European child helplines over ten years from children, with 3 million calls from children regarding violence and abuse, primarily at the hands of family members. These are really disturbing statistics. The top concern in calls made by children was mental health, at 18% of calls, with abuse and violence also at 18%. Peer relationships were the subject of 15% of calls and bullying featured quite strongly also. There is a real need to gather the data from these helplines, although they are not all concerned with missing children; they are the general helplines that children can use in all member states. Children are using them and we must ensure we build bridges between those helplines and national services so we can respond to the concerns that children have. There are new and emerging issues, such as cyber-bullying, which also featured quite strongly in the calls to hotlines. There is much information about concerns of children and we must act on that.
That is the benefit of a hotline number, as the data can tell us what is happening on the ground. A point was made by Ms Delphine Moralis, the secretary general of Missing Children Europe, indicating that the response rate in 15 member states is 1%, but in Italy and Belgium, where the number is best known, the response rates are 6% and 4% respectively. This relates to promotion of the number. We should work with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to promote it on all transport modes, including buses, trains, airports and motorways. Those are the lines along which children would move if on their own or abducted. The Minister did not really answer the question about Finland.
It is surprising that Finland, a very child-centred country which has good services for children, does not operate the hotline. I understand initiatives are being taken to ensure all member states will have the hotline.
This 116000 number is not an emergency contact. If there is an emergency, people should contact 999. It is a support and alert service for children who are in a position to use it. It is worth noting that the Childline service, which is operated by the ISPCC, has a high number of calls in comparison with its European counterparts. One could have another debate on why that is so and the issues that children feel they need to raise.
4. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs when she expects to publish the Children First legislation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [32681/13]
In July I published revised Children First national guidance and my Department initiated work on an implementation framework. That is extremely important because it means all the services coming into contact with children will be alert to Children First. We know from a variety of reports that there is inconsistency in that regard. The revised guidance and implementation framework were designed to address concerns about inconsistent implementation and compliance with Children First since its original publication in 1999, including concerns expressed by the Ombudsman for Children.
Implementation measures progressed to date include the publication and dissemination by the HSE of a child protection and welfare practice handbook, which I launched with Mr. Gordon Jeyes and which is extremely useful for practitioners in the field; training for front-line professionals, including joint training between gardaí and social workers; and the establishment of a Children First implementation interdepartmental group, because different Departments have responsibility for implementing the guidelines. For example, all sports organisations have a job to do in this respect.
On 25 April 2012 I published the draft heads and general scheme of the Children First Bill and immediately referred it to the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children, which published a report in July 2012. As part of the joint committee's consultation process, a number of submissions were received. Overall, it was welcomed that the legislation would increase the focus on child protection, although the contributions in the main came from organisations already implementing Children First. The historic nature of the proposals and their implications for those providing services to children were acknowledged, as was the importance of the precise nature of the duties, responsibilities and sanctions contained in the legislation for successful implementation. The submissions received by the committee were not all in agreement and many points emerging needed to be considered and reconciled.
This involves consideration of policy and operational issues as well the best legal approach to achieving Children First.
I have had a substantive series of meetings and consultations with key stakeholders and experts since then, including other relevant Departments and statutory agencies, to discuss and review this issue. We have also commissioned an academic study on key aspects of the relevant mandatory legislation in place internationally. All these factors are informing the preparation of enhanced policy proposals. It is my intention to submit further proposals in the form of a revised general scheme and heads of Bill to Government as soon as possible with a view to drafting the Children First Bill.
I will remind the Minister of what she said on 25 May 2011:
It is a matter of particular concern to me that, despite a commitment by the previous Minister in July 2009, no draft legislation had been prepared to put the Children First Guidelines on a statutory footing. This will be a key priority for me as Minister. I am pleased to say that substantial work has been done to progress this in the past weeks. I will be outlining further details of these proposals very shortly.
On 15 July 2011, she said, "Earlier this week I sought and received Government approval to bring forward legislation to require, for the first time, statutory compliance with Children First". The Government's legislative programme listed it for publication before Easter this year. That is going back two years. Does the Minister accept that in the absence of this legislation, children are being left in vulnerable situations? When can she give a definitive timeframe as to when this crucial piece of legislation will come before this House? We are supportive of her with regard to this and all her reforms yet she is failing to meet target after target, which she and nobody else set.
The Deputy should recognise the substantial work being carried out in respect of developing the Children First legislation. We want to make sure we have robust and substantial legislation. There is a range of issues I have outlined to the Deputy. I gave him a detailed response with regard to the range of issues that arose. I made the decision after I made some of those comments with reference to the relevant committee. The Deputy knows there was a 600-page report from the committee. The substantial issues in that report must be addressed and a range of work has been done.
What is very important is how the Children First guidelines are being implemented. Clearly, if somebody believes a child is at risk of abuse, that situation should be reported under the Children First guidelines and the practice handbook that has been published, to which I have already referred. If anybody knows that a child is at risk, that should be reported.
We have made a decision to bring in Children First legislation. Unlike previous promises made in respect of Children First, I have done the work and brought the memorandums to Government. A second memorandum is about to go to Government. I have brought in the experts to examine this issue and this Government has given a commitment to bring in the legislation.
The Minister has a dedicated Department. In the two and a half years since that Department has been in existence, no legislation, apart from a technical Bill relating to an amendment to the Child Care Act, has come before this House. I am not putting any targets on the Minister. These are her own targets, not mine or anybody else's, and she has failed to deliver on them. I agree we have Children First guidelines but the Minister, Members on all sides of the House and I acknowledge the need to put them on a statutory footing. Once again, the Minister is unable to give a definitive timeframe as to when this will come before the House. I have said before and will say again that we are here to help and facilitate the passage of this legislation in any way we can just as we supported the passage of the children's referendum and the Minister's reform agenda on the child and family support agency. However, she is at the helm, it is her Department and we want to know when we can expect to see this legislation before the House.
Let me remind the Deputy that his own party promised for 12 years to put a children's referendum before the people. That involved a considerable amount of preparation and legislation. Let me remind him that a new agency is being created, a huge amount of work has been done on that and legislation will be in the House very shortly. Let me remind him that his party promised many years ago to deliver on Children First. That will be delivered under this Government. We have already done substantial work, as I outlined to the Deputy today. I want to make sure this legislation deals with the issues raised in the committee.
Will the Minister answer the question?
I am answering the question. Those are extremely complex issues relating to reporting of concerns for organisations and individuals. There will be criminal sanctions. I have had very good consultations with stakeholders concerning the development of this legislation and very substantial heads of the Bill will be going to Government shortly. It will be worked on over the summer period and I will review progress later in the year.
5. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in view of the 2012 annual report of the Ombudsman for Children, the current capacity, work and accommodation conditions at Trinity House, Oberstown boys and Oberstown girls schools; the implementation of the new working roster and the implications of same for staff and for children; the date on which the investigation by Victor McElfatrick will be published; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [32644/13]
I wish to update the House on the significant and ground-breaking programme of work being implemented by this Government in the area of child detention. I am sure the Deputy will acknowledge that we are the first Government to have ended the detention of 16 year olds in St. Patrick's Institution. In addition, we have provided capital funding of €50 million for the development of the national child detention facilities at Oberstown. Other Governments have talked for decades about ending this practice but capital was never allocated. We have allocated the capital to ensure that Oberstown will be built. Regulations were signed last year by the Minister for Justice and Equality and me to extend the remit of the Ombudsman for Children to include St. Patrick's Institution. We have established a dedicated multidisciplinary assessment and therapeutic care team for children in detention and special care. Yesterday, we became the first Government to move to close St. Patrick's Institution.
In respect of the Deputy's question about the development of the national child detention facilities at Oberstown, this project is required in order to give effect to the programme for Government commitment to end the practice of detaining children in adult prison facilities. My officials have, in conjunction with the Office of Public Works, completed the design process and secured planning permission for the capital development. This will result in an increase in the overall detention capacity on the campus from 52 places at present to 90 places in total, along with associated education, visiting and other facilities. The required capacity to enable the assignment of responsibility for all children under the age of 18 years to the Oberstown campus is to be delivered in the first phase of the project by mid-2014.
There is legal provision under the Children Act 2001 for 24 male bed spaces in Trinity House School, eight female bed spaces in Oberstown Girls School and 20 male bed spaces in Oberstown Boys School. However, only 16 of the certified 24 male bed spaces in Trinity House School are currently available for use due to staffing issues. The Irish Youth Justice Service, which is based in my Department, is currently in discussions with management and staff on the Oberstown campus on an initiative to reorganise the detention capacity for male and female bed places in order to meet the increased demand for male bed places from the courts. There has been a 70% increase in referrals. This is being progressed so as to achieve its earliest possible commencement.
The first ever campus-wide roster with a set of harmonised conditions for hours worked was implemented on 25 February 2013 following protracted negotiation and agreement between staff and management at the Labour Relations Commission. I recognise the co-operation of staff. There is a number of outstanding issues which are the subject of ongoing consideration in conjunction with implementation of the campus-wide roster. There is an ongoing industrial relations process on the campus as well as discussion with respect to the Haddington Road agreement and the implications it will have-----
-----for the delivery of these services, which I want to see.
We are over time on the question.
I very much welcome the news of the impending closure of St Patrick's Institution. I heard an interview earlier today with the Ombudsman for Children. Will the Minister advise us whether an interim situation exists for the transfer from St. Patrick's Institution to Wheatfield Prison? Is an arrangement in place pending availability of the required accommodation and supports in terms of staffing and resources at Oberstown?
From inquiries I made after the recent comments of Mr. Justice Ryan, I was very concerned about the situation for boys and girls at Oberstown and Trinity House. Mr. Justice Ryan was unable to send offenders there because they were not in a position to take additional numbers. Nevertheless, and the Minister has confirmed this, there is bed capacity there. We need a full explanation as to why these beds are not in use and available. I am told insufficient staff cover the services there and this is from people very close to the service. They work under extreme stress and pressure. One must conclude this is clearly serving neither staff nor children. As a result - I know this is not something the Minister or I would want to be associated with in any shape or form - the State is failing in its responsibility to provide for children in these situations and failing in its duty of care.
Thank you Deputy.
Mr. Justice Ryan's remarks are hugely important and we must take them very seriously. In the context of Victor McElfatrick's report what steps will the Minister take and how quickly will we see the full complement of beds in use at Oberstown and for how long does she expect the Wheatfield interim arrangement to last?
The Minister for Justice and Equality has announced the closure of St. Patrick's Institution. Discussions will be held and it is intended to move to Wheatfield Prison. As far as 17 year olds on remand are concerned, interim arrangements will have to be made. Clearly some 17 year olds who have been sentenced cannot transfer to Wheatfield Prison. It is intended to have discussions between the Department, the Department of Justice and Equality and Oberstown to see what facilities can be made available for 17 year olds. The Deputy has rightly pointed out we must ensure the extra six beds are made available to the courts. I view this issue with the utmost seriousness, which is why the gentleman to whom the Deputy referred was asked to compile a report and work with the staff there. His report has been presented to the board, which is actively engaged on this issue, as is the Irish Youth Justice Service, in terms of coming to a resolution.
As the Deputy is aware, protracted negotiations took place over a very long period to arrive at a point where we have a joint approach between the three facilities to the work being done and with regard to the young people so there can be movement between the three services. Historically, people worked in just one of the services and did not move between the three.
A roster working across the three services was agreed and began in February 2013. I commend the staff on this. There are ongoing industrial relations issues with regard to releasing the extra beds which are being dealt with and they will have to be resolved. I want these issues to be resolved as quickly as possible-----
-----so we can meet our obligations to these young people and to the courts.
There is quite a lot of movement of young people in and out of the service and beds become available on a regular basis but the number of referrals from the courts has increased. The average number of 16 year olds in St. Patrick's detention centre was ten but in recent weeks 17 have been referred there by the courts.
Thank you Minister. I call Deputy Ó Caoláin.
It is important we analyse why more 16 year olds are being referred and what are the underlying factors. We must consider supervision orders and Garda diversion programmes. What is happening is that a greater number of 16 year olds are being referred to the service.
Go raibh maith agat. One minute per-----
It is critical that we make these beds available as soon as possible
It is one minute for a supplementary question.
Every effort is being made to ensure this happens.
I thank the Minister for her reply. Has Mr. McElfatrick reported yet? Has the Minister seen the report? Will it be published? My inquiries suggest the reason the beds were not available to be used was not because an insufficient number of staff is allocated but that there are real issues as a consequence of sick leave, stress leave and assault leave. It is certainly inadequately staffed, but this is exacerbated by the fact it has been insufficient historically. With an increasing number of referrals there just is not the compliment of staff necessary to cope. Does the Minister have any idea of the number of the full complement of staff at the Oberstown network who are on sick leave, stress leave and assault leave? We do not want to see this. One can understand people being off sick but stress is not acceptable. It would be a stressful employment. We want to avoid assault situations arising.
Thank you Deputy.
Where the situation is already stretched, underresourced or underprovided for these matters will continue to arise. It needs to be addressed holistically in the round so we get to a situation where the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
I call the Minister for a final reply. She has one minute.
The report was received by the board in May and it is acting on it and working with the staff to ensure the issues highlighted are dealt with. I have also obtained agreement on extra funding for staffing when the new facility comes on board. I will also put in place regulations to ensure we can use the beds allocated for young girls. This will involve a reorganising of staffing and services on the campus but I am confident with the co-operation of the staff we can get to use these beds in the very near future. I thank the staff who have co-operated in getting this roster available. I now want to ensure we can open the extra beds.
Traditionally there has been a high level of sick leave on the campus. Looking after young people in detention is stressful and difficult work and staff need to be supported. I am confident with the staffing numbers we have at present that we will be in a position to open the extra facilities.