Children First Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed)

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

May I share time with Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan? I might take up to ten minutes and the Deputy can have the rest.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute on Second Stage of the Children First Bill.

The Bill aims to make further and better provision for the protection of children and places the Children First guidelines on a statutory footing 11 years after they were published. It provides for an obligation to make reports to the Child and Family Agency on children in certain circumstances. It requires certain persons to assist the agency and organisations working with children to carry out risk assessments to identify potential sources of harm to children under their care and prepare child safeguarding statements. It also provides for the establishment of the Children First interdepartmental implementation group and the preparation of sectoral implementation plans by Departments. It places an obligation on two groups, the first of which is mandated persons designated within their organisations and professionals who have an obligation to make a report to the Child and Family Agency if they suspect children are at risk of abuse, neglect or harm. Second, it places an obligation on service providers to carry out harm risk assessments and draw up child safeguarding plans. This is a very welcome aspect of the Bill and shows that it has a serious intent that must be worked on into the future.

The legislation has been broadly welcomed across the House. It is welcome to have the Children First guidelines placed on a legislative footing. It had been indicated by the Minister for a number of years that this would happen. The Bill has been welcomed by almost all groups working with children. The broad based Saving Childhood group has welcomed, in particular, that the best interests of children are of paramount consideration, the requirement on organisations to provide child safeguarding statements and the establishment of the Children First interdepartmental implementation group. The establishment of the implementation group is a welcome development because it is vitally important that the legislation be reviewed on an ongoing basis. I have often commented in the House that a good deal of legislation brought before the House does not have a review mechanism built into it. Some items of legislation provide that a review must take place five years after its enactment. All legislation should have that ongoing review mechanism built into it. The Bill has a wide-ranging remit across a number of Departments, including the Departments of Education and Skills and Health, as well as the Child and Family Agency, and a review must take place at all times to ensure it is achieving what it has set out to achieve in putting the Children First guidelines on a legislative footing.

The one flaw in the legislation which has probably been highlighted previously is the lack of sanctions for persons or organisations that fail to report. The reason given is a concern that there could be a rush of allegations, complaints or reports to the Child and Family Agency that would clog up the entire system and prevent it from investigating what is happening with reports. The Children First guidelines have been in place for 11 years and the figures from the Health Service Executive, the most recent of which are the for the period up to 2011, show that between 2007 and 2011 there was a 36% increase in the number of reports under the legislation, rising to 31,000 reports. This shows that in the time the guidelines have been in place momentum has built in organisations recognising their responsibilities under them. We may have passed the point where a raft of reports will come forward to the agency that will have to be investigated.

The lack of a sanction is a real flaw in the legislation. I would not like to see it used, but a commitment and a responsibility should be included in the legislation to ensure ten or 15 years on from the introduction of the legislation organisations will not take their eye off the ball in that regard. That is the reason sanctions are important and I ask the Minister to consider providing for some form of sanction. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Bill passed Committee Stage yesterday, but I am concerned about the lack of a sanction for public bodies that have a positive duty to examine human rights and gauge their policies against their human rights commitments. That is a worrying trend we may see in other legislation that does not include sanctions because it lessens the obligation on organisations to ensure they comply with their requirements. We never want to see it being used, but such a provision should be included in the legislation to allow the Minister or the responsible body to act against organisations that do not report, as they are obliged to do. The lack of a sanction may be a sop to the clergy or the Catholic Church in terms of their obligations to report, a major concern raised in the past year by priests in terms of what is said in the confessional. I imagine it would be virtually impossible to secure a conviction against any member of the clergy who receives an allegation in the confessional. The issue would never arise, but there are organisations that did not have a culture of reporting abuse or dealing effectively with abuse and not providing for a sanction in the legislation lets them off the hook.

Putting the Children First guidelines on a statutory footing is very welcome, but, as has been mentioned by other Members and as the Minister is aware, there is a difficulty for the Child and Family Agency in investigating reports it receives. That is a major concern that must be examined on an ongoing basis. The Irish Association of Social Workers has stated there are not enough social workers employed across the country to ensure they can investigate reports adequately. An interesting quote from Ms Helen Buckley, Associate Professor at the School of Social Work and Social Policy in Trinity College Dublin, is worth reading. She states:

There is a common assumption that the harm and misery experienced by some of the children who featured in recent high profile cases was a result of failure to report. This is in fact a misperception. The majority of recent high profile cases had been reported many times to HSE social work departments. The problems exposed in these cases occurred during the ensuing months and years when the children and families were known to a number of services.

That is very telling and places a huge obligation on the Government to ensure the volume of complaints and reports received by the Child and Family Agency is dealt with in a timely fashion. We do not want to see a repeat of some of the harrowing cases exposed in recent years when families were not dealt with, even though they were known to all agencies. That is a bigger objective to achieve, but it is something we should work towards to ensure we achieve it. It will mean the securing of resources for the Child and Family Agency and social workers to ensure investigations are completed and dealt with from start to finish to protect children across the State. I know the Minister is committed to this, developing social work services and the recruitment of social workers. As circumstances start to improve, I hope the Government will be committed to doing this also and that it will provide the resources required to ensure full enforcement of the legislation.

First, I acknowledge the Minister's commitment on the matter of safeguarding children and their welfare because we know too well the appalling litany of abuses of children in industrial schools, laundries, their homes, schools and sports organisations. I mention, in particular, the young swimmers who were horribly abused a number of years ago at the hands of coaches. We saw the ineffectiveness of the organisation involved to deal with it. I know that some of the young women in question are still suffering badly today.

We know that the effects of abuse and neglect suffered by children are carried into adulthood. In many cases, such abuse affects their lives and relationships with others negatively. We know that some of those who have been abused will abuse and have abused others. In Dublin Central, the inner city, we know the pain associated with abuse and how it has brought abused persons into addiction, self-harm and suicide.

Childhood is supposed to be a time of innocence. It should be a time of fun and enjoyment, a time to be care-free, with no worries about mortgages or making a living. The abusers in society rob children of the care-free abandon of childhood, leaving them physically, emotionally, psychologically and mentally scarred. For me, what is important about this legislation is what it will do to prevent this from happening and, in the event of it happening, the prompt redress provided for. As with every plan, it may appear good on paper but not in application. Likewise, child safeguarding statements will not automatically mean that children will be guarded.

I read the Minister's Second Stage speech in which she said the purpose of the Bill was to improve the care and protection of children by raising awareness of child abuse and neglect. There is now, for a variety of reasons, some of them awful, a much greater awareness of child abuse and neglect, in particular among children. This must be taken on board. There must be greater space for children's and young people's voices to be heard and their concerns, fears and situations, if one of abuse or neglect, to be addressed with the appropriate services. Calls by young people to helplines and organisations must be dealt with. While not mandated in the Bill, we must ensure the availability of services for young people in order that when they report abuse and neglect, their reports will be dealt with adequately. I acknowledge the role of schools, youth clubs, sports organisations, the scouts and girl guides, etc., in hearing the voices of young people and treating these voices with respect and creating within them an atmosphere of mutual respect and, in particular, respect for difference. Very often it is the inability to cope with difference that leads to abuse, particularly verbal and emotional abuse, although often physical. The more proactive we can be in terms of inputs and programmes the more we can create an atmosphere that is child-centred. Given that we know that it is a child's sense of self-worth and self-esteem that is most damaged when he or she is abused or neglected, if we can work on self-awareness, self-worth and self-esteem in children, we will see far fewer cases of neglect and abuse.

I take the point made by the Minister that child protection is only dealt with by mandated persons but that everybody has a responsibility to safeguard children. I have serious concerns about particular groups of young people, the first of which is young foreign nationals, some of whom are residing in direct provision centres, while others are living in appalling housing conditions. Regardless of what one thinks of how they arrived in the country or their status, they are children and they are not being treated equitably and fairly. What is happening to these young foreign nationals will be the Magdalen laundry-industrial school-type scandal in years to come. These children are being abused and neglected.

The second group is children born to parents with an addiction. These children are living with parents who are leading chaotic lives. A great deal of work is being done by the extended families and the projects to support these parents and their children. These projects cannot take any more cuts to their services. Like others, I also attended the pre-budget submission this morning by Early Childhood Ireland. One of the issues highlighted by that organisation is the lack of special needs assistants and specialists such as speech therapists who are important in addressing children's issues at a young age. This is another area in which we could be much more proactive. We are all aware that in many cases the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is paying for assessments of children with special needs.

I have read some of the criticisms of the Bill, including that it is a watered down version of previous Bills. I would like to focus on the issue of sanctions. The Bill provides that professionals working with children are legally obliged to report their concerns. However, there are no penalties for a failure to do so. In that regard, two issues arise, the first being enforcement. It is important that the provisions of the Bill be strictly enforced. The second issue is that of sanctions. On reviewing my notes on the previous legislation I came across an article taken from The Irish Times by Professor Helen Buckley on some of the concerns of social workers and the preoccupation with reporting. Professor Buckley states in the article that it is well established in other jurisdictions that criminalising a failure to report has led to unintended outcomes, including a disproportionate level of funding to manage the intake of reports, with a consequent reduction in the resources available to provide services for vulnerable children.

The article also highlights that a common consequence of reporting legislation is a significant increase in false positive and false negative reports, with false positives occurring where individuals, fearing criminal charges, report indiscriminately. As such, a high rate of false positives could mean families suffering unnecessary distress and intrusion. A high rate of false negatives is very dangerous because it means that children who are being ill-treated or abused are being overlooked. Professor Buckley also makes the point in the article that the lessons from the Roscommon, Monageer and the national review panel reports include "...that the principal weakness in the system is not failure to report, but a lack of commitment across health, justice and education services to proactively assist vulnerable children in the post-reporting stage of child protection work". This Bill will go a long way towards addressing issues at the pre-reporting stage, but this must be matched by what happens post-reporting. We need to be more active in vetting. We are all aware that delays in the vetting process are holding up vital work.

It must be acknowledged that the majority of abuse takes place within the child's family and home. I hope the Bill will be strong in that regard. Perhaps a timeframe should be set out in the Bill for a review of the legislation to see if it is working and the consequences thereof. I welcome the establishment of the EU-wide hotline for missing children. It is another progressive step in this area. On the proposed interdepartmental group, it is important that community groups working directly with young people are represented on it.

Child abuse and neglect require a multi-pronged approach that includes not only legislation but also funding for the vital resources and supports required in dealing with a family crisis, homelessness or a housing crisis. It is important that as a result of this greater awareness of child abuse in society there are in place programmes and plans for dealing with cases when they are reported.

I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Children First Bill which is important and long-awaited legislation. The Children First guidelines were first published in 1999 and an important first step in enshrining child welfare and protection measures in law. The guidelines aimed to help in the identification and reporting of child abuse, but they did not place a statutory duty on individuals to report suspicions of abuse or harm. There were significant delays on the part of the previous Government in progressing the guidelines. In 1997 the Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrats programme for Government committed to introducing mandatory reporting of child abuse. In 1998 the then Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, reaffirmed to the Dáil that mandatory reporting would be introduced during the lifetime of that Government. However, it left office in 2002 having not delivered. In June 2009, following the significant public response to the Ryan report, Fianna Fáil again committed in the Ryan report implementation plan to legislate by December 2010 to put the Children First guidelines on a statutory footing. A year later in June 2010 the then Fianna Fáil Minister of State with responsibility for Children, Mr. Barry Andrews, repeated this commitment to introduce draft legislation by end of that year. However, the December 2010 Ryan report deadline was also missed by Fianna Fáil.

I commend the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, for bringing the Bill to the House and her tireless efforts in putting the Children First guidelines on a statutory footing. The Bill does exactly what it says on the tin, namely, it puts children first. So often in the past we have heard the phrase, "Children should be seen and not heard". That is no longer acceptable. The Children First guidelines are about giving children a voice and listening to them. We all recall the harrowing accounts of abuse contained in the Ryan, Murphy and Ferns reports which detailed the abject evil inflicted on many young, innocent children by some members of the clergy and those working in State institutions.

Such abuses also happened in family homes, but we will probably never read about many of them. That is why it is so important to have a mandatory reporting system in place. It would bring cases of abuse, no matter where they happened, to the attention of the authorities.

On entering office in 2011, the Government was determined to address the many outstanding issues relating to children and child protection. For the first time in the history of the State, the Taoiseach created a dedicated Department of Children and Youth Affairs and appointed a dedicated Minister with responsibility for children who sits at the Cabinet table. For many years, the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, has been to the fore in changing children's lives and looking after their priorities. Although the Children First legislation began its journey in 1999, it has taken a Fine Gael Minister to strengthen the provisions of the Children First guidelines and bring the Bill to the floor of the House. The Minister has a wealth of knowledge and expertise in this area. Her professional experience in social work is a great asset to her in her ministerial role. Her genuine understanding of children's welfare has been of great benefit in developing the legislation. Many years ago she played a huge part in the new St. Michael's estate and Fatima Mansions where she worked daily. She was instrumental in the success of the children's rights referendum in 2012 which changed the Constitution in order that it protected children, supported families and treated all children equally.

The Children First Bill was finally published in April this year. It is one element of a broader set of measures aimed at strengthening child protection laws. The Minister and the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, have been instrumental in bringing the legislation into focus. The purpose of the Bill is to make further and better provision for the care and protection of children, including through raising awareness of child abuse and neglect, providing for reporting and the management of child protection concerns and improving child protection arrangements in organisations providing services for children. The Bill will require mandatory reporting of child abuse, ill-treatment and harm. Mandatory reporting will place a legal duty on specified persons, generally health professionals and other individuals working closely with children, to report suspected or known abuse to a relevant authority. Mandated persons include, among others, medical practitioners, registered nurses, teachers, social workers, gardaí, members of the clergy, preschool child care staff and child protection officers of religious, sports, cultural, recreational and educational organisations offering services to children. In the past there was always a duty to report and people knew they should report, but there was no obligation to do so. The Bill states information on harm to children, past, present and future, must be reported. To harm, as defined in the Bill, is to assault, ill-treat, neglect or sexually abuse a child. The Bill will require certain persons or service providers to make reports to the Child and Family Agency on children in certain circumstances; require certain persons to assist the Child and Family Agency in certain circumstances; carry out risk assessments on potential harm to children; and prepare child safeguarding statements.

In 2012 the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, of which I am a member, debated the Children First guidelines and there was a positive reaction overall to the increased focus on child protection from the relevant stakeholders who attended the hearings. However, I regret that some of the excellent suggestions contained in the submissions were not included in the final Bill. Perhaps the Minister might review some of these suggestions.

It is welcome that the Bill requires organisations providing services for children to keep them safe and produce a child safeguarding statement. The list of mandated persons includes child protection officers performing the child welfare and protection functions of religious, sports and recreational organisations offering services to children. There has, however, been some criticism that the definition of “mandated persons” is not broad enough to cover those working in organisations focused on child protection, welfare and rights services. The ISPCC is an example. This issue needs to be addressed.

There is an omission in the Bill in that local and voluntary organisations are not specifically mentioned in the list of mandated persons. We need clarification in respect of small, local organisations and need to know whether they are included in the Bill and, if not, why not? I have some concerns about the fact that it is not an offence under the Bill to fail to report suspicions of harm to children. However, I recognise that the Children First Bill forms part of a raft of legislation that includes the Withholding of Information Act and the national vetting bureau legislation, under which serious sanctions apply.

An important feature of the new child protection legislation is the creation of the Child and Family Agency. On 1 January the agency became an independent legal entity, comprising the former HSE child and family services, the Family Support Agency, the National Educational Welfare Board and a number of other child services. It represents the most comprehensive reform of child protection, early intervention and family support services ever undertaken in Ireland. It brings together for the first time social workers and staff in community-based services, educational welfare and social care services to work in partnership with voluntary and State agencies.

To quote the Minister, "We are going to move from a position where child and family welfare was barely a priority to a position where it will be the sole focus of a single dedicated State agency, with a ring-fenced budget ... and streamlined management, overseen by a single dedicated Government Department.” I welcome this. It is an important step in developing a strong framework for child protection in Ireland.

Part 4 of the Children First Bill allows for the establishment of a Children First interdepartmental implementation group on a statutory basis and the drawing up of sectoral implementation plans. The aim of the implementation group will be to promote compliance and monitor implementation of Children First by various Departments. This is another very important element of the Bill that I welcome.

With the publication of the Ryan report and other reports documenting unspeakable abuse and cruelty towards children, it became painfully clear that child abuse had been widespread in Irish society for centuries but had been hushed up, covered up, ignored and often not believed. Child abuse and neglect were happening in many communities but were hidden away and never spoken about. Children did not have a voice. It is only in the past few years that child protection cases have come into the public domain and the perpetrators of abuse have been identified and convicted. We have heard horrific accounts of child abuse and neglect and while many cases have now come to light, many more have not and will never be heard because many of the victims have passed away. This cannot be allowed to happen again. The Bill will result in increased reporting of abuse and appropriate action being taken immediately. While most of the cases that have come to light involved awful sexual and physical abuse, there are also cases of emotional and verbal abuse which are often more likely to be hidden or ignored. There are also cases of homes in which substance abuse, of the abuse of alcohol or drugs, or both, is rife and ravaging children’s lives daily. Such abuse can leave children with lifelong scars. It never leaves them. Even if they do reach out and seek help or counselling, the abuse can still be a great burden.

I acknowledge the many voluntary organisations and agencies that work with children. I have experience of working with children in a voluntary capacity in the community and greatly enjoy it. From a young age, I worked in my community and saw at first hand the effects of the trauma experienced by young children abused in the home. One could tell from the moment a child walked through the youth club door that he or she was living through hell at home, a place in which he or she should feel safe, loved and protected.

We must, therefore, recognise the genuine dedication of local people to children in their communities. For decades, volunteers throughout the country ran youth clubs, sports clubs, drama groups and so on and never looked for payment or recognition. Today, voluntarism has all but gone and, while it is still evident to some extent, people are now reluctant to become involved. Perhaps this Bill might change their minds and make them realise that the wealth of their experience is needed in a community. I simply make the point that one of the reasons for this reluctance to volunteer is the difficulty encountered in Garda vetting, an issue which needs to be examined.

I spoke about the way verbal and emotional abuse could affect young children. I had experience of this a couple of years ago with one of my own children. She was in a club where, unfortunately, the person running the club decided they would use her as a bouncing ball in order to abuse her verbally and emotionally. The abuse has not left her to this day and is very much part and parcel of the baggage she carries with her. I believe there are many children who need to be protected, whether they are in an organised organisation or a voluntary organisation. As a previous speaker said, we all want to love our children; we hope we love them and that we mind them in the right way. However, there is a section of society that does not believe children have these rights.

I would like to conclude with a quote from the late Nelson Mandela who said: "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children." It is most important for all of us that, in all of our souls, we are all children and if we are not treated right, it reflects on us for the rest of our lives.

Deputy Alan Farrell is sharing time with Deputy Seán Kenny.

I commend the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on making the Children First Bill a priority during this term. The Bill has been a very long time coming, with child protection legislation having been promised in 1997 and again in 2010. The establishment on a statutory footing of the protection and welfare of children through the Children First Bill is certainly a very important step and the introduction of the legislation marks a key achievement in meeting the commitments in the programme for Government. Putting parts of the Children First guidelines, a key recommendation made in the 2009 Ryan report, on a statutory footing will provide the necessary measures to ensure the protection of children will last for generations. The Bill also showcases the fundamental importance of having a dedicated Minister for Children and Youth Affairs with a permanent seat at the Cabinet table. It will form an essential part of the foundations of child protection in the State and work to protect some of our society's most vulnerable members. We must all recognise the solid basis the Bill provides for the safety of children throughout Ireland - the protection of those who are the future of society.

I welcome the main provisions of the Bill. The requirement placed on those organisations which provide services for children to develop a child safeguarding statement is very positive. Section 10 provides that such organisations will have to carry out an assessment of the possible risks of harm to children to create the basis for their child safeguarding statements and said organisations will, therefore, have an incentive to reduce the levels of risk to which children are exposed. This will have to be carried out within three months following the commencement of the Bill and must be provided for staff members, parents and guardians on request. I find it very important to mention that harm includes not only the act of harm and the circumstances which leads to harm but also the fact that it can occur owing to omission. As many have Members mentioned, this is a critical part of the legislation. The inclusion of omission, I hope, will act as a catalyst to deter people from turning a blind eye to abuses or the risk of abuse and, therefore, build a safer environment in which children can grow.

Section 11 identifies mandated persons who have a responsibility under this legislation to report any information which they gain on child abuse and any child protection concerns they have to the Child and Family Agency which will be known as Tusla. I am enthusiastic about this provision as it will stop non-reporting in instances where children are being abused. Furthermore, on occasions where a child reports that he or she is being abused or has been abused, or is at risk of being harmed, it is the responsibility and statutory obligation of a mandated person to report the matter to Tusla. It is a positive development to see that first-hand views of children must be taken into account for the appropriate action to be taken, should it be necessary. Not only will such provisions ensure the protection of children is guaranteed the importance it deserves but they will also work to change the culture surrounding child protection for the better. The requirement on mandated persons to assist the Child and Family Agency, if they are requested to do so, in assessing child protection risks will further facilitate such a change in culture. After all, as the Minister has previously stated, one main purpose of the legislation is making best safeguarding practice the cultural norm for anyone working with children.

The development of the Children First interdepartmental implementation group is a very encouraging sight and I thank the Minister for including the provision in the Bill. The role of the group in reviewing the implementation of the legislation is a factor which will allow for its ongoing success in practical terms. The group will include a representative from each Department. Furthermore, it will provide the Minister with an annual report on the proposed Children First legislation. This will continue to promote the implementation of the proposed legislation into the future, until such time as implementation becomes second nature and is viewed as merely being best practice. I also commend the co-operation between the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Justice and Equality. Through preparing the first draft of the heads of the Children First Bill, in conjunction with the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act which passed through the committee of which I am member, this will allow for this Bill to fit perfectly into a suite of legislation.

As the proposed Children First legislation is designed to work in tandem with the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act and the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act, it will be possible to impose serious sanctions, particularly for the withholding of information from the Garda. The imposition of sanctions for the withholding of information is a positive step, as it will truly send the message that children are not second-class citizens and cannot be treated as such. In addition, where a mandated person is found to have put a child at risk of harm, information can be passed to the National Vetting Bureau in this regard, while sanctions can also be imposed by the employer or a professional body responsible for the regulation of relevant professionals in this circumstance.

The reorganisation which has taken place in the Child and Family Agency which has focused its Children First service as a national service, will assist greatly in making increased levels of child protection a reality throughout the State, with no area being left behind. Having local information officers working as part of a national team will facilitate this further. I am glad to see that the training framework is going to be put in place in the implementation of the proposed legislation. The Child and Family Agency has worked with city and county child care committees to create a "train the trainers" system of training. Staff members in each of these child care committees have knowledge of how to provide training for those who work with individuals in child care settings. The fact that this is now in place with national cover will allow us to hit the ground running in the implementation of child protection legislation.

I welcome the Bill which I see as a positive step in protecting children throughout the State. Its main provisions, including the development of a child safeguarding statement, the identification of mandated persons and their responsibilities and the establishment of the Children First interdepartmental implementation group which will provide the foundations for ongoing child protection measures, are fundamental protections and children in the State deserve no less.

In addition, the proposed legislation will form the cornerstone of a suite of interacting legislation.

I repeat my commendation of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs because the work that she, her team and Department have undertaken in developing the Children First Bill is extraordinary. It serves to highlight her commitment to work in the best interests of children and families throughout the State both now and for future generations. I again thank her and the Cabinet for bringing forward this extremely important legislation.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan is next. I will then be calling Deputy Peter Mathews, if he wishes to contribute. Does Deputy Bernard J. Durkan wish to speak next?

Does the Deputy want to allow Deputy Peter Mathews to go first?

If he wants to go ahead, I will let him do so. I do not want to be greedy or anything like it. I am always amenable.

Deputy Peter Mathews is ready to contribute.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan is graciously generous to a fault.

I say, "Well done," for bringing forward this legislation. I did not prepare a paper on it, but I want to make some observations on the narrative as I see it. It is only a kerbside experience. As a father of four adult children who has seen them grow up through their early years, school and involvement in sports into manhood and womanhood, I have learned a lot. The great US entertainer Bill Cosby, a very talented man who has a master's degree in psychology, is a saxophone player and was possibly the highest earning entertainer in the world until Oprah Winfrey overtook him, noted that before he got married and had a family, he had many theories about what was good in child rearing. He then had five children and no theories.

As Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan said, there are many uncharted waters for every human being who comes into this world. It is interesting that child labour, often involving children climbing up chimneys to clean them, occurred in so-called civilised societies, including those following Judaeo-Christian customs and norms. Kaiser Wilhelm II who was at the pinnacle of society in pre-First World War Germany had survived a very difficult birth with a deformity. In order for the appearance of the future king to be the right, he was manipulated and abused as a child and put into steel braces for up to 12 years to correct what nature had done to him during his arrival into the world. It crippled him psychologically and led him to do things as a leader of one of the most industrialised countries in the world he might not have done otherwise.

Looked at in very simple terms, there is one exhortation from centuries back, that if a person scandalises children, it would be better if a millstone was tied around his or her neck and he or she was thrown into the depths of the sea. That is a very simple exhortation in terms of the respect we all need to give children because as Deputy Catherine Byrne said, the child within us never leaves us. It is that very sacred and unique aspect of each individual that we aim to cherish and encourage.

I will recount a personal experience in the wake of the child abuse scandals in the sport of swimming. My children had begun to take part in competitive swimming and the club they were joining had just experienced the trauma of the revelation of sexual abuse by an Olympic coach. The club and families involved were traumatised. I was asked whether I would take on the role of president of the club and Leinster Swimming for one year to create a distinct line between what had occurred up to that point and what would happen in the future. I did not want that chalice because of all that had happened, but I did it because we had not been involved and children in the sport needed to break from the past rather than have the sport closed down. I, therefore, have first-hand experience of the difficulties involved.

As Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan said, regardless of how theoretically sound the framework and the law are, it is practical experience and living through the different aspects of life that count. We need a change of culture rather than legislation. Some of the tribal cultures of what we call primitive societies protect their children better than the more sophisticated and complex societies. It is about a culture of norms and environments that are de-stressed. There are huge stress levels in complex societies. There is financial stress for two thirds of this society which will remain for ten to 15 years. It is horrible that one third of society will survive relatively unscathed the deep distress and financial depression that still lingers unnecessarily for two thirds of society because of the unfair outcomes of the financial collapse.

I will stray a little, but it is relevant because it is connected to the topic. It is too easy and glib to blame greedy developers and politicians, but it could not have happened without the credit bubble which was the responsibility of the boards of directors of banks. It created the environment that remains and will remain unless we have the courage to insist on a debt write-down with our European partners. Members may think I am out of order in mentioning this, but I am not because this atmosphere is like a fog that has caused depression for far too many. We have not seen the faces of those who were on the boards of banks and abandoned the principles of fractional reserving in 2001. They have not told us what they knew or did not know about the policies that should have been in place but were not all that time. We owe it to our children. That is the connection. This is called the Children First Bill. There are families which have been destroyed, are depressed and distressed because of the outcome and the wreckage that has been left. One can measure the progression of the credit bubble and the culpability of the boards by looking at the balance sheets of the banks and building societies from 2001. The sector has a culpability figure of 92%. It is measurable. We should start with the debate we might have been having on the banking inquiry, except that we need four days leading in to it. We do not need outside financial consultants. The reason I am saying this is children are suffering. That is the reality.

When one codifies the law, which is what we are doing, one can sometimes digress from the practicalities of creating a culture and an environment which is safe for children. The visual exposure of children on television and videos, etc., is deeply upsetting. It is upsetting to me, as an adult, yet it will become the norm in the visual imagery in the minds of children. It is not right. One does not need a law to stop this; one merely needs good common sense. We can excuse ourselves from using our common sense by patting ourselves on the back and saying we have articulate and complex legislation that hides us from the raw reality that in scandalising the little ones one deserves to have a millstone placed around one's neck and be placed in the sea. It is a simple sentence and in any language we all know what it means.

The contributions of the women Members in the Dáil and those who have supported the Bill through the Department are hugely important because women are the mothers of the children whom we are trying to protect and who have that close bond from the get-go, even before children are born, with their well-being. It is always important for men to listen to what they have to say in this matter.

My contribution may seem kaleidoscopic, but it is connected with experience. It is giving a narrative and putting flesh onto the legislation which, by its nature, has to be set out in codes, paragraphs, articles, sub-articles, etc. When one starts to define what people have got to do, one can miss the point. Our culture deserves to have an injection of generosity and that we, as public representatives, talk about this, that we are not afraid to talk about it and that we state it is not good enough to see the exposure of multiple matters such as gratuitous violence on television. One would not allow weeds to become rampant in one's garden or chemicals to be used that would damage growth in it. Why should we allow our minds and spirits to become corrupted or contaminated? It is merely good sense.

When we look at those families in distressed regions of the world where there is no food or water, there still is great protection and shelter, warmth and love, for the children, no matter how distressed are the adults. One does not see perverse behaviour towards the children, yet in more complex and sophisticated societies one can get weird stuff that is hidden in darkness and the occult on the Internet and elsewhere. We need to get back to basics.

As I stated, in the banking inquiry we need to look at the basics.

The Deputy should confine himself to what is contained in the Bill and what could be included in it. I am sorry for repeating myself.

That is fair enough. I say, "Well done", for bringing forward the Bill. Let us include it in a practical and pragmatic message for the people. We are all in favour of the title, "Putting children first", but how do we do it? For instance, the applications to engage in betting and the like are so accessible and children are betting.

I am glad to have an opportunity to speak about this important legislation and compliment the Minister on bringing it before the House. It has been long-awaited. It was spoken about for a long time, during which many commentators pointed to the need for it. The Minister went about it in the right way in the sense that the day a Minister enters office for the first time is the day the target has to be set because it takes approximately three years to achieve it. That is exactly what it took in this case.

This is ground-breaking legislation. Let us not forget that there are peculiar attitudes in this country and worldwide about children and what is deemed to be neglect and abuse. It comes after a long history of appallingly sad events in the way children were dealt with in our society. It is an appalling reflection on the degree to which society did not seem to care because, obviously, children were young and innocent and perhaps, in some cases, not able to communicate. In many cases, they did, but they were not believed. Even when it was obvious that there were serious issues that needed to be dealt with, they still were not believed. We should learn one or two lessons from this. The innocence of children is something we must always try to protect because to pollute the mind of a child is an appalling act. It is unpardonable, not only for the perpetrator but also for society, on which it reflects.

Every one of us in this House has dealt during the years with serious cases in which there was evidence of child abuse in various forms, whether it be physical, mental or sexual, or by silence and control. It is sad that we did not learn enough and did not learn in time and, for some unknown reason, continued to pursue policies that were more in keeping with a Dickensian age. I was a member of the visiting committee of the health board many years ago and it was appalling to observe the neglect inflicted on innocent children who knew of no reason for the neglect and had nobody to whom they could talk, the reason being they had special needs. These poor children had, for want of a better description, been "detained" in utterly appalling conditions. My biggest concern at the time was that there were persons in charge who did not think there was anything wrong with it and that it could continue. That is merely one of many instances about which I spoke in the House at least 30 years ago. Sadly, it took the scandals and upheavals of recent years to finally bring recognition to bear on us and recognise that something had to be done about it. One should not forget that in the recent referendum campaign on the rights of children 100% of the population were not in agreement with the proposal, which is also a sad reflection on our society.

At this stage, we should compliment the Minister on having the courage to stay resolutely with the task of bringing the legislation before the House.

We hope it will do the job it is intended to do. If legislation does not work to the extent intended, it should be re-examined. I have said this about all legislation during my time in this House. If it transpires that there are weaknesses in legislation, we should be able to amend it where possible and not wait an abnormally long time before doing so, as the Minister will readily recognise. Obviously, we cannot get everything right at the first attempt all the time, but we hope it will be done in this instance.

We all need to be aware of the reportage on child abuse. We have all seen situations where we would have had inner concerns about what might happen behind the hall door to children, women, teenagers, people with special needs and other vulnerable persons. There may be other competing issues in a household also. Some such cases have, unfortunately, ended tragically. On occasion, we pointed to the likelihood of something of that nature happening, although we were not always believed, no more than adults were when they protested during the years about how they had been treated as children. Some of them did not realise they were being abused, as we must remember an innocent child believes what he or she is told. They believed the treatment to which they were being subjected was normal and that that was the way life was in society. It is sad.

We have still not addressed all of these issues, but, at least, this legislation sets down fundamental guidelines and parameters within which action can be taken in the interests of children. The Children First Bill is well named in that the child should be our first concern. Children are vulnerable and dependent on those around them, as well as on their circumstances. We failed to address that issue for a very long time. At this late stage, I hope we can fully recognise our failings in that regard. There must be a commitment by everybody and society at large, both within and outside families, to ensure it does not recur.

Even in recent times we have had examples of some peculiar activity concerning those charged with the responsibility of looking after children, but that should not happen in a civilised society. I wonder whether we are, to some extent, governed by modern communications technology, including the Internet. Child abuse is perpetrated through the electronic media, yet, amazingly, it seems nobody can do anything about it. I do not agree, however, that it is impossible to control it. When technology is established, electronic or otherwise, it must be possible to control it and quickly.

A previous speaker referred to the portrayal on television of violence against women, children and other vulnerable persons. Of course, the human mind is conditioned by this and after a while, people expect that this is part and parcel of life. Children will be influenced by something like this very quickly and come to believe it is the normal way to behave. They, in turn, will treat other children in the same way as it is depicted in the media.

Internet grooming is another issue that has arisen in recent years. We know it goes on, but we are having great difficulty in dealing with it. One person's freedom can involve the incarceration of another or the restriction of his or her rights. When any person, group or agency seeks to restrict the rights and entitlements of a vulnerable dependant such as a child or older person, it reflects badly on our society.

In our clinics we all meet the parents of children with special needs. They are valiantly providing for their families and trying to make available to their children whatever facilities can be obtained. I pay tribute to parents in such circumstances. It bring tears to one's eyes the degree to which such parents, usually mothers, will go to the ends of the earth to achieve the best possible outcome in what appear to be appalling and depressing circumstances.

The Celtic tiger implosion may have been good in that it has brought us all to our senses. It is not all about material things because there are other aspects also. In rebuilding our society I hope we will have greater regard for the needs of those who look up to us for support and an improvement in their quality of life. They depend on us, as legislators, to give the lead. We should know what we are doing and be forward thinking.

The threat posed by Internet pornography has serious implications for children. People may say it can be blocked off on television, but there are other ways of circumventing this and hackers are past masters at doing so. They specialise in it. The problem does not affect this country alone but also various other jurisdictions, including Belgium and the United States, where appalling atrocities have been perpetrated on children through the use of electronic media. In Nigeria recently children were taken away from their school and are going to be sold into slavery. What an appalling thing to do to another human being in a so-called civilised society. It is all very fine for us to say it did not happen here. That may be so, but other things did happen here that were of no great credit to us. We are living in a very cold and callous society, even though we have been known for our charity and concern. That is as it should be, but let us not forget that we have been callous in turning the other way and averting our gaze from the kinds of thing that occur which are a major slur on society.

From time to time, like others in the House, I have had to deal with the question of reporting suspicious circumstances. The difficulty is that one is loth to err by suggesting something might be wrong if, in fact, it is not. When I was first elected to the House many years ago, I used to be scared that anything I might say might not be factual. Having listened to some of the things said in the House during the years, however, I have reassured myself that one should not have to worry about such things. In the event that we have a deep suspicion that something is not as it should concerning children, we must always take action. We should seek reassurance and report to the appropriate authorities in whatever way we can, not to undermine the character of the people or institutions concerned but to try to ensure children are cared for as they should be. We must seek to avoid neglect and the kinds of situation we have had during the years where children were simply ignored. In so doing we will set a new standard for the future.

I hope the legislation will do the job it is intended to do. It is extremely broadly-based and the provisions the Minister has made are adequate to do the job. However, there are always instances in which someone ignores the obvious. It is amazing. If people ignore the obvious in a situation such as this, which is not to say the Minister or anyone else can patrol or supervise every institution or circumstance, it is important that there be a clear recognition that there must be retribution and accountability, for which I am afraid we are not great in this country. Sadly, the chances are that someone will say, "Look, in the circumstances of the time, it was not possible," refer to the one hand and the other and express all of the other nonsense spoken from time to time. I hope, however, that the legislation will stand the test of time and do the job it is intended to do, which is to put children first.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. It does what it says on the tin and puts children first. It is long overdue.

Having listened to the debate this evening and since the Minister introduced the legislation, I note that others have contextualised the Bill in terms of where the country has come from. It is no harm to do that. Every morning every Member walks in past the Proclamation. We were in Arbour Hill this morning to commemorate those who gave their lives in 1916. The Proclamation set out the aspirations of the Republic that was to be founded in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. Looking at that Proclamation, how it was delivered and the context in which it was proclaimed, and looking at Ireland in 2014, we see that over the 98 years since 1916 we have not lived up to the aspirations set out in respect of children. We probably did not live up to the aspirations for women either. The opening salvo in the Proclamation refers to "Irishmen and Irishwomen". It identifies them as equals. Our legacy over the last 98 years in the protection of children has not been a very proud one, and this is something on which we must work harder. Over the intervening period, particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Kilkenny incest case and a host of other horrific matters fell out of the media night after night. Even now, in 2014, those cases continue to shock. They still send a shiver down the spine when they are recalled. They have been dramatised in films such as "Song for a Raggy Boy".

As a society, collectively, and as a Government and people, we must apologise and pay respect to the children who were dealt an appalling hand by the State and by accidents of birth. One of the most horrific places I have ever been is the graveyard at Letterfrack in Galway. There is a small graveyard there attached to what was an industrial school. The tiny headstones are a constant physical reminder to us - if we ever needed it - of how we failed not just one generation of children but countless ones. The previous speaker referred to the ills of the Internet and social media, but we must look at the positive side of those and of lifting the lid on a horrendous time in our history. One gets to look in and see what was done in the name of the State and of institutions which were looked up to in a lot of cases and which failed children by not providing the protection, education and shelter they needed. In many cases, they were severely lacking.

That was the context. If we fast-forward to 2011, we see a Government giving children the recognition they deserve by providing them with a voice at Cabinet for the first time since the Proclamation was issued on the steps of the GPO and a commitment was made to cherishing the children of the nation. It was not until then that the voice of the child was heard in a forum in which it mattered - at the Cabinet table, over which decisions are taken which have an impact on children who are vulnerable on foot of their age and the accidents of birth which determine the homes into which they may or may not be lucky enough to fall into.

The Bill identifies a number of things. I was not a member of the committee that deliberated on this over a number of meetings, but there is a concern I have. The Bill places on people an obligation to report. No one disputes that that is in the best interests of the child. However, there may be instances of intentional failure where it can be proven beyond any doubt that mandated persons intended not to make a report. Perhaps the person might know the abuser or the child's family. Where there is an intentional and clear lack of commitment to the child, there must be consequences. Reading the Bill, which has rightly been welcomed by children's organisations, and the media commentary on it, I wonder if we will be looking at it in future and asking if there was a need to put a penalty in place as a safeguard in respect of mandated persons. While I hope it does not arise, we never know what situations will occur.

The people who went before us in the House 30 and 40 years ago never thought they would see what fell out of the cupboards in terms of the abuse that was being carried out in the name of the State. Honourable men and women sat on both sides of the House. They were probably kept in a cocoon or a cloud of denial through an intentional campaign by those who were put in charge of children not to bring forward information that was absolutely necessary. That was the way it was and one simply did not talk about those things. I acknowledge that the Bill has a long way to go, but I wonder if consideration might be given to penalties for those who intentionally withhold information and put a child at risk.

The Bill addresses the issue of neglect. As someone who taught for a short period, I was trained at Mary Immaculate College, where we looked at the concept of neglect. I have mentioned to the Minister previously the concepts of shelter, food and nourishment, which are hugely important. A child may not report for school week after week and be missing in the roll book. Some children are present at school for a fixed period in the run-up to the delivery of a sacrament before going missing. Where a child vanishes off the face of the earth, as does his or her family, there is an onus on the State to find out what is happening in his or her home. It is all well and good for the child to be instructed in the sacraments. While I am a huge advocate of that, there is a caveat.

It is seriously questionable when a child is taken out of school after receiving sacraments in the local parish and the family vanishes into thin air with no follow-up from State agencies to see what kind of schooling the child is getting and whether the child's best interests are being served. The child is still an Irish citizen, regardless of whether the child is in this jurisdiction or another. There is an onus on the State to break the cycle whereby children are being taken into and out of schools just to fulfil particular elements of what the family requires. It must be examined.

I welcome the associated legislation produced by this Government in the run-up to this Bill, including criminal justice legislation such as the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act. Having heard the news of the resignation of the Minister for Justice and Equality, I would be remiss in not paying tribute to him for the work done on the protection of children. There will be argy-bargy afterwards on "Prime Time" on RTE and on TV3 about the resignation, but that does not take from the fact that Deputy Alan Shatter did a huge amount of good work in protecting the children of this country. It behoves the House to acknowledge that in whatever way. The evening should not pass, when talking about legislation that is inextricably linked to the criminal justice system, without our paying tribute to him.

With regard to mandated persons, teachers are hugely important as a cog in the wheel. They are cheek by jowl with children on a daily basis and they have an important role to play, but they need to be supported, resourced and trained. They need to be sensitive. When the heads of the Bill were being examined, some of the contributors at the committee meeting were reluctant to suggest penalties for people who did not engage in mandatory reporting because they worried that the system would be clogged with frivolous reports. That misses the point, which is the protection of the child. If there is any doubt whether a child of five, six or seven years of age is at risk, there is a duty to report it, and mandated people working with children on a daily basis cannot brush it off. Mandated people should not make a decision on whether to report on their own. Support mechanisms need to be put in place on a localised basis. In the Bill, the Minister has set out the criteria for interdepartmental work, but it must get into the staffroom in the school. The teacher must be comfortable telling the principal or colleagues or seeking advice on how to deal with the child about which there is suspicion.

I return to the issue of neglect. For teachers, there is not much point in marking the roll book in a classroom on a daily basis if they do not feel they are being supported by the State in the imposition of the law. The interdepartmental element includes the HSE, social workers, the Department of Education and Skills and everyone working at the macro level, but at the micro level, whether in a small village, a small town or a community in an urban area, people must feel resources are available from which they can seek advice. It may not involve a report but clarification of what people can do about a particular child they have worries about when the child is acting differently on a particular day.

Positive work has been done on Garda vetting. I am involved with community groups that work with children and take children overseas. We go through hoops to be Garda vetted, and these are properly constructed and are in place for a very good reason. Many people moan about the fact that one must be vetted each time one signs up to a new organisation. I would love to see a Garda vetting passport that could be renewed every six months or two years and was a live document that could be taken from one organisation to another or to schools. Every time one joins an organisation dealing with children or vulnerable adults, one must be vetted by the Garda Síochána. A live document could be accessible by mandated people, such as a local Garda superintendent, and this would make it easier than having to go through the same rigmarole upon joining a new organisation.

The previous speaker referred to the horrific scenes in Nigeria over the past few days. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has a particular interest in inter-country adoption and in taking children from particularly vulnerable parts of the world and giving them opportunities in Ireland. She must be credited for this. The scenes in Nigeria are horrendous. If the House can encourage the Nigerian authorities or be of assistance to the European Union in stopping this, every effort must be made to do so through diplomatic channels, through the Minister's office, through the Tánaiste's office and through the European Council. That schools are being raided by militia in 2014, with young girls being sold into slave camps, is unbelievable, and no self-respecting democracy should be tolerant of it. The Nigerian Government requires assistance from the EU, the United States and a host of other places. Through the offices of the Minister, the Government should make these noises heard at EU and UN level so that we do whatever is necessary to put a stop to this. This piracy must be stopped.

I pay tribute to the Minister for introducing the legislation, which is timely, and I put on record my sincere thanks to the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, for everything he did in the area. I welcome the provisions of the Bill.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Children First Bill. Today is a dark day for children because of the loss of the Minister for Justice and Equality. I happen to share the same political party as the former Minister but, all politics aside, I am not overly political in debate, and certainly not on this occasion. I am speaking about him as a man and I am fortunate enough to work with children in the care of the State. I am extraordinarily grateful for the work done by Deputy Shatter, which has had a direct impact on the quality of life of some of our most vulnerable children in the care of the State. I have never known anyone in the political class who has made such a contribution to children's welfare and well-being. On a personal note, I am very sad on this dark day when the Minister has had to leave his portfolio because of the amount of legislation he was continuing to champion, including the children and family relationships Bill, which is due before the House in September. It is pioneering legislation that will have a positive impact on the lives of so many children.

Deputy Alan Shatter is a lawyer and understands family law. He has written numerous books on it, and it was an extraordinary opportunity for the State to have a man with his knowledge of children's rights and issues in that post. I commend him and thank him for his contribution to the well-being of children over the past three years and, all politics aside, I am sad for the children who have no voice today. He was an enormous asset for children and, unfortunately, he will not be in that role any more. I wish his successor well in his or her endeavours.

I was recently at a conference on the children and family relationships Bill organised by the Children's Rights Alliance.

There, I was blown away by the genuine effusiveness of the praise given to Deputy Shatter by all contributors there who were working with children, many of whom were working with very vulnerable children. People there included people like the former Supreme Court Judge, Catherine McGuinness, Geoffrey Shannon and Tanya Ward from the Children's Rights Alliance. They were effusive in their praise of Alan Shatter and what he had done for children and their rights. Not long ago, I heard Fergus Finlay speak on a radio station and when he was asked whether he thought the then Minister should resign, he said he genuinely hoped he would not and that he would get to introduce the changes he was about to bring about. I acknowledge the contribution of Alan Shatter to the rights of children.

I welcome this legislation to the House. It is timely and is a further commitment of the Government. It is not a solution in itself, but is another step towards ensuring that children and their rights are protected. Children are our greatest asset. In regard to the referendum that was passed last November but which is still held up in the courts, I regret that delay because that referendum was a milestone in our society. It was a referendum that would not have had an impact on the majority of children of this State, but it had an impact in regard to the most vulnerable children, those in the care of the State. Daily, I regret the delay in being able to implement the changes brought about by that referendum. Every day gone is a day wasted and I hope the issue gets through the courts quickly and we get to see change being brought about for the children impacted and that their lives will improve.

Today, I read the 2014 report card issued by the Children's Rights Alliance which welcomed the positive contribution of the Child and Family Agency, an organisation with 4,000 employees and a budget of €600 million. This is another step and welcome development towards improving the lives of so many of our children.

I have a concern with regard to one area of this legislation and I presume this can be examined further on Committee Stage. This concerns the need to include foster carers in the mandated section. Foster carers work with vulnerable and special children and many of them could be in the way of picking up on abuse of children coming into care. Many foster carers deal with short term care and children come and go through their homes through the system. I suggest the Minister should consider including a provision in this regard in the legislation further down the line.

I thank all the Deputies who contributed to the debate on this important Bill. The debate has provided an opportunity for me to set out the overall rationale to the proposed legislation and I hope this has been of assistance to Deputies in considering the approach which has been taken in the Bill following detailed policy consideration and consultation.

Many Deputies have indicated a wish to work constructively on the Bill and have made suggestions, which I will consider in the course of Committee Stage of the Bill. The Bill addresses a key recommendation in the implementation plan of the Ryan report, which was published in July 2009. It also meets the commitment in the programme for Government, which was to put Children First on a statutory basis. I am satisfied I have fully met the commitment given in regard to legislating for Children First. To imply otherwise, as some speakers did earlier, is to engage in political point scoring and obfuscation of the real purpose of the Bill. The goal is not simply to deliver on these commitments, but to improve legislation that will protect children. The goal is also to ensure the legislation supports the provision of the right information in the right way and on a timely basis so as to guide the actions of the Child and Family Agency in protecting children.

In summary, the Bill provides that organisations providing services to children must consider the potential risk to children availing of their services and demonstrate awareness and good practice in a child-safeguarding statement, which will be available to parents and the public generally. It is important parents ask to see this statement and that it is publicly available for them so they can check out any organisation providing services to children. A number of Deputies have made the point that they feel there should be consequences if organisations do not have a safeguarding statement and I will consider that.

Certain individuals who are mandated persons under the Bill will be required to report child welfare and protection concerns in accordance with the legislation to the agency. Mandated persons will also be required to report to the agency any disclosures of harm made to the mandated person by a child. The categories of mandated persons have been set out clearly in the legislation. It has been decided to focus on a small, qualified cadre of persons. This is based on evidence, including international research, which suggests that to do so improves the reporting of child welfare and protection concerns which have higher rates of substantiation. The reporting of harm to children by persons who, by virtue of their training, qualifications and professional experience, are well equipped to recognise harm is likely to have a positive effect on the process of assessment of risk by the agency. In essence, those persons who are mandated to report under the provisions of the Bill are aware of risks to children and of their responsibility in that regard. It is anticipated that reports from these persons are likely to be of a high standard, which will assist the agency in carrying out assessments of risk in an effective and efficient manner.

Some Deputies raised concerns that the Bill does not include sanctions for non-reporting of harm by mandated persons. I wish to point out that this Bill is part of a suite of legislation, including the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012, wherein there is a criminal sanction for withholding information from the Garda in regard to the abuse of children. Therefore, as there is already an offence provided for in that legislation, it is not intended to create the same offence in this Bill. I wish to inform Deputies that careful consideration was given to all aspects of imposing sanctions. However, in accordance with legal advice and the overall policy objectives, we decided not to impose extra sections.

There is a clear obligation in the legislation to report abuse and I believe this will be taken seriously by mandated persons, their employers and their professional bodies and there will be consequences for those professionals who do not report. The option to report a person to the relevant fitness to practise committee of his or her regulatory body remains open to the child and family agencies. There is also a link to the national vetting legislation. Therefore, there may be implications for a person's employment if he or she is clearly seen not to have reported something they should have reported. I will work further with the interdepartmental group to examine the potential sanctions in regard to funding that could be removed from organisations in which mandated persons work who do not report. We will examine potential funding consequences where the obligations set out in the Bill have not been met.

The committee highlighted the need to include emotional abuse and this was taken on board in the published Bill. In the drafting of the Bill, I had to take into account that not all forms of abuse are as clear cut as others. This has particular relevance in the area of creating criminal offences. I wanted to ensure that when we approached this Bill, we would do so on the basis of what serves best to protect children. We should not lose this focus in pursuing the legal requirements entailed in criminal prosecutions. As I have said, these are dealt with elsewhere in other legislation.

In parallel with the legislation, promoting awareness among parents and the general public of the importance of child-safeguarding statements can create a powerful influence on service providers to deliver fully on their responsibilities in a transparent fashion. I thank all Deputies for their contributions and look forward to further discussion on Committee Stage on the Children First legislation.

Question put and agreed to.