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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 30 Apr 2014

Vol. 839 No. 1

Children First Bill 2014: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The aim of the Children First Bill 2014 is to improve the care and protection of children by raising awareness of child abuse and neglect. The Bill represents a national change and a quantum shift in child protection. The Bill moves the issue from one where ignorance was bliss - except for suffering children - to a position where ignorance is no longer tolerated. It moves the issue from one of good intentions to one of concrete obligations. It moves the issue from vagueness to precision and it moves from a culture of "should report" to one of "must report".

This is a child-centred Bill which delivers on a key programme for Government commitment. Children First, the National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children, were first published in 1999. For 12 years they operated as the overarching national guidelines for individuals and agencies that come into contact with children. In 2011, following a national review of the guidelines, I launched the revised Children First: National Guidance. The decision to place Children First on a statutory basis is a commitment in the programme for Government and arose from a recommendation in the 2009 Ryan report implementation plan.

The Children First Bill 2014 will, for the first time, provide for key elements of the Children First guidance to be put on a statutory basis. I want to make it clear that the Bill will operate side by side with the existing non-statutory obligations provided for in Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children. I also want to make it clear that the Bill forms part of a suite of legislation which should be considered together, including the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 and the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012.

The Bill has three key elements. The first element obliges certain professionals and others working with children to report child protection concerns to the Child and Family Agency and to assist the agency in the assessment of a child protection risk, if requested to do so. I can state with a confidence based on the best thinking, nationally and internationally, that the Bill strikes the right balance - the right balance between a high quality reporting system by mandated persons on the one hand, while not overwhelming the system with the over-reporting that has happened in other countries. This balance I suggest is central to making Ireland a safer place for children.

The second key element of this Bill obliges providers of services to children to undertake an assessment of any potential for risk of harm to a child while that child is availing of their services and to prepare an appropriate child safeguarding statement in accordance with the Bill. The third element provides statutory underpinning for the Children First inter-departmental implementation group which will promote and oversee cross-sectoral implementation and compliance with Children First. This group, which includes a representative of each Government Department, will be required to keep the implementation of this legislation under review and to report on an annual basis to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. This will ensure a continued focus on the implementation and compliance task until best practice becomes the absolute norm. That is the objective - to move from the horrors of where we were 20 years ago to a situation where - let me repeat it - best practice is the absolute norm.

On the whole, this Bill represents an important addition to the child welfare and protection measures already in place and will help to ensure that child protection concerns are brought to the attention of the Child and Family Agency without delay.

This Bill reflects the outcome of significant consultations over the past two years, including hearings on the previous heads of Bill conducted by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. The Bill I am bringing forward has benefited considerably from the report of the joint committee's hearings and significant changes have been made to the earlier heads of Bill.

I now turn to the provisions of the Bill. Sections 1 to 4, inclusive, provide for the Short Title and commencement, definitions - there are very important definitions in regard to abuse, neglect and harm to children which are spelled out very clearly - regulations and expenses. Section 5 provides that the Minister may issue and publish guidelines for the purpose of providing practical guidance in respect of the protection and welfare of children and any such guidelines in force at the time of commencement of this section shall be deemed to be guidelines issued by the Minister under the Act. Section 6 provides that the Child and Family Agency shall, in performing a function under the Act, regard the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration. It is absolutely appropriate that in legislation like this, the best interest of the child should be considered the paramount consideration.

Section 7 provides for definitions of "contract of employment", "personal relationship" and "provider" in Part 2 of the Bill. Section 8 provides that Part 2 of the Bill, regarding child safeguarding statements, is not applicable to an individual who undertakes any work or activity in the course of a family relationship where the work or activity is undertaken solely for the benefit of his or her child or a family member or where the work or activity is undertaken in the course of a personal relationship or where assistance is given on an occasional basis for no consideration. This is a practical arrangement given that many of the requirements of the child safeguarding statement have to do with the recruitment, selection, vetting and training of staff and the procedures in place for the reporting of harm by staff and the listing of mandated reporters.

Section 9 provides that a provider of relevant services is to ensure that, as far as practicable, a child, while availing of its services, is kept safe from harm. "Relevant services" includes work or activities mainly involving access to or contact with children. "Harm" in regard to a child means "to assault, ill-treat, neglect or sexually abuse the child and may be caused by a single act, omission or circumstance or a series or combination of acts, omissions or circumstances or otherwise".

Section 10 provides that where a person proposes to operate as a provider of relevant services, he or she shall, within three months of the commencement of the service, carry out a risk assessment and prepare a child safeguarding statement. A person operating as a provider of relevant services immediately prior to the commencement of the Act shall carry out a risk assessment and prepare a child safeguarding statement not later than three months from the date of commencement of the Act.

The section provides that a child safeguarding statement shall include a written assessment of risk, including an outline of the procedures in place to manage any risk identified and an outline of the procedures in respect of an employee who is the subject of investigation in respect of any act or omission with regard to a child. The section also provides that a child safeguarding statement shall include an outline of procedures in place for reducing any identified risk, including procedures for the recruitment of staff, for the provision of information, instruction and training in regard to the identification of harm and for the reporting to the Child and Family Agency by an employee or by the provider. The child safeguarding statement shall also include a list of persons in the relevant service who are mandated persons.

Section 10 also provides that a child safeguarding statement is to be made available to members of staff, to parents or guardians, to the Child and Family Agency and to members of the public and the child safeguarding statement or a review of the statement is to be displayed in a prominent place related to the relevant service. The section also provides that the Minister may make regulations in regard to child safeguarding statements.

Section 11 provides that certain professionals and other persons in specified occupations, as listed in Schedule 2 to the Bill, are mandated persons for the purposes of the Act. The persons who have been identified as mandated persons are those whose professional education, training, expertise, or the nature of their specific role in certain organisations prepares them to be aware of the risks to children and their responsibilities.

This section sets out the circumstances whereby a mandated person is required to make a report to the Child and Family Agency. The section provides that where a mandated person knows, believes or has reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is being harmed, has been harmed or is at risk of being harmed, he or she shall, as soon as practicable, report that belief or suspicion to the Child and Family Agency. Where a child makes a disclosure to a mandated person that he or she believes that he or she is being harmed, has been harmed or is at risk of being harmed, that mandated person shall, as soon as practicable, report that disclosure to the Child and Family Agency. Mandated persons will not be required to assess the veracity or credibility of such disclosures. Obviously, they will make a professional judgment.

A mandated person shall not be required to make a report to the Child and Family Agency where a young person aged 15 years or more, but less than 17 years, is engaged in sexual activity with a person who is not more than two years older than the young person and where the mandated person knows or believes that there is no material difference in capacity or maturity between the two parties, where the child has made known his or her view that a report should not be made to the Child and Family Agency and where the mandated person relied upon that view. This section does not apply where the child has made a disclosure of harm to a mandated person. Also, a mandated person is not required to make a report where the sole basis for his or her knowledge, belief or suspicion of harm is as a result of becoming aware that another mandated person has made a report to the Child and Family Agency in respect of the child concerned.

A mandated person is only required to make a report if he or she becomes aware of the information after the commencement of this section, irrespective of whether the harm occurred before or after the commencement of the section. However, the Children First National Guidance will continue to apply in parallel to the legislation and under the guidance all reasonable concerns regarding harm to a child should be reported to the agency.

The report is to be made to the agency on a mandated report form. It can be made by one mandated person or jointly with one or more mandated persons.

A report may be made other than on the mandated report form where a mandated person has reasonable grounds to suspect that a child may be at risk of immediate harm. However, the mandated person must, within three days, provide a report to the Child and Family Agency on a mandated report form. The Minister may make regulations regarding the procedures for the making of reports to the Child and Family Agency.

The section also provides that reporting obligations under the section are in addition to and not in substitution for any other obligations that the mandated person has to disclose information to the Child and Family Agency. This does not give rise to a requirement to make more than one report, other than where there is considered to be a risk of immediate harm. The section also provides that any other obligation a person has to disclose information to An Garda Síochána under the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 or to any other person or under any other enactment or rule of law is not affected by the provisions in the section.

Section 12 provides that the chief executive officer of the Child and Family Agency shall authorise a member or members of staff for the purpose of receiving reports made by a mandated person. The section also provides that an authorised person shall be deemed to be a designated officer within the meaning of the Protections for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act 1998 for the purposes of that Act.

Section 13 provides that a mandated person may be requested to assist the Child and Family Agency and to give such information and assistance to the agency as is reasonably required by the agency and the section also provides that a mandated person shall comply with such a request. Assistance to the agency by a mandated person includes the provision of verbal or written reports, attendance at meetings arranged by the agency and the production to the agency of any document. That is very helpful in terms of assessment and inter-agency co-operation.

The section also provides that the Child and Family Agency may share information concerning a child who is the subject of a report with a mandated person who is assisting the agency but the sharing of that information shall be only as considered by the agency to be necessary and proportionate in the circumstances of the case. The section provides that, for the purposes of carrying out its functions under this Part, the Child and Family Agency shall have the same powers as it has under the Child Care Act 1991 or under any other enactment in respect of children who are not receiving adequate care and protection.

Section 14 provides that information shared during the course of an assessment shall not be disclosed to a third party and it is an offence if the person does that. Section 15, which is a very important section, provides that the Child and Family Agency is a specified body for the purposes of the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012, which has implications for employment.

Section 16 provides that section 9(4) of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 is amended to include a reference to the Children First Act 2014 to provide for the views of the child to be taken into account by the Child and Family Agency in performing its functions under the Children First Act. Section 17 provides for the establishment of the Children First interdepartmental implementation group to perform functions assigned to it under the Bill. Section 18 spells out the membership of the implementation group.

Section 19 provides that the functions of the implementation group are to ensure compliance with the legislation, that various Departments support the intention of the legislation, that there is a consistent approach and that reports to the Minister are made when requested on how the Act is being implemented. This is a very important power to evaluate and monitor the implementation of the Act. The Minister may give a direction to the interdepartmental group asking it to comply with a policy of the Government as specified in the direction. The terms and conditions for appointment of membership are also spelled out, as are the details relating to the conduct of meetings and the provision of an annual report in sections 21, 22 and 23.

Section 24 is very important from the point of view of cross-departmental work in that it provides that each Minister of State shall publish a sectoral implementation plan concerning relevant services provided by the Department concerned and concerning relevant services provided by a body that is in receipt of funds from the Department. It is clear that there are implications for funding if it is found that organisations are not compliant with the legislation. The relevant Minister shall cause copies of his or her plan to be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas as soon as may be after the preparation of the plan. That is very important as well in terms of monitoring and evaluating precisely what is being done by each Department.

I emphasise that the Bill forms part of a suite of child protection legislation, including the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 and the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012. By revising the heads of the Children First Bill in July 2013, my Department was able to take cognisance of the provisions of both of those pieces of legislation which were enacted in 2012 to ensure that all three interact in a complementary manner. The previous heads of Bill provided that a mandated person who, without reasonable excuse, did not report a concern of harm was guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a class A fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months and, in addition, that person was to be reported to his or her relevant regulatory body. Although there was not a consensus on the issue, the Oireachtas joint committee in its report did express concerns that criminal sanctions could result in over-reporting, thereby potentially delaying the prioritisation of higher risk reports and placing the child welfare and protection system under undue pressure. Consideration of international comparisons also suggested that this is an area where a careful balance must be struck. There are diverse approaches to who is mandated, what they are mandated for, and what kinds of sanctions apply.

Finally, having regard to the other legal constitutional considerations, it was clear that there was a need for a reasonable and proportionate approach. While it is envisaged that persons mandated to report will meet their statutory obligations without the necessity to impose criminal sanctions for non-reporting, there are criminal sanctions for withholding information from the Garda under the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012. In addition, there are a range of other potential penalties including passing of information to the national vetting bureau where following an inquiry a view is taken that a mandated person put a child at risk by not making a report to the agency under the Act; a complaint to the professional body, including regulatory bodies fitness to practice committees, for any regulated professional; and a report to an employer and resultant disciplinary measures.

The Bill will operate side by side with the Children First guidance which will continue as the basis for all citizens to report concerns. The guidance is being revised to provide clarity and to ensure consistency between the proposed legislation and the existing non-statutory obligations which will continue to operate administratively for all sectors of society. Departments have already developed sectoral implementation plans to drive implementation across the relevant sectors and the work has been proceeding well. Through the existing group, the Child and Family Agency has been working with the individual sectors to assist them in developing an information and training needs assessment process. This work and the provision of information and training have been ongoing in many sectors recently in anticipation of the legislation. I pay tribute to the many diverse organisations which have provided training for their members and volunteers. There will be, just as there has always been, a requirement for information and training across sectors. This will now be managed strategically by all sectors in the context of existing departmental sectoral plans with the advice and co-operation of the Child and Family Agency, which has already put a lot of work into training and support.

I wish to make one final point, namely, that we must never, ever - even with the best legislation and radically improved systems - think of child protection as something that happens "over there" and is dealt with only by mandated persons or experts. Each and every one of us has a responsibility to safeguard children - to cherish more than our own sons and daughters. That will never go away, and should never go away. The Child and Family Agency is there to offer support to anyone with child protection concerns on how to deal with those concerns. I commend the Bill to the House and I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies.

Having consistently called for the Children First Bill to be published and introduced in this House over the past two years, I obviously welcome the fact that we are where we are this evening, that the Bill has been published and we have an opportunity to debate it. I welcome elements of the Bill in so far as it goes. However, that welcome is strongly tempered by disappointment and concern that the new Children First Bill does not include any sanctions for those who refuse to report child protection issues.

On assuming office, the Minister, together with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice and Equality, promised that Children First was their number one priority but it has taken three years to bring forward what Emer O'Kelly rightly described in the Sunday Independent two weeks ago as "a toothless Bill".

Before turning to the Bill, it is important once again to deal with the repeated efforts of the Minister to give the impression that children's rights were not taken as seriously before she and the Government took office three years ago. No one can deny that the country had a less than admirable record regarding child protection and welfare during the 20th century. However, attitudes have changed immensely over the past 20 years. The Child Care Bill 1991, enacted by Dr. Rory O'Hanlon, introduced considerable changes in respect of children in care and improving the child care policy previously regulated by the Children Act 1908. The then Minister pointed out how political and administrative structures had changed, how new values and attitudes had evolved and that there was more sensitive understanding of the psychology and needs of children. In particular, he cited how there was a greater awareness of the rights of a child as an individual member of society.

Attitudes to children have changed considerably over generations. There was an old saying that children should be seen and not heard but even when I was growing up, that was regarded as an old saying. A clear focus on children and child-related issues has accelerated in this century and members of the public and previous governments have come to focus on children and child-related issues. This change in focus has been incremental and substantial and not only in recent years as the Minister would have us believe.

In 2000, the then Government published the first national children's strategy while, in 2002, legislation was enacted to establish the Office of the Ombudsman for Children to provide an independent mechanism to vindicate the rights of children. The establishment of such an office was in recognition of the need for an independent person to act as a powerful advocate for children and promote the welfare and rights of the child. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Office of Ombudsman for Children and Ms Emily Logan's appointment. I congratulate her and her staff on their immense contribution over the past ten years.

In 2006, the Government appointed the first independent Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon. This was also an important development and I welcome that the original appointee was reappointed by the Minister. In 2005, the Minister of State with responsibility for children was given a place at Cabinet and, in 2008, the previous Government also established the first Office of the Minister of State for Children and Youth Affairs. Obviously this was not a full Department but it put in place the infrastructure for such a Department under the current Government and we welcome the fact that the Minister for children is a full Minister now.

Much of the preparatory work for the referendum on children's rights was done by the previous Government and a cross-party Oireachtas committee on which the Minister and Deputy Ó Caoláin served. I have previously complimented the Minister on ensuring a referendum was put to the country and the result was a significant achievement, which ensures the rights of children are enshrined in our Constitution. However, she jeopardised the campaign by other actions and almost 18 months after its passage, the practical implementation of the result remains stalled.

I have provided brief background details to demonstrate that reforms and a change in attitude were not confined to the past two years. This incremental and substantial process has been ongoing for the past decade and needs to continue for many years. Let us consider where we are now and the reforms being brought forward by this Minister. I want to be constructive but I am struggling to find something positive to say about this latest legislative initiative, which confirms a pattern of action under the Minister's tenure. She seems to over promise and under deliver; great on rhetoric but poor on delivery. The recent published Aftercare Bill is restrictive and discriminates against the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. The legislation to establish the Child and Family Agency omitted two of the critical services recommended by the task force the Minister established to advise her. Despite the "Prime Time" exposé, "Breach of Trust", relating to child care settings, inspectors have still to be appointed in some regions. The Minister amended the period within which inspections must be carried out. Previously, they had to be carried out annually but this was extended to triennially recently and we ware still waiting on the new standards to be published almost 12 months on.

I am not surprised that the latest initiative from the Department is yet another U-turn on a solemn commitment made by the Minister and her Government colleagues. To his credit, the Minister for Justice and Equality has carried through on what he promised and he has introduced the legislation that will enhance child protection, the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 and National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012, although we are still awaiting the commencement order for the latter.

I have consistently called for the legislation to be published over the past two years and I welcome the fact that we are debating it now. The Minister will say others promised it as well but, for her part, she promised it on a number of occasions. Sadly, the lack of sanctions in the Bill represents a watering down of the robust legislation that was promised. It is hard to believe that this is the best legislation the Minister could come up with three years on from her describing the legislation as her top priority. The rhetoric of her reforming agenda lies in tatters with this inadequate legislation. It was described by Emer O'Kelly in the article to which I referred as follows:

We have been saying 'never again' for a very long time. And this ridiculous watered-down Bill doesn't even say that. It is merely a blanket to attempt to muffle the sounds of weeping, anguished children. Shame on us; and shame on our Government for our and their indifferent hearts and empty words.

This Bill is supposed to end a culture of turning a blind eye to child abuse and other child protection issues. While professionals working with children will be legally obliged to report concerns, there will be no legal penalties if they do not. The legislation, therefore, lacks teeth.

This is a major U-turn by the Government. The heads of the Bill, when published two years ago, included robust sanctions for failure to comply with the Children First legislation. The guide to the heads of the Bill stated:

Head 20 provides for offences under the Bill and for the liabilities attaching. A person is guilty of an offence if he or she is required to report concerns or allegations of abuse under the proposed Bill to the HSE and fails to do so. A person guilty of an offence will be liable, on summary conviction, to a class A fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or both, or on conviction on indictment, to a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years or both.

This is absent from the legislation, which is disappointing. Following two years of protracted delays and with no meaningful explanation, we appear to have ended up with a watered down version of the original Bill. There will also be no sanctions against organisations that fail to have child safety statements in place.

Children have waited too long for these guidelines to be put into law. There is no point in the Minister patting herself on the back claiming that she is finally doing something that was first promised 15 years ago if she will not back it up. There is no room for tokenism or half-hearted efforts. We need a bold step that ensures people are forced to speak up when children are vulnerable to abuse or neglect. Surely what has led to the introduction of this legislation is what is described in the Ryan report as the lack of consistent and uniform implementation of the Children First guidelines. Will this legislation remedy this fundamental fault in our child protection system? Together with many of the NGOs working at the coal face, I am concerned about the absence of sanctions for those who fail to comply with the provisions in this Bill.

This is not just partisan political posturing; there is widespread concern among many organisations and stakeholders about what is not in the Bill. Following the Bill's publication, the Saving Childhood Group, comprising Barnardos, CARI, the Children's Rights Alliance, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Empowering People in Care, EPIC, the ISPCC and One in Four, issued a statement welcoming the Bill but also highlighting concerns. They drew attention to the fact that no sanctions are in place for those who fail to comply with the requirements set out in the Bill. They also pointed out the list of mandated professionals should include those working in organisations focused on child protection, welfare and rights services They went on to mention there is no reference in the Bill to retrospective allegations. The Saving Childhood Group also drew attention to the fact that the level of resources required to ensure all stakeholders, in particular parents, are informed and can act in an informed way is not outlined.

The CEO of the ISPCC highlighted his concern that the list of mandated professionals does not cover national organisations whose main purpose is working with children and families. He stated: "while so many organisations and services are doing great work and already adhering to best practice, many large service providers including my own organisation, the ISPCC are not explicitly mandated to comply with the protocols set out in the Children First Bill." He also rightly pointed out that it is imperative all organisations providing services to children, whether statutory or non-statutory, are obliged to take a consistent approach to ensure the best possible responses for children.

The CEO of One in Four emphasised the sanctions issue, making a compelling case that such a long-awaited Bill, which seeks to provide for the reporting of child protection concerns and to ensure statutory and non-State funded bodies are legally obliged to follow protocols in reporting any concerns regarding the safety and welfare of a child, does not include clear sanctions for failure to comply and without this it is hard to see how a completely consistent approach from all will result.

I do not believe the Bill can be described as providing for mandatory reporting, as promised by the Minister and her colleagues. This is because a key ingredient of a mandatory reporting system is a requirement to report child abuse on a reasonable suspicion and on threat of a penalty or sanction. I am struggling to understand the Government's U-turn on this, given the provisions of head 20 of the draft Bill published more than two years ago. This provided for a term of imprisonment of up to five years and would have represented a strong deterrent to those who fail to be vigilant with regard to child protection. Head 20 also envisaged the imposition of a significant monetary penalty. The Minister seemed to suggest this was international practice and cited New South Wales as an example.

I have examined the provisions of other common law jurisdictions with regard to failure to follow child protection guidelines. In Canada, which is often referred to as the most progressive jurisdiction for child protection legislation, the fine which can be imposed ranges from $2,000 to $50,000. Most Canadian provinces impose a prison term of six months, with a term of two years in Ontario. Prior to 2008, Ontario did not impose a prison sentence but is now doing so. The evidence, with the exception of New Zealand, seems to suggest a penalty is the most effective way of ensuring compliance with child protection. Another example is Florida in the United States, which introduced a similar penalty to that proposed in the original heads. Some states, such as California, provide for greater penalties for second offenders.

This legislation is about safety of children. Let us consider other safety legislation. The crucial difference between this legislation and health and safety legislation is the fact that health and safety legislation imposes prohibitive penalties. Why do organisations which fail to provide a health and safety statement face penalties while organisations which fail to provide child safety statements do not? What signal does this send out? What does it say about our commitment to child protection?

My greatest fear was confirmed by the Minister's statement at a recent Oireachtas committee meeting that she did not wish to overburden the system. As with so many of her decisions, quality legislation is being sacrificed in the interest of securing savings, a far cry from "never again" in the aftermath of the reports published in recent times. We should not be limited in how we respond to child protection concerns by questions of administration.

At an Oireachtas committee meeting before Easter, the Minister spoke of a suite of legislation already in place, but the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act deals with a much higher threshold. It caters for people who deliberately and recklessly conceal information, not those who might have suspicions of abuse or neglect and fail to report them. The Minister also publicly stated this issue was dealt with by professional bodies under misconduct procedures. This is simply not the case as no professional body can impose a penalty in excess of that provided for by law.

My concern is the real reason the Minister does not wish to overburden the system is a resource issue. Let us face it: the Bill does not only need the power of sanction to be effective, it also needs resources. I am concerned that no additional resources are being provided to implement the measures in the Bill. The introduction of reporting of allegations of child abuse must be backed up with adequate resources to handle all cases of suspected abuse. There cannot be a properly functioning child protection structure in the State if our system cannot handle allegations that are reported to the authorities. It is crucial that the Child and Family Agency is sufficiently resourced to assist parents and professionals understand and support the implementation of the law. This concern is shared outside the House. Tanya Ward of the Children's Rights Alliance pointed out the legislation would be more robust if greater resources were made available. The fact is we will fail vulnerable children throughout the county if we allow this legislation to pass into law without a robust regime to back it up. Mandatory reporting can only achieve its objective of protecting vulnerable children if there are enough trained workers to handle suspected abuse cases.

When mandatory reporting was introduced in the Australian state of New South Wales, there was a sixfold increase in the number of reports made. We cannot end up in a situation whereby additional reports clog up an already overburdened social work system, leaving vulnerable children at risk. The Minister must outline what additional resources she plans to deliver to ensure that every single allegation is thoroughly investigated and that every single suspected victim gets the care he or she needs. She must also commit to HIQA inspections to ensure full compliance.

There is much in the Bill which I endorse, such as the best interests of the child being the paramount consideration. No one can disagree with the requirement of all organisations providing services to children to have a child safeguarding statement which details policy and procedures on child protection. The Children First interdepartmental group to promote compliance and monitor implementation by a variety of Departments is welcome, as is the obligation on the authorised person in the Child and Family Agency to respond in writing to all reports made.

I reiterate that provisions without enforcement are meaningless and note that under the proposed Bill, specific individuals have a legal duty to report child protection concerns to the Child and Family Agency. However, what happens if they fail to so do? Nothing. Does the Minister agree that all children, regardless of their early education or child care setting, should have the same protection provided by this legislation?

The Bill includes early years services as defined by the Child Care Act 1991 and includes any work or activity which consists of the provision of care or the supervision of children. Schedule 2 includes both providers and the staff members in preschool services as defined by the Child Care Act 1991. However, for as long as most childminders remain outside the scope of the aforementioned Act, the Children First Bill cannot be applied to them. This is problematic, as children in home-based child care, that is with childminders, should receive the same protection as those in centre-based child care. Childminders may care for children for long hours, often all day, in the childminder's home, typically with little supervision or support. There are major child protection concerns regarding the lack of regulation and the absence of requirements for Garda vetting or child protection training for most childminders. At the same time, as individuals who have close and frequent contact with young children and their families and who play a large and active role in children's daily lives, childminders are well placed to identify concerns in respect of children's welfare at home. To ensure all children have the same level of protection, regardless of the child care setting, would the Minister consider amending the list of mandated persons in Schedule 2 in order that it explicitly includes paid childminders who are not relatives?

I will bring forward amendments to try to improve and strengthen the legislation and hope the Minister will consider them positively. Chief among them will be the reintroduction of meaningful sanctions for those who fail to comply. Moreover, the Minister is on notice that unless she accepts sanctions, she and her Government colleagues will be obliged to vote against penalising those who fail to comply. When this law was first envisaged, it was designed as a line in the sand - that is, something that would end a culture of turning a blind eye to child abuse and other child protection issues. The Minister has stated that she would undo the neglect of previous years and Administrations with this Bill but she has under-delivered. I acknowledge that she has been meeting the NGOs and various interested parties, from some of which I quoted earlier. Hopefully she will listen to them and will use Committee and Report Stages of the Bill to provide what was promised. I certainly will provide her with the opportunity to so do.

I welcome both the publication of this important and long-awaited legislation and the opportunity to address it. The topic of the mandatory reporting of knowledge or suspicions of the harm or abuse of children has been an issue in Ireland since the early 1990s. It was first recommended by the Law Reform Commission in 1990 and later by the Kilkenny incest inquiry in 1993, slightly more than 20 years ago. In 1999, the Department of Health introduced the Children First guidelines, which aimed to help in identifying and reporting child abuse and to improve professional practice in State and voluntary agencies that support children and their families. The duty to report abuse was identified as a societal one that is owed by all who work with children, including members of the Garda, HSE personnel, public agencies, voluntary and community organisations and individuals. However, the guidelines did not place a statutory duty on these people - on all of us - to report suspicions of abuse or harm. I emphasise the latter point, which is that it is the duty of all.

The implementation and operation of Children First were reviewed several times during the years after its introduction, most recently by the Office of the Minister for Health and Children in 2008. The revised guidelines published in 2011 took into account a number of recommendations in the Ryan report. One of those recommendations was that Children First should be placed on a statutory basis. This is something I fully supported at the time and have urged on the Minister. Moreover, I have supported her in her efforts to bring it about in the period since then. The Bill before Members sets out to make further and better provision for the protection of children and places the Children First guidelines on a statutory footing. As the Minister indicated in her opening remarks, it is part of a child protection framework that includes the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 and the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012. It will require certain persons or service providers to carry out specific functions including the making of reports to the Child and Family Agency in respect of children in certain circumstances and assisting the Child and Family Agency in certain circumstances. It also will require them to carry out risk assessments regarding potential harm to children and to prepare child safeguarding statements. Provisions of the Bill also establish the Children First interdepartmental implementation group and provide for the preparation of sectoral implementation plans by Departments.

As for the distinct provisions of the Bill, I note that a number of stakeholders particularly welcomed aspects thereof, including the statement of the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration, the requirement for all organisations providing services to children to have a child safeguarding statement that outlines policy and procedures with regard to child protection, the establishment of a Children First interdepartmental implementation group on a legislative basis, the purpose of which will be to promote compliance and monitor implementation by various Departments, and the requirement for the authorised person within the Child and Family Agency to respond in writing to all reports made. At this juncture, I also wish to record my welcome of the inclusion of these measures.

Part 3 of the Bill deals with reporting and sets out in detail who is obliged to make a report and in what circumstances. There are a number of distinct elements making up the obligation to report and each must be present for the obligation to exist. I note the list of mandated persons and the degree to which there has been comment that the definition of mandated persons is not sufficiently wide to cover those working in organisations focused on child protection, welfare, rights or services. Some concern exists that already has been alluded to, not least that stated by the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, ISPCC, to the effect that the list of mandated professionals does not cover national organisations working with children and families as their main purpose. While so many organisations and services are doing great work and already are adhering to best practice, many large service providers, including the ISPCC itself, are not explicitly mandated to comply with the protocols set out in the Children First Bill. It is my personal view that it is imperative that all organisations providing services to children, whether statutory or non-statutory, be required to take a consistent approach to ensure the best possible responses for children. The only way to ensure such consistency is for the same requirements to apply across the board. I urge the Minister to consider extending that list to include those organisations and service providers to which I have referred.

I note that the specific definitions used in the Bill differ significantly from those in the Children First guidelines of 2011 and the general scheme of the Bill from 2012. There is potential that this may lead to confusion about what type of harm or abuse should be reported. I urge absolute clarity in this regard.

On a separate point, I welcome the provision in section 11(3) which clarifies the situation discussed in detail during the joint committee debate on the heads of the Bill regarding the distinction between consensual sexual activity and abuse. Many of my committee colleagues and I expressed concerns about lack of clarity as to when peer sexual activity between teenagers is or is not consensual in the eyes of the law. There was general but not unanimous support for the view that the Bill should not require reporting of consensual peer sexual activity between teenagers, as that could inhibit recourse to sexual health and advice services that seek to reduce teen pregnancies and underage sexual activity and to promote sexual health.

I note that it is not an offence under the Bill to fail to report suspicions of harm to children and there are no sanctions for failing to do so. This is in direct contrast to the heads of the Bill. During our deliberations on the heads of the Bill in the Joint Committee on Health and Children, only a minority of contributors were of the view that criminal sanctions were not appropriate. That is my recollection. I understand that there are differing opinions in relation to sanctions, with many arguing that the threat of sanctions may lead to a complete bombardment of false reports on an already under-pressure system. Indeed, it has been brought to my attention that evidence of the effectiveness of criminalisation in other countries is unconvincing at best, and the reversal of the legislation in New South Wales provides some testimony to this. In addition, a number of European countries have also relied on civil, rather than criminal, sanctions for failure to report. I remain unconvinced, however, and I will take further opinion from my own team before considering Committee Stage amendments. Regardless of how we seek to address this on Committee Stage, it is my strongly held opinion that the current service is simply inadequately staffed. This is an important point. I know that the Minister and many of her colleagues are discomfited by references to resourcing, but I believe it is critical to have this addressed, and urgently, particularly given the number of children without an allocated social worker, which remains a problem, the level of reporting and the worsening nature of the issue of child abuse, neglect and maltreatment. It continues to present and heaven only knows the extent of what is not showing.

Health Service Executive data shows a trend of increased reporting of concerns about child welfare and protection, with a 36% rise in reports between 2007 and 2011, amounting to 31,626 reports in 2011. Indeed, the HSE has acknowledged the existing pressure on the system. I refer to the 2011 review of the adequacy of child and family services:

As for many other areas in the public sector at this time, the budget allocation does not reflect this increased demand and the reality is that the resource base will be under significant pressure in the years to come.

The challenge facing the new Child and Family Agency is further evidenced through research on child protection data by Helen Buckley, associate professor of social work at Trinity College, which shows that the situation is worsening. In a stark statement she said:

[O]n the basis of available intelligence, we know that in Ireland we have growing numbers of children who are neglected and emotionally harmed, and a lesser but significant number of children who are seriously maltreated.

These statements re-emphasise the point that adequate resources to give practical effect to this legislation are essential; otherwise, while we are not wasting our time, we are certainly not reaching the goals that we have set ourselves, and, sadly, children will continue to suffer. Without any hesitation I assure the Minister she will have all our support in her efforts to have her Department and the services provided by the Child and Family Agency better resourced in the future. This is essential.

I do not intend to use all my speaking time I will conclude my remarks by raising some additional points of concern which may require address on Committee Stage. I ask the Minister to take note of some of my remarks when she makes her concluding contribution on Second Stage and to offer some clarification.

The first point of concern is inter-agency co-operation. I ask the Minister what assurances can she give that the Child and Family Agency can depend on the level of co-operation that will be forthcoming from the health, justice, education and social protection services in order that the Children First Act can function effectively.

I refer to a recent reply to a parliamentary question in which the Minister addressed the issue of the nature and detail of the memorandums of agreement between the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and other agencies. The Minister's response raised as many questions as it answered. This is an area that will require further clarity. I ask the Minister to avail of the opportunity at the close of Second Stage.

Second, the issue of training is of concern. Research indicates that child protection training at basic and post-qualifying levels is essential for professionals working with children. Irish research indicates that not only is child protection training almost wholly inadequate at foundation level but it is also deficient at post-qualification level. The absence of training prevents the development of a culture of responsibility for child protection in an agency and leaves staff lacking confidence and unsure of the correct steps to take. The business of identifying and addressing child protection concerns is not straightforward and practitioners need a strong base of knowledge and information before they are competent to respond. Recent cutbacks have resulted in training being curtailed in many children's services and this is likely to have a serious impact on the positive aspects of the proposed legislation. This issue needs concerted and urgent attention.

My colleague, Deputy Troy, referred in his contribution to the fact that the Saving Childhood group has raised some concerns about the Bill, including some of those already outlined in my contribution. Like me, the group has concerns that there is no reference in the Bill to retrospective allegations and the fact that there is no outline of the level of resources required to ensure that all stakeholders, particularly parents, are informed of the new requirements and can then act in an informed way. The publication of this Bill is a welcome development. I will be happy to work to ensure its safe and timely passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas. The concerns I have outlined are raised with the intention - as also raised by non-governmental agencies - of making the resulting Act as robust and as fit for purpose as possible. I view the Bill as a joint piece of work.

I look forward to its implementation and hope that over time it will demonstrate its real value, because this is important work.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Bille seo. I will give it my wholehearted support through the various Stages and endeavour, in conjunction with the Minister, to ensure any amendments that will make a worthwhile contribution during its passage will be presented for consideration.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this new legislation. While I warmly welcome and support the Bill, I find it difficult to participate in a discussion on legislation to put children first when the Government and Minister are doing nothing to support an excellent child care service in my constituency. Without the Minister's help and support in finding €100,000 in funding in the coming weeks, the Jigsaw centre in Darndale will be forced to close down. I raised this issue recently with the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, in the absence of the Minister. The Darndale and Belcamp integrated child care service is an excellent facility. Two weeks ago, I had the honour of being brought around the centre by board member Barbara Quinlan and the centre's manager, Kelda Barnes. I was immediately impressed by the top-class and high-quality care provided and the professionalism and commitment shown by its staff to 260 children from the local community. It is important that the Minister, her officials and Deputies hear directly from me about the valuable work done by the service.

The Darndale and Belcamp integrated child care service was opened in 2001. It was initially planned to cater for a maximum of 150 children from birth to 12 years. The facility consists of playrooms, a kitchen, a dining area and sleeping rooms. Over the years, the centre has evolved into the largest crèche in the country and currently caters daily for 260 children, 90% of whom are from the immediate area, namely, Darndale, Belcamp and Moatview. The local area is recognised as disadvantaged and includes a large Traveller community. One sixth of the children attending the service are young Travellers and the centre employs one core staff member and eight community employment participants from the travelling community. Some 100 people are directly involved in the project.

I am hopping mad about the sad news we have heard about the centre. Last Thursday, representatives of the service met representatives of Tusla. They explained the constraints applying to the funds provided by FÁS, which are purely for wages for FÁS participants and training and material costs. Funds allocated from the early childhood care and education free preschool year programme, ECCE, and community child care subvention programme, CCS, are based purely on child numbers and the status of parents. Tusla is the only funder which has discretion to allocate funding based on the needs and predicaments of children. The facility caters for the real needs of the community, as Tusla is fully aware. While the organisation fully supports the work being carried out in the centre, its bottom line is that it does not have sufficient funding to financially support the centre and is unable to prevent its imminent closure.

I urge the Minister to put children first in this project. She must immediately consider this urgent case and link up with the centre. Its closure would have serious consequences in an already disadvantaged community.

The Deputy is straying from the subject matter of the Bill.

Let us put some flesh on this debate. There is a serious disconnect between debates on legislation and people on the ground. Children are suffering and people need a few bob. At a time when some of those who wrecked the country have no problem obtaining money, and others such as consultants are paid very large sums, we cannot find €100,000 for a project that caters for 260 of the most disadvantaged children in the country. I demand that the Government provide support for the children in question.

The Bill will require certain mandated persons to make reports to the Child and Family Agency of harm to children and require certain persons to assist the agency with assessments. It will also require certain service providers to carry out risk assessments in respect of potential harm to children and prepare safeguarding statements. These are welcome developments. We need to get on with the job and introduce legislation to protect children in all walks of life.

Since its introduction in a number of US states in the 1960s, the concept of mandatory reporting has evolved, with the categories of persons who are obliged to report expanding from health care professionals to other professionals and in some cases including all citizens. The types of reports of abuse have also been expanded to include sexual abuse, emotional or psychological abuse and neglect. Some jurisdictions have moved from a requirement to show serious harm towards a requirement to show more general harm, including potential abuse. There are significant variations in many of the jurisdictions with regard to who is bound to report and what types of abuse must be reported.

A consistent criticism of mandatory reporting is that it generates such an increase in reporting that it can threaten to overwhelm those who assess the reports and places pressure on often under-resourced services. While we all understand that services are under-resourced, children must be given the maximum priority. For this reason, I welcome this legislation.

The number of reports involving concerns about child welfare and protection increased by 36% to 31,626 between 2007 and 2011. Numerous factors contributed to the increase, including the growing population of children and the economic downturn. It is acknowledged that more children are placed at risk when economic conditions are poor. Moreover, awareness and concern about child welfare have increased among members of the public, partly due to the findings of various inquiries into child abuse - a positive development in that sense - and related systemic failures. The Children First guidelines and related educational efforts have also been successful in alerting professionals to recognise and report concerns for children.

I commend those working on the front line who have been involved in cases of child abuse. As the Minister is well aware, these are very difficult circumstances to deal with and frequently involve threats. I am aware of many cases in which threats of violence were made against people who tried to assist children living in dysfunctional families.

Another issue that is constantly ignored in the broader debate is the abuse of children and young adults with an intellectual disability. The silence on this issue is deafening. As someone who advocates for the rights of people with disabilities, I find it frightening to realise that many of their stories have never been told. The many stories that have been told have made a major contribution to creating a more enlightened culture and opened minds to supporting children at risk. However, many cases did not reach the top table, specifically those involving children with intellectual disabilities, whose voices are often not heard. Moreover, some of these people do not have the capacity to report about their cases. It is important that the Minister keeps her eye on the ball on that particular issue.

Debate adjourned.