I welcome this evening's debate on Scouting Ireland. There are many in this House who, quite rightly, have remained vigilant in respect of Scouting Ireland. I will listen carefully as I value the knowledge and expertise of colleagues who bring an insight from meetings with survivors, children, parents and volunteers of Scouting Ireland. I understand that members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs continued this forensic work yesterday. This type of scrutiny is appropriate and I believe it is the reason we are all elected to represent the people in our communities. As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I have found the information and learning that emerges from the committee hearings helpful in respect of decisions that I have to make about Scouting Ireland. It was interesting to hear the Chairman of the committee note that after Tusla, Scouting Ireland is the organisation that the committee has spent the most time on. This reflects the level of concern of public representatives about how the organisation is currently being run, its recent history and the legacy issues with which it is dealing.
It is 22 months since I became aware of serious issues relating to the governance of Scouting Ireland. My Department and I have scrutinised the operation of the organisation to ensure that today's children and young people are safe when they are in the care of Scouting Ireland. The second issue of concern is dealing with what went on in the past in the two legacy scouting organisations, the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland and the Scouting Association of Ireland. I would like to deal with today's children first. The Governance arrangements in Scouting Ireland up to October 2018 were dysfunctional and blinkered. I am using a simple definition of governance, namely, the way a group of people does things. The first warning bells about the way things were being done in Scouting Ireland were sounded in February 2018 in a report in The Irish Times. It detailed how those in authority in Scouting Ireland dealt with an allegation of rape by a volunteer. Senior members of Scouting Ireland responded inappropriately and the then board of Scouting Ireland, in my opinion, failed in its duty to respond to this behaviour by its senior volunteers. Therefore, with little confidence in the board, I suspended State funding. Over the following few weeks, the decision to suspend funding was, sadly, reinforced by the continued poor judgment of the then board.
I would like to state clearly that there were senior people in Scouting Ireland who were not involved and who stepped up to the plate to reform the governance of the organisation. They did this despite some internal opposition and were key to ensuring that Scouting Ireland was put on the right track. They should be commended for this. They committed to reforming the structures of Scouting Ireland and they achieved this. That continues to be the start of a long road back for Scouting Ireland. A significant step was the full external governance review conducted, on my behalf, by former Senator, Ms Jillian van Turnhout. She applied her considerable expertise to reviewing the governance of Scouting Ireland. Ms van Turnhout's report set out a pathway for Scouting Ireland to address the shocking deficits in the organisation. She submitted her review to me in June 2018 and Scouting Ireland reported to me last month that it has implemented all of her recommendations in full. I have asked Ms van Turnhout to examine whether this has been done comprehensively and she will report back on this early next year.
Last year, I agreed to provide funding to enhance the safeguarding capacity of Scouting Ireland. This has allowed the establishment of a permanent safeguarding manager to support the wider safeguarding team. I have met the safeguarding manager, who also appeared as part of the delegation attending the joint committee meeting yesterday. I was impressed by his experience and his single-mindedness in ensuring that Scouting Ireland is a safe organisation for children.
Scouting Ireland is close to full completion of the strategic actions agreed with Tusla in March of this year. I understand from senior colleagues in Tusla that it is satisfied with its engagement with Scouting Ireland. This assurance is critical and will continue to be so into the future.
The level of scrutiny of Scouting Ireland is intense but it has to be and it will continue thus. Deputies will be aware that, as Minister, I have extended public funding to Scouting Ireland until April next year. Restoration of funding after then will be dependent on certain developments. My officials and I regularly meet representatives from both the board and executive of Scouting Ireland. I have requested and received regular updates on safeguarding and governance issues in the form of detailed progress reports, all of which have also been shared publicly. We scrutinise these reports very carefully and use our meetings with Scouting Ireland to clarify details therein. My officials and last met Scouting Ireland on 6 November and at that meeting I welcomed progress made to date. Ms van Turnhout's assessment on the implementation of the recommendations of her report will be key to any decision to restore funding.
Past abuse continues to ruin lives. We witnessed this through the heart-breaking testimony of survivors of abuse on the "RTÉ Investigates" programme, "Scouts Dishonour", three weeks ago. The men who spoke on the programme dug deep to summon the strength to tell their harrowing stories and share with us the catastrophic effect the abuse has had on their lives. While the programme confirmed information that we have been aware of for some time, including the significant numbers of children who were abused and the clear failure to keep them safe while in the care of previous scouting organisations, hearing the story in the words and the voices of those who were abused is something that will remain with me. These children were failed by those who should have protected them from the criminals who abused them. One cannot help but wonder if those who failed to protect these children were motivated by loyalty, not to the children, but to the organisation. It would not be the first time that has happened but we are trying to make sure it is the last.
It is a fundamental legal requirement that all cases of child abuse be investigated by the relevant statutory authorities, irrespective of when they occurred or were reported. Strong governance and safeguarding policies and processes must be in place in all organisations for children and young people. Scouting Ireland's role, as set out in law, is to forward pertinent information, evidence and records to the relevant authorities, namely, An Garda Síochána and Tusla, and it is the responsibility of these bodies to carry out the appropriate investigation.
Mr. Ian Elliott has been commissioned by Scouting Ireland to review historical sexual abuse in scouting in Ireland.
I am aware some Deputies believe that because Mr. Elliott was contracted by Scouting Ireland in a safeguarding role, his work on this report is not independent. Regardless of one's views on the matter, the report is fundamental to the next steps to be taken by the Government and the Oireachtas in respect of Scouting Ireland. It will set out the evidence which has emerged in recent times and the actions taken by the organisations at the time, namely, the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland and the Scouting Association of Ireland. It will outline the lessons for Scouting Ireland as it seeks to continuously improve its safeguarding and it will be an important analysis for all Members to consider. It will be shared with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. I expect to receive it in February. In order to give me and my officials time to digest the report, as well as giving the committee an opportunity to scrutinise it, I have decided not to make a further decision on extending funding to Scouting Ireland until March.
I am aware of calls for a form of statutory inquiry into the handling of abuse in the scouting movement and I am giving this question very careful consideration. I am interested in Members' views in this regard.
Everybody involved in activities with children and young people has a moral and legal responsibility to keep them safe. Children have a fundamental right to be safe from abuse and harm. We have introduced laws and regulations to protect them. I introduced mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse two years ago next week. We need to be vigilant. Those who shared their stories on the "RTÉ Investigates" programme were not given the protections they should have received and have carried the consequences with them into adulthood. The people who abused them are guilty of a heinous crime. Those who should have safeguarded and protected them from the abusers also bear guilt.
It is clear that there have been fundamental failures to which we must face up. We must support survivors to heal and we must hold perpetrators to account. The current situation challenges us all and we must rise to that challenge. We must not simply write policies and procedures or talk about keeping children safe. Rather, we must live and breathe safeguarding as our number one priority. This vital work will ensure a future where children and young people can enjoy the very significant benefits of being involved in youth organisations while being kept safe and protected from harm at all times.