I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to bring the Child and Family Agency Bill 2013 before the House. I look forward to engaging with Deputies in a constructive debate as the Bill proceeds through the various stages.
The Bill I am introducing today represents the legislative element of one of the current Government's largest public service reforms. More importantly, however, it represents the most ambitious and comprehensive reform of child protection, early intervention and family support services ever undertaken in Ireland.
The need for change is undeniable. It can be read in the pages of nearly 20 major reports from the past 30 years on child protection failings in Ireland. It can be evidenced in the stark findings of service dysfunction, fragmentation and lack of inter-agency working contained in last year's report of the Independent Child Death Review Group. It can be seen in the structural and systemic deficits and inconsistencies still there in our services, highlighted both in recent HIQA inspections and in last month's pilot phase report of the National Audit of Neglect.
Across many of these reports, the only consistent theme was inconsistency over the decades. We saw how dedicated staff went above and beyond the call of duty, but we also saw how some fell far short. We saw how some geographic regions were excellent in how they operated, but we also saw how some needed huge improvements. We saw how many legislative and financial supports were robustly in place, but we also saw how some were treated as just purely aspirational.
Worst of all, was the revelation of what we did not know as a result of the lack of basic data on children in care, on referrals and on service provision generally. If these revelations of systemic gaps and failures related to industrial production, or electricity supply, they would have been shameful. They did not relate to wiring and machines, however, they related to the safety, protection and well-being of the nation's children.
Understanding this legacy is critical, because doing things differently means proactively identifying failures, naming them and correcting them. We cannot fix what we cannot see. This is at the heart of this Government's change agenda.
We have introduced new Children First national guidance and we have overseen a Children First implementation framework. Only yesterday, I secured Cabinet approval for the publication of sectoral implementation plans for Children First by a number of Departments on their websites. We will now know what each Department is doing to implement the Children First national guidance.
We have introduced the first ever national standards for child protection services and an independent inspection regime under HIQA, which is very important. This standards-led approach is central to fostering a new culture of transparency, accountability and effectiveness. We have recruited more social workers, have led service reforms to improve capacity and consistency, are designing new models for assessment and referral, and are reorganising care services. In addition, we are implementing new models for data management and performance monitoring.
For all of this, however, there is a greater challenge outstanding - it comprises leadership, focus and accountability. We must emancipate our child protection and welfare services from the monolith of the health services, where for too long in the past they were lost and rudderless. We must also break down the barriers between agencies and services. We must have much more seamless integration of policy and service delivery, not fragmentation, and we must do better for children and families.
In 2011, I established a task force chaired by Ms Maureen Lynott to advise me on establishment of the new agency. I wish to thank Ms Lynott and the advisory group for their work. Their report, which was published 12 months ago, spoke of the "once in a generation opportunity to fundamentally reform children's services in Ireland". The Bill I am presenting today seeks to make that opportunity real. It provides the organisational context, leadership focus and accountability within which real improvements in child and family services can be achieved. It will ensure that the change agenda we have initiated is championed, sustained and built upon into the future. Just as the creation of my Department brought child-related policy out of the shadow of the Department of Health into the direct light of ministerial, Cabinet and public scrutiny, so this legislation will once and for all move the services for children and their families into the light of day. Put simply, we are going to move from a position where child and family welfare was barely a priority, to a position where it will be the sole focus of a single dedicated State agency, overseen by a single dedicated Department. In doing so, we are delivering on a key programme for Government commitment and on what has been an absolute priority for me as Minister.
While today marks the start of the legislative process, much work has already been undertaken on the logistical, organisational and financial management aspects of the establishment and transition to the new agency. This has also included the recruitment of a senior management team led by CEO designate, Mr. Gordon Jeyes, and the appointment of Ms Norah Gibbons as first chairperson. I understand they will be shortly appearing before the Joint Committee on Health and Children.
This Bill seeks to facilitate each of the distinct elements that make up the programme for Government's commitment through the creation of an agency which is solely and exclusively dedicated to children and families; has an improved range of services to meet the needs of children and families; and is subject to best practice in the discharge of its accountability to the Government and the Oireachtas. The need for a dedicated agency recognises that the complex operational management and reform of child welfare and protection services has jostled with many other competing objectives within the large and demanding health and personal social service arena.
This Bill provides the mandate to a dedicated agency to lead the improvement of children's services. It will allow for the development of expertise and support for professionals in delivering some of the most complex interventions the State is charged with undertaking. The Bill provides that the Child and Family Agency assume responsibility for a range of services from establishment day. These services include child welfare and protection services, including family support services; existing family support agency responsibilities; existing National Educational Welfare Board responsibilities; pre-school inspection services; domestic, sexual and gender based violence services; and services related to the psychological welfare of children. Cumulatively, this represents the largest and most ambitious public service reform being undertaken by this Government, involving 4,000 staff across three existing agencies and a budget of nearly €600 million.
The children and family services transferring from the HSE include the full range of family support and child welfare services, child protection, foster care, residential care, after care and adoption services. This includes responsibility for over 6,200 children in care and 1,500 young people in receipt of after-care services as well as responding to nearly 40,000 child protection and welfare referrals every year. The incorporation of pre-school inspection services will further promote a nationally consistent approach to regulation, inspection and enforcement - all of which are key elements of my Department's ongoing pre-school quality agenda.
The transfer of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services from the HSE is important in equipping the agency to provide an integrated service to vulnerable families. Support to victims and groups working with those experiencing such violence, including rape crisis centres and refuges, will in future be the responsibility of the Child and Family Agency. The HSE will retain responsibility for sexual assault treatment units, which are located in acute hospitals, and other medical services.
While improving child protection has rightly been an issue of much focus in recent times, and will be a key objective of the new agency, prevention, early intervention and family support are equally, if not more important goals for the agency. The task force recommended that the design of services within the agency must be based upon the needs of children and families, rather than existing professional or organisational boundaries. This is about services for children and families. It said comprehensive, early and multi-disciplinary responses are required to meet the needs of children and families.
Factors such as poverty and deprivation, early-school leaving, mental health and substance misuse are very real for families and can impact significantly on children's well-being. The pilot phase report of the National Audit of Neglect Cases, published recently, highlighted what it referred to as the "harsh reality of neglect".
The audit found that parental alcohol misuse was a factor in 62% of families in the overall sample and states that family dysfunction was often associated with chronic alcohol and drug misuse. Too often, it is the interplay of such trends and risk factors that act to expose children to serious risk. Therefore, it is important that universal, easily accessible services within the community work to promote children's outcomes, including child welfare, and have a clear role to support child development and family functioning while always being vigilant and responsive to child protection issues. This requires strong linkages between universal and targeted or more specialist children's services. Therefore, the new agency will have a strong role in prevention and early intervention and in supporting families and communities.
Much work is under way and at an advanced stage in child and family services on the development of new models of case intake, assessment and referral to include both a greater differentiation between child protection and welfare referrals and a greater focus on early intervention and community-based family support interventions. One of the lessons we have learned, in particular from the child death report, is the need for this differentiation and clear risk assessment to ensure children get the precise services they need. Building on this work, the Bill provides for a much expanded range of services as compared with those currently delivered within HSE child welfare and protection services. In line with the agency's commitment to early intervention and family support, the Bill provides for it providing psychological services to children and families. Such services could, for example, deal with emotional and behavioural problems, attachment difficulties, relationship difficulties or poor parenting. These services relate to any family in the community experiencing such difficulties. In addition, psychological services would form part of the specialist supports available to children who have experienced abuse or who are in the care of the State. These children need these services as much, if not more, as anyone else.
The new agency will build on the excellent work undertaken by the Family Support Agency over the past decade. The nationwide network of 106 family resource centres will play a centrally important role in the new agency and its continuum of community supports. I want to make that very clear because it is an important part of the new agency. The Family Support Agency funds more than 600 voluntary and community organisations in providing counselling services to couples and families. This Bill provides that all of the functions and staff of the Family Support Agency will transfer to the child and family agency on establishment. Inclusion of these services will assist in ensuring the ethos of the child and family agency is based upon partnership with communities. Deputies will see how clearly this is spelled out in the Bill.
Earlier this week, I launched the Family Support Agency commissioned study, Families Living at Risk of Poverty in Ireland. This study found that in those families at risk of poverty, the majority of mothers and fathers had not continued education past lower secondary school level. This is a finding which far too often echoes through research on disadvantage, particularly cyclical deprivation. In addition, many recent reports, including last year's child deaths report and the national audit of neglect cases, have highlighted non-school attendance as a factor of and pointer to more serious child welfare concerns. Against this backdrop, I firmly believe that the inclusion of educational welfare services and school completion in the new child and family agency will lead to a greater collaborative approach in addressing issues of school completion, family support and child welfare. The nexus between school completion, family support and child welfare is critical.
This Bill provides that all the functions and staff of the National Educational Welfare Board will transfer to the child and family agency on establishment. The merger will maintain a strong focus on educational welfare and providing support for schools in addressing educational welfare issues. The transfer of the NEWB will broaden the focus of the agency and its resources and tackle educational welfare as a key outcome for children in its own right and as a positive contributor to other outcomes. It will also assist in building very strong collaborative relationships between the agency and the education sector, in particular schools. I believe it is very important that the agency is a good partner to the schools who have so much contact with children.
I am committed to ensuring the agency's educational welfare responsibilities, as set out in statute, have high visibility within the overall structure and that the close relationships with the education sector are maintained and strengthened. I have agreed with Government colleagues to explore the scope for further extending the child and family agency's responsibilities after it successfully commences operations. In any event, given the breadth of services provided to children, there will be an ongoing requirement for the agency to develop very strong partnerships with key agencies in the education, health, justice, local government and other sectors. Strong multi-agency working to promote children's outcomes is a challenge in all countries, the difficulty of which cannot be underestimated. My Department and the child and family agency will be to the fore in maintaining and improving linkages at operational and policy levels.
I wish to comment on performance, accountability and transparency in relation to the new agency. The programme for Government commits to improving accountability. This reflects concern regarding the transparency and openness of the child welfare and protection services. The reform programme under way in HSE children and family services has already taken important initial steps to addressing this issue and bringing about the necessary cultural shift within these services. This programme is seeking to ensure greater service delivery consistency, role clarity and performance management, stronger partnerships with communities and voluntary agencies, and commitment to learning and openness, including through the review and public reporting of serious incidents. The recent introduction of Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, standards and inspection of child welfare and protection services also supports greater accountability and transparency.
Considerable attention has been paid in the drafting of this Bill to achieving further improvement in accountability. The Bill will ensure there is a dedicated agency responsible for children's services reporting to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. It clarifies that the policy objectives for the agency will be set by the Minister, supported by the Department, and that the agency is responsible to the Minister for its performance. The task force on the child and family agency undertook a comprehensive review of governance models nationally and internationally and devised recommendations to assist in achieving good governance and accountability in the particular context applying to children's services and this agency. We have looked to that report for guidance. The proposed sections of this Bill reflect these recommendations, and a range of specific legislative proposals have been included to introduce a new model of public accountability and responsiveness on the part of the agency. This model includes control of the allocation of funding to the agency through the Vote of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in order that financial allocations are used to underpin Government priorities, performance targets and monitoring; the Minister specifying a multi-annual performance framework for the agency, which will set out key policy, resource and governance considerations, and the Minister issuing a performance statement to the agency each year, outlining for the coming year the priorities, resources and key Government targets applying.
The multi-annual performance framework and the annual performance statement will trigger a structured performance dialogue between the agency and the Department before submission by the agency of its multi-annual corporate plan and annual business plan. In other words, the agency will not set its own performance goals and objectives with the Minister a passive recipient. The Minister will articulate proactively the Government's requirements and enter into dialogue with the agency on how these can be achieved. These and other provisions of the Bill address the objectives identified in the programme for Government and the previous recommendations of the OECD to strengthen agency governance, performance accountability and transparency. They will also bring clarity to the roles, responsibilities and relationships between the Minister, the board and the executive. There has been much criticism in the past of this not being present in other agencies.
I wish to draw attention to the provisions in the Bill related to the best interests and views of the child. These provisions fully meet the wording put before the people last year in the referendum on children's rights and, I am happy to say, go beyond it in important respects. The specific requirements for the agency to perform its functions with regard to the Child Care Act 1991 and the Adoption Act 2010 accord with the provisions set out in the referendum on children's rights. The Bill contains additional requirements that cut across a broader range of functions relating to children and families. The agency will have regard to the best interests of the child in all matters and will ensure consideration is given to the views of children as part of any consultation process.
I am happy that the Bill advances these important principles, which are at the core of how we deal with children and families.
I propose to outline to the House the key provisions of the Bill, which consists of 93 sections contained in 12 Parts and three Schedules. Part 1, consisting of sections 1 to 5, inclusive, provides for standard provisions grounding the legislation. Part 2, consisting of sections 6 to 18, inclusive, provides for the establishment of the Child and Family Agency and certain provisions relating to the furnishing of information and documentation. Part 3, consisting of sections 19 to 27, inclusive, provides for the composition, role and meetings of the board of the agency. Part 4, consisting of sections 28 to 35, inclusive, provides for the appointment, functions and obligations of the chief executive officer of the agency and the delegation of the functions of the CEO to employees and for their sub-delegation to or by other employees. Part 5, consisting of sections 36 to 40, inclusive, provides for the maintenance of proper standards of integrity, conduct and concern for the public interest and relevant codes of conduct.
Part 6, consisting of sections 41 to 53, inclusive, relates to the theme of accountability to which I referred. Section 41 is to provide for the development of a performance framework by the Minister at specific times to inform the agency's corporate planning processes. It will provide the agency with policy guidance, direction and prioritisation parameters. Section 42 obliges the agency to prepare and submit to the Minister for approval a corporate plan which has regard to the performance framework provided by the Minister. Section 44 is to provide for the development of an annual performance statement. Section 46 provides for the submission of a business plan, an issue to which I have alluded. The other sections in this Part relate to financial matters, governance, reporting and the issuing of ministerial directions and guidelines.
Part 7, consisting of sections 53 to 55, inclusive, provides for the appointment of staff, advisers and consultants and matters relating to superannuation. Part 8, consisting of sections 56 to 59, inclusive, provides for the provision of services on behalf of the agency through arrangements with statutory and voluntary bodies. This will effectively guide the relationship the agency has with the voluntary providers it funds and which provide services to children and families. I expect there will be significant scope for greater co-operation and sharing of priorities with these voluntary bodies.
Part 9, consisting of sections 60 to 70, inclusive, provides for a complaints mechanism. Part 10 provides for the dissolution of the Family Support Agency and National Educational Welfare Board on establishment day. Section 72 is to provide for the transfer of specified functions from the Family Support Agency and the functions of the National Educational Welfare Board on establishment day to the Child and Family Agency. The remaining sections in this Part provide for the transfer of staff; the preservation of the terms and conditions of staff on establishment day; the transfer of property; the transfer of rights and liabilities entered into before establishment day pursuant to a contract, agreement or arrangement; the continuation in force of contracts, agreements or arrangements; the transfer of records; and the preparation of final accounts.
Part 11, consisting of sections 82 to 90, inclusive, provides for the transfer of certain staff and functions from the Health Service Executive to the new agency. Section 83 provides for the designation by the Minister for Health, following consultation with the Minister, of staff to transfer to the agency on a day as may be specified by the Minister. It preserves, on that day, the terms and conditions of staff transferring, including tenure of office and remuneration and provides for the reckoning of previous service as service for the purpose of certain specified enactments. The remaining sections of this Part provide for the transfer of rights and liabilities entered into before establishment day pursuant to a contract, agreement or arrangement and the continuance in force of contracts, agreements or arrangements and transfer of records. Part 12, consisting of sections 91 to 93, inclusive, provides for standard miscellaneous legislative provisions.
Schedule 1 sets out the enactments under which functions are to transfer to the agency. Schedule 2 provides for matters related to consequential amendments. Schedule 3 provides for matters related to enactments being repealed.
I thank Deputies who have signalled their support in principle for the new Child and Family Agency and look forward to our debate on the detailed legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.