Children First Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the contents of the Bill, which since it was first devised more than ten years ago has always been based clearly on the best interests of children. I commend the Government on finally publishing the Bill. That said, while this is not a direct criticism, it is deeply ironic that the Government would make such a commitment to averting harm to children while at the same time pursuing policies which have resulted in more than 220,000 children – almost one in five – living in poverty. It is also a time when we have one of the highest percentages in the EU of young people not in education, training or employment.

Funding for youth services has been dramatically cut by an average of 30% in the past five years. The Bill is not about youth work, however; it is about child protection, and in that context I have serious concerns about the lack of additional resources to support the professionals to develop good child protection policies and to raise awareness of the issue. More pressing, however, is the fact that front-line social services do not have the manpower at present to cope. If the State is going to compel professionals to report cases in which a child is being harmed or is at risk of harm, as they should, then we must ensure the resources are available to deal with every single referral promptly and efficiently. The current lack of resources is just as dangerous to children as the risk of a professional not reporting a particular case.

The success of the legislation will be measured according to its ability or failure to respond to reports of abuse before situations reach what one might call a crisis point. Success will also be based on the agency’s effectiveness in acting the moment a concern is reported to prevent ongoing significant harm or abuse from occurring. That is where my concern lies. Last July, I raised serious concerns in the House about social worker numbers during Leaders’ Questions. I was assured by the Tánaiste that the Government was addressing the issue. However, I understand that at present more than 170 social work posts with the Child and Family Agency are still vacant. I find that inexplicable. Perhaps the Minister would explain why that is still the case. I acknowledge that following the Ryan report the Government sanctioned a recruitment campaign for more than 200 new social workers. I welcomed that. However, the non-replacement of staff on maternity leave and retirement means there are fewer social workers employed than when the report issued six years ago. The situation must be examined and an explanation given for why that is the case. There are also major shortages of social care workers and family support workers. When one meets people in agencies dealing with child support, they are at pains to say that is the case. Staff shortages are completely undermining the State's statutory obligation to protect children and threatening to thwart the effectiveness of the legislation.

I have always acknowledged the compassion of the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, and how well she has performed as Minister. I have no hesitation in saying that. I say that to people who criticise the Government when they ask if there are Ministers doing a good job. There are people working well in the Government, and I have always acknowledged that the Minister is one of them.

Caseloads for existing social workers remain large and serious cases are not being assessed quickly enough. In Waterford, the social work service remains a Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. operation, which is simply shocking. I could go through particular cases but I will not do so as I would not have the time. However, I have spoken about them in Waterford and I have met social workers and families. Members of the Garda are not trained or qualified to handle such situations but they are expected to handle crisis situations at night and weekends. I know of gardaí who might take a child who has overdosed on alcohol or drugs to an accident and emergency unit and who will stay with them. If it is the weekend and they need follow-up care there is no one to call. Garda time and resources are taken up dealing with such cases and liaising with distraught parents. A system which fails to respond to cries for help out of hours, regardless of the well-intentioned legislation, will continue to put children's well-being and lives at risk.

A report by the Ombudsman for Children into front-line services between 2005 and 2010 cited one case in which it took four months to organise a home visit for a 16-year old girl, despite concerns that she was being subjected to "savage sexual abuse". The same report noted that many vulnerable youngsters were left without an allocated social worker, despite the urgency being flagged by up to 30 different State agencies. I know of the case to which the Ombudsman for Children referred. What happened was appalling. I acknowledge that the legislation would not have changed the awful circumstances involved, but it was not the issue of reporting that destroyed these young lives; it was the failure of the State to respond properly to the reports of abuse.

The State also failed by not providing for co-ordinated intervention in cases such as that.

However, I am informed that more than 80 cases of suspected child abuse or neglect are reported every day to social services and there is a current shortfall of more than 170 social workers in the new Child and Family Agency. Can the Government promise that these cases will not happen again? I understand and accept that everything cannot be perfect within the system and that people fall through every system, however caring, compassionate and legislatively-based it might be, and one cannot shout and blame the Government or the Minister all the time for that. However, she needs to re-examine staffing levels in the context of this crucial issue if 80 cases are being reported daily. I do not know whether all these cases are legitimate, but based on the number of people working in the social services, the staff must be overburdened. The complexity means that dealing with a case of alleged abuse of a child takes hundred of hours. The Minister and I both know this from speaking to social workers. They are overburdened and when the front-line service providers say they do not have sufficient trained staff, we need to examine that.

I do not know the position in other parts of the country, but it is difficult to contact a social worker after 5 p.m. on a Friday in my area. While drugs misuse and over-intoxication by youths can happen seven days a week, statistics highlight that such incidents are most likely to happen at weekends. This is when social workers need to be available to deal with the harrowing cases that can present.

It is difficult to see how the Government parties in conscience can bring forward this legislation without first taking three actions. They would not be costly but they are important. First, they need to publish the review they promised into social work caseloads, led by the HSE and including staff input. This review should have been prioritised on the establishment of the new Child and Family Agency. The Minister said she would do all in her power to make sure this was done. The review would be interesting not so much for the public but for the people working in the system in order that they could analyse how the system works. I often meet social workers who have a difficult job, particularly when dealing with children. They spend their time focused on the children or people they are engaged with at the time and they find it difficult then to analyse what is happening in their area or around the country. This review would help in this regard.

Second, will the Government sanction an immediate review of the current referral rate to social workers nationwide? I am informed by front-line workers that such data sit on their desks and, therefore, this should not be a lengthy process. This would be valuable for those working on the front line. It would allay unwarranted criticism of the Minister and her Department if all the documents and reports were put on the table. I accept it is difficult for a Minister to come in and solve everything within three years, and it would be unfair to criticise her on that basis. However, we need to go back over the past few years to analyse how cases were dealt with, what reports issued and whether recommendations were implemented. That would help the Department to deal with future cases.

Third, I refer again to statistics relating to weekends. It would be unfair to the legislation, which I support, the Minister and social workers if we cannot deal with the tragedies that happen every weekend. I am not sure how everything works in Dublin, Cork or elsewhere, but one cannot contact a social worker in Waterford at the weekend. Private social workers are now advertising. It is sad that a family in desperation would have to ring somebody for advice knowing they could get it from the HSE but staff are not available to offer that support.

The reports done by Departments before the Minister came into office should be published and analysed to ascertain whether they have been adopted and what has been taken from them. I spoke to a social worker who is in a prominent position within the Department last night. She said: "That is a fact, John. There are 60 to 80 cases a day coming into us. We are really overburdened. We are really under pressure here." She is a decent woman and a good person. She also poignantly said that what is harrowing for social workers is if they miss something. If it is their fault, that is bad enough, but if they miss something and they know a few additional hours or a little more information or an additional staff member here and there could have meant saving a child from mental or physical abuse or sexual abuse, that is difficult for them. When they go home, they worry about the effort they have made. It is difficult enough for Members in their advice centres when people present them with harrowing cases, but one can imagine the difficulties for a social worker.

I recall meeting a social worker who had just taken up the job. She was a good young girl and she had to deal with a harrowing case of an 11 year old girl who was being abused by her father. She found out in subsequent meetings that a four year old daughter was being abused as well. That was distressing for her. All this happened over a weekend, with the mother finding out about the abuse for the first time. The young daughter was deeply distressed and the only people the mother could go to were gardaí. She said they had nobody to ring and they had to go to the accident and emergency department in Waterford Regional Hospital to talk to nurses, doctors and gardaí. However, nobody was available to comfort the child or the mother who had to deal with this harrowing case. I am sure there are many similar cases.

The Minister takes advice from anyone who gives it to her if it is reasonable. I support the Bill and I acknowledge where she is coming from with it but I ask her to take into consideration the issues I have raised regarding an analysis of reports and regarding service provision at weekends, which are a critical time for young children. It is a bad enough time for adults who might have overdosed but one can imagine the difficulty of dealing with a seven year old, 12 year old or 14 year old who may be part of a family that is under pressure psychologically and cannot give succour, help or mental support to the child when he or she most needs it.

I will support the Bill and I hope the Minister takes on board some of the points some of us have made.

I rise to speak is the Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. I pay tribute to the Minister for her stewardship of the Department and for the publication of the Bill. To be generous to the Minister, Deputy Halligan made an understatement because, as he stated, the Minister listens and takes advice. One of the first things she did as Minister was to refer the Children First Bill to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children for pre-legislative scrutiny and it was one of the first pieces of legislation we dealt with. In my hand I have the tome of our hearings which we presented to the Minister.

My remarks today will be about the pre-legislative hearings and what the committee has done. I would also like to discuss my observations and points on the Bill, and in particular address some of the issues.

The purpose of the Children First Bill is to put children first. It puts Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children on a statutory basis, which is a key commitment in the programme for Government. In April 2012 the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, referred the heads of the Bill to the committee, which over two months undertook extensive consultation and engaged with many key stakeholders through written submissions and public hearings. In the report we laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas one can see the various groups from education, child care and the professions which came before the committee. There was an extensive range of communication.

A total of 58 submissions, including oral submissions, were received from State agencies, voluntary organisations, professional bodies and members of the public. As I have done previously I thank everybody who made a contribution to our work and took time to write or participate in public hearings. Between 1 May and 30 June 2012 the committee met eight times to hear, during its public consultative process, submissions and oral presentations from stakeholders on the heads of the Bill. We met 47 witnesses from 29 groups and it is important to state the work of the committee provides a platform for Members of the House and outside groups, agencies and professionals to assist and participate. I contrast this with what happened in the past in Departments when writing a Bill moved from a civil servant in one Department or section to another and back. Now it is done publicly in a visual and participative manner which involves and gives ownership to many people. The overview of contributions assisted the Minister and the Department in the consultative process.

It is worth recounting the background to the Bill and to highlight how long it has taken to put in place a statutory basis for the protection of children. It is important we acknowledge that in the first half of her term in government the Minister has acted to do this. In many cases rhetoric is easy and we can all use language to promulgate, advocate, deny or procrastinate, but the Minister acted. I heard Deputy Troy speak yesterday, and while I do not mean to be political his party had an opportunity during its time in government which was not acted upon. In stating this, in 1999 the Department of Health and Children introduced the Children First guidelines for the protection and welfare of children. As we all know well, these were produced to assist the identification and reporting of child abuse and to improve professional practice in State and voluntary agencies which support children and families, as Deputy Halligan rightly mentioned in his remarks, with regard to out of hours services in particular.

The Children First guidelines identify the duty to report abuse as a societal duty owed not only by social and medical workers but by all who work with children, including An Garda Síochána, HSE personnel, those working in public agencies, voluntary and community organisations and all of us as individual citizens. All of us have a duty and a role to play and we should never forget this. It is also important to outline that the guidelines provide guidance on identifying physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect and on when and how to report an issue, and on the procedures for assessing and managing cases. They also set out the role of agencies such as the Garda Síochána, the HSE and school and medical professional personnel, and provide for participation at local and regional level through the creation of child protection committees. The guidelines also outline procedures for co-operation between the HSE and the Garda, which are the two agencies with statutory responsibility for child protection. The guidelines also stress the importance of family support services as a means of mitigating risks to children.

The implementation and operation of the Children First guidelines were reviewed several times during the years after their introduction, including by the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in 2008. This resulted in a number of revisions to the guidelines which were published in 2011. Among other matters, the revisions took account of the recommendations of the Ryan report of the commission to inquire into child abuse. We all remember when it was published and the need for action as a consequence. One of the recommendations arising from this was that the Children First guidelines would be placed on a statutory footing. The main objective of Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children is to establish a firm foundation from which practitioners can develop uniformity and consistency in the application of these national guidelines throughout the State, something we all want to continue to see happening. We welcome the fact it is happening.

It was clear from the committee's hearings that we would need to foster a culture of understanding and compliance. The creation of an office at Cabinet level of a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has helped no end. It has given the Minister an authenticity which perhaps Ministers of State with responsibility for children may not have had. I do not want to be derogatory about previous Ministers of State, who did quite well in the position they had, but the Minister sits at the Cabinet table which gives her an opportunity to be seen as equal to her Cabinet colleagues, which is important.

The Children First Bill is about aligning the law with what is right. It is about bringing an end to any remaining attitudes which may choose to ignore child abuse and neglect. It can no longer be an option to put child protection to one side. We must put child protection as a priority and compliance with Children First must be mandatory and cannot be voluntary. For the Children First legislation to be effective the committee embarked on open dialogue with the groups which will work with the legislation on a daily basis. The process undertaken by the committee gave key stakeholders an opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way to the formulation of the legislation. The people who participated did so in an holistic way and were not afraid to make comments. They did not hold back in their remarks and comments on the heads of the Bill, which I will discuss later.

As part of the process we held a series of public hearings with advocacy and representative groups from Departments and voluntary organisations working in sports and youth activities. We also met key personnel in child protection, child law, children and family services and education.

Providing these groups with the opportunity to contribute enabled their practical day-to-day experience to inform the legislative process. As I alluded to earlier, this is something that has been done to a significant extent in this Dáil.

The committee system is benefiting from legislation coming to it for pre-legislative scrutiny, albeit not in an adversarial fashion. I pay tribute to people such as Deputy McLellan, who is in the Chamber, Deputies Ó Caoláin, Kelleher and Troy and Senator van Turnhout, as well as members of Fine Gael and the Labour Party who go into the committee and give of their time to parse and go through legislation and engage with people for the betterment of society, as well as to make the legislation more complex and comprehensive than it may have been on its arrival. Were people to read the full transcript of the hearings, they would discern that there was genuine participation in respect of the outlining of the stakeholders' views, as well as those of the joint committee members and that the child was at the centre of those discussions. It is in the interests of all in society and of all children and parents that Children First legislation is practical and effective. Moreover, it must deliver a reformed child protection regime. As part of the debate taking place this week, the Minister should take on some of the views expressed by all Members in the House.

One must protect children by making sure that their concerns are acted upon and not ignored. I speak as a schoolteacher of 20 years' experience, as someone involved with Cumann Lúthchleas Gael and as someone who is involved in his community. The issue of child protection and the manner in which young people are dealt with has evolved to a more professional and more thorough level than obtained previously and thankfully, the child now is at the centre. The observations and recommendations in this committee report were and are intended to inform and guide the drawing up of the Children First legislation. The joint committee members welcomed the opportunity to engage at an early stage in shaping and in flagging issues in the legislation before it came back to the Dáil and Seanad. At this juncture, as the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, it is appropriate that I record my appreciation, as well as that of my colleagues, to the many different interest groups that made submissions to the joint committee in its preparation of the report. In addition, as I noted earlier, it is important to acknowledge the members of the joint committee for their invaluable work, commitment and dedication to this important body of work. Equally, in the case of this legislation and the very large tome the joint committee and I have put on record, it is important to acknowledge the contribution made by Mr. Michael O'Sullivan, who was engaged by the joint committee in a professional capacity to assist as its rapporteur in writing and compiling the report. I also thank the Houses of the Oireachtas staff members in the committee secretariat of the Joint Committee on Health and Children for their assistance in the compilation of the report.

I will now turn to the overview of the contributions made to the committee. It is of equal importance that the next part of my contribution is given over to a synopsis of the main arguments and observations made in submissions and presentations to the joint committee on the heads of the Children First Bill. I do so against a backdrop whereby one can discern where the Minister has listened and chosen to act, as well as where she has listened and chosen not to take on board some of the views of the joint committee, which also is fair enough. Perhaps, as part of this discourse, it may be possible to ascertain whether there are other issues the Minister may reconsider. However, under the general scheme of the Bill, nearly all contributors welcomed the proposal to give the Children First guidelines a statutory underpinning in the Bill. A common observation was that giving effect to the Bill, particularly in the early stages of its implementation, would require substantial investment in resources, including the training and recruitment of personnel and in offering support and feedback. Many contributors made the point that it was of particular importance that the Bill be drafted to mesh seamlessly with the provisions of the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill and the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill. Several contributors stated the Bill made insufficient allowance for the voice of the child to be heard, as mandated by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Other contributors criticised the general scheme of the Bill as misguided, stating that its focus on reporting missed the principal causes of failures in child protection. These contributors generally thought the Bill should place greater emphasis on family supports, early intervention, multidisciplinary assessments and co-ordination between all relevant agencies and Government bodies. Another criticism of the general scheme was that the requirement to report concerns or suspicions of abuse, together with criminal sanctions for failing to do so, would cause defensive over-reporting, placing undue burdens on organisations, possibly overwhelming the State's child protection services and diverting resources from support and intervention services. Several contributors stated it was particularly important for the implementation and operation of the Bill to be reviewed after no more than three to five years.

I will move specifically to discussing the contributions regarding head 2, which pertained to interpretation. A majority of contributors argued that the definition of "abuse" should include emotional abuse. A significant number of people made this argument and the reasons for so doing included the long-term effects of emotional abuse and its relatedness to grooming and physical and sexual abuse. Many pointed out emotional abuse is included in the Children First guidelines and suggested that its exclusion from the Bill would cause confusion and inconsistency in enforcement. The Minister should be complimented both on the manner in which she has handled the issue of grooming and on how she has been to the fore in protecting the rights of the child in this regard. In its presentation, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs argued that the exclusion reflected international evidence on the difficulty in reliably diagnosing emotional abuse to a standard that could support criminal prosecution. Emotional abuse could still be reported under the guidelines and its exclusion from the Bill related only to the criminal sanctions for failure to report abuse. The Department also indicated it was open to this matter being revised. Similarly, it was suggested that the definition of "physical abuse" was inconsistent with that included in the Children First guidelines.

The Irish Medical Organisation thought the definitions of abuse in the Bill needed to be much clearer for doctors to be confident of diagnosing abuse to a standard suitable for judicial proceedings. Moreover, it was suggested that the exclusion of married persons aged under 18 from the definition of "child" was not appropriate. Several contributors advocated greater clarity in the definition of "concern", both because of the possible criminal sanctions in the Bill and to assist effective reporting without overwhelming organisations or the child protection system. This was a strong point and both joint committee members and participants were worried about the degree to which such overwhelming of organisations and the system could arise from the Bill. However, it also was suggested that the definition should extend to suspicions that a child is at risk of abuse, rather than simply that a child is being abused. It was pointed out that the definition of "employment" was inconsistent with that contained in the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill and that this discrepancy should be remedied. It was also suggested that including unpaid positions such as internships in the definition of "employment" while volunteers had different responsibilities was anomalous.

Many contributors expressed concerns about the definition of "sexual abuse" itself. These mainly centred on the lack of clarity as to when peer sexual activity between teenagers is or is not consensual in the eyes of the law. A number of contributors pointed to discrepancies between the language of the Bill and that in existing statute law and the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill. There was general, albeit not unanimous, support for the view that the Bill should not require reporting of consensual peer sexual activity between teenagers as it was thought that this would inhibit recourse to sexual health and advice services that seek to reduce teenage pregnancies and underage sexual activity and to promote sexual health. Several contributors suggested the definition of "volunteer" was too broad and that it should not include, for example, parents who volunteer on an ad hoc basis to drive children to a sports fixture or school outing. The definition in the Bill differs from that in the Children First guidelines, which it was believed at the time could cause confusion.

I will now turn to head 5 in the context of aims and principles. Several contributors suggested that the reference in head 5(1) to "the welfare and protection of the child" should be changed to "the best interests of the child" to reflect the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. There was wide support for the requirement to have due regard to the Children First guidelines.

However, several contributors argued that the duty to report should be extended to all State agencies, to all persons having access to children, or even to all persons regardless of their status.

A number of contributors suggested that the Children First guidelines, as well as other guidance documents provided for in the Bill, should all be given statutory effect as regulations made under the Bill rather than as non-statutory guidance documents. The relationship of the guidelines to the Bill was problematic for some contributors, who pointed out the difficulty of reconciling definitions, roles and responsibilities under them.

Head 6 deals with organisations with a statutory obligation to report child abuse. The type of organisation included or excluded from the Bill's operation was the subject of much discussion. Many contributors objected to the exclusion under head 6(3) of services paid for directly by a child's parents or in the child's own home, such as a childminder. While many accepted that the organisational requirements of the Bill would be inappropriate in such settings, the duty to report should apply, as should the requirement for training and familiarity with relevant guidelines. Similarly, it was suggested that bodies such as agencies that supply minders, au pairs or nannies should come within the terms of the Bill. There was wide support for the view that the exemption should not cover any paid arrangement for minding children, particularly when this takes place in the minder's home. The presumption that parents provide the best supervision for their children was criticised as being inconsistent with the fact that the majority of abuse takes place in the child's own home. The exclusion of leisure facilities, particularly swimming pools, that cater for adults but allow access to children, was criticised by a number of contributors. Similarly, settings such as domestic violence shelters, third-level institutions, particularly those that arrange placements involving care of children, and asylum-seeker centres should be expressly brought within the Bill's operation. Several contributors argued that employers of children should be covered by the Bill.

With regard to head 7, organisation, many contributors said that the detailed requirements for organisations were onerous and would pose difficulties, particularly for small or voluntary bodies. The view was expressed that these requirements should be phased in over time to allow time to cope for the organisations to which they applied and to allow time to put good governance structures in place. There was a widespread view that the safeguarding guidance for organisations and the model Keeping Children Safe plan should be published and opened to comment by stakeholders before the Bill became law. A number of contributors made the point that these documents should be merged so as to reduce the number of reference documents that organisations must use. Several suggested that the safeguarding guidance for organisations should, along with the guidelines for the reporting of abuse, be issued as statutory regulations.

The need for resources and training from the HSE was stressed by many contributors, as well as the need for suitable "train the trainer" courses that could be used to develop training within organisations. A number of contributors offered to provide training based on their areas of expertise. Many contributors agreed that the vetting requirements under this head should be reviewed to ensure consistency with the vetting Bill. Teachers' unions pointed out that schools operate a number of policies and procedures to implement the Children First guidelines. The Bill should take account of that and seek to accommodate the existing arrangements so as to minimise duplication, disruption and confusion.

The requirement for internal audit raised a number of questions. Many contributors argued that external experts should be allowed onto the relevant committee. National bodies such as sporting organisations queried whether internal audit should be the responsibility of each affiliated body or club, and argued that it would be better to leave the responsibility at the level of the umbrella body. It was also pointed out that the requirement for designated officers to appoint internal auditors was inconsistent with the way in which schools are organised and that the Bill should accommodate appointment by structures such as boards of management.

Head 8 deals with notification to HSE by organisations. The timeframes for notifying the HSE were found by many contributors to be very tight and the requirement to maintain records onerous, particularly for small organisations. Support from the HSE was suggested as a means of overcoming these difficulties. This was a recurring theme. Several contributors said that an extensive publicity campaign would be necessary to ensure that both organisations and the public are aware of the need for registration. One contributor suggested making failure to register a summary offence. Several contributors pointed to the importance of maintaining consistency with and avoiding duplication of provisions of the Child Care Act 1991, the 2006 pre-school regulations, and the vetting Bill. There was uncertainty about the registration requirements of national organisations and their affiliated bodies and whether all such bodies were subject to all provisions, including record keeping, under head 8.

Head 9 deals with the designated officer in organisations. Contributors universally welcomed the role of designated officer as helping to ensure accountability and responsibility for child protection and as a necessary means of filtering concerns so as to avoid over-reporting. However, the view was expressed that the extensive functions and duties listed under head 9 may prove too onerous for school principals or small voluntary organisations and may deter potential volunteers for the role. Similarly, several suggested that the focus of responsibility on the designated officer, rather than the organisation itself, was inappropriate. The role of the designated officer must be monitored and communicated clearly. There was a widespread recognition of the need for training, including ongoing training, as stressed by many contributors. Several contributors noted differences between the role of designated officer under the Bill and that of designated liaison person under the Children First guidelines. They suggested that the discrepancy be remedied in the Bill. Some contributors suggested that seniority alone was not sufficient qualification for the designated officer role. Suitability and experience were also essential. The designated officer must be suitably qualified and experienced. It was pointed out that the seniority criterion was not appropriate for schools, where the principal was answerable to the board of management, which would be the appropriate body for functions such as appointing the internal audit committee. The designated officer's power to delegate was commented on by several contributors. National governing bodies such as sporting organisations suggested a cascade model, whereby a national designated officer could have overall responsibility for the role, while designated liaison persons in local bodies such as clubs could be delegated powers accordingly. Some contributors suggested curbs on the power to delegate to avoid the possibility of its being used to avoid the performance of essential functions. We must pay tribute to the sporting organisations who have put in place a very robust child protection structure. I am involved in Cumann Lúthchleas Gael and I know the GAA is very vigilant. I commend the people in Croke Park and at council level in the provinces and at county board level and club level. This work is done quietly in many cases and without any fuss. The child is at the core of what we do.

There was a consensus that the safeguarding guidelines for organisations and the guidance for the reporting of abuse should be published as soon as possible and in any event before the Bill took effect. Several contributors said that the Bill should clarify that the duty to co-operate and assist the HSE with investigations would not require organisations themselves to conduct or play a role in investigations for which they lacked authority and expertise. Contributors suggested that the HSE should develop standard protocols for reporting based on current ones and make them available online. There was a view that employees and volunteers should be examined carefully to ensure consistency with the Withholding of Information Bill, the 1998 Act, the 2011 Department of Education and Skills procedures, and the proposed new guidelines for the reporting of abuse.

Some speakers suggested that volunteers and employees should have good faith indemnity similar to that provided for in the 1998 Act.

As I will not be able to discuss all of the various heads in the time remaining, I will refer briefly to head 20. Under this head, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon suggested that offences under the Bill should distinguish between those committed through negligence and those committed through reckless disregard for the protection of children, with the latter attracting more severe penalties.

The exercise was very worthwhile and I commend the Minister on it. Some of the heads have been merged into the Bill before us. It was important that I give a flavour of the work done by the joint committee in the period preceding the introduction of this Bill.

"For in every adult there dwells the child that was, and in every child there lies the adult that will be." These words of the Irish novelist and journalist, John Connolly, are extraordinarily relevant. Childhood should be a happy time and should not be violated in any way. A civilised society should provide its children with a happy, secure environment. According to an African proverb, it takes a village to raise a child. We want to be part of the right village for our children. The best armour available to a young person is a healthy and positive self-image and it is our duty to ensure our children have this.

As a former primary school teacher, a profession I had the honour and privilege of pursuing previously, it is not surprising that the Taoiseach should have seen the need to appoint a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs with Cabinet status. His decision is the ultimate recognition of the importance of children and the need to have their voices heard. The Taoiseach should be congratulated, commended and applauded for doing so. I also salute the Minister for bringing to her Ministry a remarkable level of passion, focus and competence, all of which qualities are visible across a range of Bills, guidelines and actions she has introduced, despite the limited resources available to her.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to this Bill, which will form the cornerstone of our child protection legislation. It will place elements of the Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children 2011 on a statutory footing, making good on one of the key objectives in the programme for Government and following on from the Ryan report of 2009. The Bill will form part of a suite of child protection legislation, which 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. The legislation was born out of the Minister's review of the Children First guidelines of 1999. I commend her on placing them on a statutory footing for the first time.

The Bill is essentially split into three key elements. First, it places on professionals and others working with children an obligation to report child protection concerns to the Child and Family Agency. The second critical plank of the Bill is the introduction of risk assessments and child safeguarding statements, which certain professionals working with children are obliged to undertake when they believe a child to be at risk of harm. Finally, it establishes the Children First interdepartmental implementation group which will promote and oversee cross-sectoral implementation and compliance with Children First.

Section 10 establishes the precedent that every organisation that provides services to children must carry out a risk assessment and compile a child safeguarding statement not later than three months after the enactment of the Bill. I welcome the fact that the safeguarding statement, which will be publically displayed, will outline key points such as reducing any identified risk, including in the procedures for the recruitment of staff; the provision of information, instruction and training in regard to the identification of harm; and the reporting to the Child and Family Agency by an employee or by the provider. It will also include a list of persons in the relevant service who are deemed to be "mandated persons". Transparency is vital in this instance and I am pleased to note it is a recurring theme in the Bill.

Section 11 addresses mandatory reporting, one of the key issues in the legislation. Those who are classed as mandated persons, for example, teachers, registered nurses, doctors and child care staff members, are obliged to report any instance where they believe a child is being harmed or may be at grave risk of being harmed. I especially welcome the inclusion of subsection 2 which provides that reporting is also mandatory in cases where a child believes that he or she has been harmed, is being harmed or is at risk of being harmed. The inclusion of this child-centred dimension is critical.

Under the Bill, when a child makes a disclosure to a mandated person the obligation is on the mandated person to report this information to the Child and Family Agency. We have heard of many cases in the past where failure to act or a delay in taking action has had the most serious consequences. For this reason, I am pleased to note the inclusion in section 11 of a provision which ensures that where a mandated person believes a child is under threat of immediate harm, he or she is not required to go through the general route of submitting a report using an approved report form that can take some time to complete, but may instead make initial and immediate contact with the agency. It is critical that such emergency contacts take place. Section 11(8) provides that such an initial contact must be followed up with the submission of the appropriate report form not more than three days after the report is filed. This is a reasonable requirement. While the ability to make immediate and urgent reports is of paramount importance, the inclusion of this emergency option is tragically necessary.

Transparency and consistency were severely lacking in such cases in the past. It is important that society has not only collectively learned its lesson but that we are also following through with legislation that is mindful of this lesson. For too long, we have lived in a society where children were seen and not heard. History has shown that we failed the most vulnerable children in our care. Section 11(7) tallies with section 16, which amends the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, in that it ensures the views of the child will be paramount at all times when the Child and Family Agency is carrying out its functions. This is one of the most important aspects of the Bill as it demonstrates the way in which our whole culture has shifted from inactive to reactive and we will never again allow anyone to sidestep his or her duty of care towards a child.

There has been some discussion about the punitive dimension of the Bill, an issue to which I will turn later. Based on professional experience, my observation of society and the experience that comes with years, I believe the very existence of mandatory reporting will create a culture of reporting.

Just as the breathalyser has achieved the same objective in combating drink-driving, through an osmotic effect, it will make it socially unacceptable not to report child abuse. This, along with other actions by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs will, as she said, make safeguarding practice the cultural norm for anyone working with children.

Some concerns have been raised that the Bill does not go far enough. There will be the potential to prosecute people under the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 while the regulatory bodies involved with children will take punitive action if their members have not acted. This legislation strikes the correct balance in achieving high-quality reporting with high substantiation rates, while avoiding overwhelming the child protection system with inappropriate reports, a criticism of the operation of mandatory reporting in other countries. As all Members are privileged to interact with so many elements of society and people of all ages every day, the significant achievement of the legislation will be to place a societal imperative on the professional working with children to report child harm and abuse.

Apart from the fundamental objective to protect and safeguard our children, this Bill also represents the type of joined-up thinking that, in the past, was badly needed. Section 13 is an illustration of this, stating as it does that someone identified as a mandated person is obliged to comply with the request of assistance by the Child and Family Agency by means of producing verbal or written reports, attending agency meetings and producing requested documentary evidence to the agency. This level of requirement, as identified by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch last night, is very helpful and vital in the assessment of inter-agency co-operation.

The Bill will have an impact on various Departments. In light of this, the provision under section 14 means every Department and Government agency will have to prepare a sectoral plan, as well as forming a sectoral steering group. Not only will specific training needs be addressed, the consequences for organisations not in compliance with the Children First guidelines and legislation could include a removal of funding.

This legislation brings accountability and clarity to how we as a society treat our most vulnerable members. It ensures a consistent form of reaction to any threat to their psychical or psychological safety and represents the foundation stone of a society where even the mere threat of harm against a child or evidence of non-compliance with these new regulations is met with zero tolerance. Reacting to the Bill, the Saving Childhood group stated the legislation ensures "not just the consistent reporting of child protection concerns, but the consistent response of the State and its agencies to such concerns".

I urge the Minister, as more resources become available to her, to expand the facilities available to our young people such as increasing the number of youth cafes, youth clubs and organisations. I salute the Minister on creating a legislative framework for child protection which was vital as we needed that cultural shift. We now need to back this up with resources and an infrastructure that supports children and young persons. The town in which I have the privilege of living, Cavan, is a wonderful place for a child and where a child can do anything he or she wants. I am happy the Minister recently provided financial support for a youth cafe for the town. Every town should be able to allow each of its children to access youth clubs and recreational facilities which will enhance their self-esteem. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle, as a distinguished former member of the teaching profession, will be aware that there is nothing more critical to a young person’s welfare than self-belief and self-esteem, along with a confidence that is different to silly arrogance. The way we give them that is through youth facilities, social activities, friendship and support.

This is a great day for children. A society that does not value its children has bad priorities.

The publication of the Children First Bill represents delivery of a key aim of the programme for Government, as well as the delivery of a key recommendation of the 2009 Ryan report implementation plan. The Bill will form part of a suite of child protection legislation which already 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. This proposed new law represents an important and necessary addition to the child welfare and protection landscape, seeking as it does to ensure that child protection concerns are brought to the attention of the Child and Family Agency without delay. This is about ending the turning of a blind eye to child abuse and neglect which prevailed for far too long. This legislation is about making best safeguarding practice the cultural norm for anyone working with children.

The Bill provides for several key child protection measures. It requires mandated persons to report child protection concerns to the Child and Family Agency, Tusla. Mandated persons includes medical practitioners, registered nurses, teachers, social workers, gardaí, psychologists, members of the clergy, preschool child care staff and child protection officers of religious, sporting, cultural or recreational organisations offering services to children. The Bill also sees the establishment of a Children First interdepartmental implementation group on a legislative basis whose purpose will be to promote compliance and monitor implementation by various Departments. This group, which includes representation from each Department, will be required to keep the implementation of the legislation under review and to report every year to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. This will ensure a continuous focus on implementation and compliance until best practice becomes the norm.

The Bill states that information on harm to children must be reported. Harm means to assault, ill-treat, neglect or sexually abuse a child, whether caused by a single act, omission or circumstance or a series or combination of acts, omissions or circumstances or otherwise. Ill-treatment means to abandon or cruelly treat a child, or to cause or procure or allow the child to be abandoned or cruelly treated, in a manner that seriously affects or is likely to seriously affect the child’s health, development or welfare. Neglect means to deprive a child of adequate food, warmth, clothing, hygiene, supervision, safety or medical care in a manner that seriously affects or is likely to seriously affect the child’s health, development or welfare. Sexual abuse means rape, sexual assault, incest by males or females, sexual offences, wilful exposure of the child to pornography, or wilful sexual activity in the presence of the child, or human trafficking, or causing or encouraging sexual offences upon a child.

Welfare, in relation to a child, includes the moral, intellectual, physical, emotional and social welfare of the child. The Child and Family Agency has reorganised its Children First services into a new national service, with local Children First information officers now working as part of a national team reporting to a national manager. Work is under way to develop the agency information campaign, including via websites and social media. Work is also under way to develop a training framework to support implementation of the Children First Bill. For example, the agency has already engaged with city and county child care committees on training of trainers, which means staff in each city and county child care committee have now been trained to provide training to individual child care settings, with full national cover now in place.

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, on her outstanding work to date. I commend the Bill to the House.

I commend the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on the introduction of this Bill, which was promised by many of her predecessors. The children of this State have waited a long time for this Bill. Many Governments have come in and out of office and left the children of Ireland behind.

This Bill is based on recommendations and guidelines dating back to 1990. The issue of mandatory reporting of knowledge or suspicion of harm to children was first recommended by the Law Reform Commission and later by the Kilkenny incest inquiry in 1993. Six years later in 1999, the then Department of Health introduced national guidelines for the protection and welfare of children. These guidelines were reviewed in 2008 but no legislation was introduced. This means children have waited 24 years for this Bill. I applaud the NGOs and campaigning groups who have continued to work privately and publicly on this issue. It is as much a credit to them as to this Government and the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, that this legislation in before us today.

The Bill contains some important aspects, particularly mandatory reporting. This is essential to the protection of children. Unfortunately, the Bill in its current form falls short on other aspects.

There are no sanctions in place for those who fail to comply with the requirements set out in the Bill. The original Heads of Bill published two years ago included a penalty of up to five years in prison for failure to comply with this legislation. I urge the Minister to revisit this. Without any clear sanctions for failure to comply with the Bill it is hard to see how this legislation will be enforced or policed. At best, we will have inconsistency; at worst, more toothless legislation gathering dust. I urge the Minister to address this on Committee Stage.

Much of the abuse now being tackled by society happened in the distant past. The Bill should provide us with an opportunity, rather than limping from one crisis to another, to deal with retrospective allegations once and for all. A key aspect of child protection is the provision of resources to upskill and support those working with children. Sadly, this Bill fails to provide any such resources. This may well create the dangerous situation of the Government believing it has done its best while in the big bad world the Bill will have little or no effect because organisations will not have the resources to train and inform their members. The Bill would be far more robust if resources were made available to meet its demands.

While this Bill will require certain mandated persons to make reports to the Child and Family Agency in relation to harm to children, this demand will need to be underwritten with additional resources for those statutory agencies processing and investigating the reports. There is no point in mandating organisations to report child abuse and child neglect if these reports will end up mounting on someone's desk and never actually receiving the attention they deserve. This is an issue of resources. International experience, particularly in the USA, where mandatory reporting was first introduced in the 1960s, is that this generates increased workload on already under-resourced organisations. The Government must rise to this challenge. Linked to this is the already increasing number of reported cases of child welfare and protection issues. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of reports increased by 36% to 31,626. This is due to the increasing population of children and, sadly, the recession. It is acknowledged that children will be at risk when economic conditions are poor. This Government, because of the policies it is pursuing, must take responsibility for this. Cutting rent and children's allowance will have a real and immediate impact on families and children. A study carried out by TASC in 2012 revealed that the group most at risk of poverty in Ireland - namely, lone parents - lost the highest percentage of income in budget 2011.

Despite the rhetoric from the Government, the truth is that the decisions made by it have had a negative impact on our most vulnerable people. One solution is to equality-proof Government budgets. This would ensure that the most vulnerable in our society, including children, would not be adversely affected by budgets. Equality budgeting is an approach to economic policy making and planning that places equality at the centre of decisions concerning public expenditure and income. Equality budgeting provides information on how different sections of society are affected by specific economic policy measures. The objective of equality budgeting lies in ensuring this information is used to reduce inequality and achieve the best equality outcomes for specific disadvantaged groups and society in general.

Given the disproportionate impact economic policies are having on different sections of society, such as lone parents, women, low-income workers and people with disabilities, equality budgeting should be introduced as a means to halt and reverse the current trend in increased inequality and poverty. Equality budgeting is internationally recognised as an effective tool for addressing poverty and inequality. As poverty and inequality are on the increase in Ireland, it is now essential that equality budgeting be introduced as a matter of urgency. Not only would this benefit Irish society by ensuring political decisions are made on the basis of data and research that clearly establish the equality implications of economic policies, but it would also assist in making the budgetary and policy process more transparent and participative. The benefits of equality budgeting in terms of increased levels of information, equality and transparency would also allow Ireland to stand by its national and international obligations on the protection and enhancement of human rights. The Irish State has repeatedly committed itself to principles of equality and the protection of economic rights in several human rights instruments, declarations and strategy documents, including the Beijing Platform for Action, the International Covenant on Economic and Cultural Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

In 2013, Sinn Féin produced a Bill aimed at achieving equality-proofing of Government policy, including budgets. Twenty-nine Labour Party Deputies voted against this Bill. Sinn Féin has given a clear commitment not to cut child benefit. The argument that child benefit is paid to families who do not need it is misguided. Child benefit is a payment made to mothers on behalf of their children. It is recognition that all mothers and children are equal. Sinn Féin has always argued that we should tax the parent, not punish the child. If the Government wants to save money it would be better off reforming the tax system rather than cutting child benefit.

A report launched by the Minister for Health in April 2012 shows that 21% of children are going to school without breakfast or to bed without a proper meal. The reality is that the Bill before us today is seriously undermined unless child hunger is tackled by this Government. It is our ultimate vision to roll out school meals to every school. Extending the school meals programme to an additional 500 schools would cost €11 million. This would go some way to eradicating child hunger in this State.

There is also genuine concern expressed by groups, including the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, that the list of mandated professionals does not cover national organisations which, as their main purpose, work with children and families. Many large organisations are not explicitly mandated to comply with protocols outlined in this Bill. It is essential that all organisations providing services to children take a consistent approach to ensure best practice is adhered to when responding to child abuse and child neglect.

While I welcome this Bill, it has shortcomings that need to be addressed. This Government must play its part in tackling child neglect, particularly child hunger.

I welcome the Bill and thank the Minister and her staff and congratulate them on the work they have done on developing child protection. The Minister has been to the forefront of many initiatives and has not just talked the talk but walked the walk. This Government established the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, creating a full Cabinet position which facilitates the development of an approach to delivering services to Irish children. It harmonised and led the way into dealing with children's affairs. It also saw a number of transfers from other agencies such as the Irish Youth Service, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Family Support Agency, National Education and Welfare Board and many others, and I welcome this. The children's referendum, which amended the Constitution, was a very important step in ensuring the protection of children in Ireland. We have greater child protection, children are prioritised and we are giving them a second chance.

The Bill will put key elements of the Children First guidelines on a statutory footing for the first time since they were published in 1999 and this is very welcome. The Bill will provide for a number of key child protection measures including a requirement on mandated persons, including medical practitioners, registered nurses, teachers, social workers, gardaí, psychologists and members of the clergy, to report child protection concerns to the Child and Family Agency. It will require mandated persons to assist the Child and Family Agency in the assessment of a child protection risk, if the agency requests it. Organisations providing services to children will be required to comply with best practice in child protection as set out in the Children First guidelines and to produce a child safeguarding statement. This is very important and necessary.

There has been much talk on this issue over the years. However, I am glad the Opposition has acknowledged the significant work the Minister and her Department have done in the past three years, which has put the child at the centre of the Department's policies. The Bill will strengthen child protection in Ireland, acting on the 2009 Ryan report, which highlighted some stark issues which were not being dealt with but were being swept under the carpet. Everybody took notice of the Ryan report. The Bill also represents the delivery of a key commitment of the programme for Government.

Section 9 of the Bill provides that: "A provider of a relevant service shall ensure, as far as practicable, that each child availing of the service from the provider is safe from harm". This is very welcome. Section 10 provides that a person who proposes to operate as a provider of a relevant service shall, within three months of the commencement of the service carry out a risk assessment and prepare a child safeguarding statement. This is also welcome.

When I was a young child, many years ago, the community cared for the child, as Deputy O'Reilly outlined. Everybody was looking out for each other. Unfortunately, there were times when people did not know, and when a perpetrator or a person who would undermine a child was respected. I refer to people in positions of influence such as priests, teachers and many others. Many issues were swept under the carpet. Now we have in place a reporting mechanism that can stop that. It is unfortunate that we grew up in an innocent time when we trusted people who breached that trust. Although it is unfortunate that over the years we have had to bring in this legislation, it is very necessary given what has happened in the past ten to 30 years.

While it is great to see our young people so confident and mature, much more so than we were, they face different challenges to those we faced. In small towns years ago there were cinemas and places for people to meet. Rural areas face major challenges and decline, which is population based. My town used to be a big town with 3,000 people. Towns such as Ratoath, which was a small village 20 or 30 years ago, might have a population of 25,000 to 30,000 people. We must address these matters. Now we have regional towns. Carrick-on-Shannon, with a population of 4,000, is a regional town for people from many smaller towns and villages who use the facilities there. It is nice that we do not have a two-bit swimming pool in each town but a decent leisure centre, which one can be proud of, in one area and a decent cinema and theatre, hotels and restaurants. People, especially the young, can go to that area and meet.

However, transport is an issue. People in rural areas have to travel further to avail of facilities and meet their friends. Growing up in a small village or town does not mean one has a small circle of friends. Politics teaches one that one can meet different circles of friends. As parents cannot drive all around the country, we need cycleways, which I have seen in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. While it is nothing to cycle five or six miles from a village to a town, we need safe cycleways. The Minister will work closely with other Departments and I implore her to establish safe cycleways between our towns, villages and bigger towns to allow young children to do the things they want to do without relying on their parents or a transport system which lacks economies of scale. Now is the time to consider linking up all our green networks and cycleways around the country so that, for example, people from Boyle can cycle to Carrick-on-Shannon in half an hour, people from Elphin can cycle to Carrick-on-Shannon and people from Carrick-on-Shannon can cycle to Boyle, or whatever. We need to examine this around the country because the Ireland in which I grew up does not have the population and economies of scale to provide the top-class facilities we want.

Again, I congratulate the Minister and her Department. It is nice to hear the Opposition welcoming this innovative Bill and I hope it will provide a future framework for our children.

I congratulate the Minister on getting to this stage. It has been a firm commitment of hers since taking office to ensure we safeguard children into the future. Not only does the Bill deliver on a key commitment in the programme for Government, it is a direct recommendation of the 2009 Ryan report, which appalled people throughout the country with its description of how the State had failed children. The introduction of this legislation will end that.

I have listened to and welcomed the input of many of the Deputies on this issue.

They have spoken much about how different people in separate organisations have a role and a responsibility, with a statutory footing for reporting in the protection of children. It is important to reflect on how we all have a duty to protect children and that we can no longer turn a blind eye to the issue. It is not easy to make a report about a child and the issue can be fraught with ambivalence, difficulty and discomfort for those who believe they must make a report. We must all ask ourselves what will happen if we do not make such a report, especially now that there will be a statutory penalty for failing to make such a report. As a society, we must consider what it would mean for children if we were to fail in one of our fundamental roles - the protection of the youngest in society.

During the pre-legislative scrutiny stage the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs heard for the first time from representatives of all Departments who outlined their responsibilities to children. I am a former social worker and was often contacted by key people in communities who worked in public libraries, local housing departments of councils and youth services because of a difficulty with a particular child. When I asked them about their child protection policy, they would look at me blankly. They worked in local authorities, but they had no child protection policy. Child protection is not just about psychologists, GPs, social workers and people working in Montessori schools; it concerns those with whom children interact every day in every community and every walk of life. We all have a responsibility to protect and safeguard children.

I do not have much time, which is unfortunate, as I am fundamentally passionate about the issue. I believe in it and I am very happy to have seen the establishment of the Child and Family Agency. The Minister knows that the special rapporteur on child protection appointed by the Government made a recommendation in the report to the committee that we ban alcohol advertising at sports venues. This is important as, in the inquiries into child deaths - over 200 children died in State care - alcohol was a risk factor in every one. I implore the Minister to speak to her Cabinet colleagues about how important it is to get to grips with alcohol in this country.

Debate adjourned.