I thank the joint committee for the invitation to attend. As the Chairman knows, I have sought the invitation and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to members about this matter.
I was appointed chairperson of the board of management by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, when a new board was appointed for the amalgamated campus in June 2016. I am a professor of law with over 20 years' experience in the areas of children's rights, youth justice and detention, in addition to my substantial academic and research experience. I have worked for years on matters of national policy and international law and undertaken multiple research projects commissioned by national and international bodies. I fulfil my voluntary responsibilities as chairperson of the board of management on top of my full-time university roles. In so doing I am very grateful for the support of my employer, University College Cork. I appear with my fellow board members, Mr. Don O'Leary and Ms Emer Woodfull.
The board of management has a membership of 12 and was appointed by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. It includes representatives of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Tusla and the Department of Education and Science. There are two elected staff nominees, two elected community representatives and five members selected following an independent process governed by the Public Appointments Service. All members have volunteered to be of service to the Oberstown campus and the public in this role.
It is critical to state all board members have a shared commitment to the interest and welfare of young people. They fulfil this commitment through all of their functions on the board. In addition, many come with very substantial expertise in matters of governance, risk, law, finance and human resources. The board is an experienced and professional body. It operates to the highest standards of governance. There is excellent attendance and participation by all board members at all of our monthly meetings. Since our appointment we have supported and challenged management to provide the best possible care to young people in Oberstown on behalf of the Minister. As the committee knows, in that time we have overseen substantial improvements in the care provided to young people and the organisation as a whole although, of course, many challenges remain.
When the board was appointed we were aware the process of merging three schools, in a substantial €54 million building project, would be exceptionally demanding. Industrial relations issues, which have been a feature of the schools for many years, created a challenging backdrop to the change agenda that was essential to the modernisation of the entire operation. On my first day, I attended the Workplace Relations Commission as part of the director's efforts to resolve differences with staff. It was in the context of this extraordinary change programme and against the backdrop of multiple other reviews that were ongoing under the WRC process, on security, health and safety, behaviour management and other matters, that the process now known as the operational review was conceived. At the time, it was decided by the board that a facilitated review based on observation and engagement would help to move the campus forward and create a platform of engagement and discussion on how best to provide care to young people in a secure environment. In addition to these multiple other ongoing reviews, the board took this voluntary step to commission its own review which was, as we know according to the terms of reference, designed to support the implementation of best practice to ensure Oberstown fulfils its potential to provide the best care for young people.
The review was designed as a supportive developmental process to enable continuing reforms to take place in line with international best practice. We have heard the terms of reference set out. These were to evaluate practice and policy, to identify obstacles or barriers to achieving greater implementation of standards and best practice, and to make recommendations to ensure greater and more successful implementation of the standards. In line with the process, as a review rather than a commissioning of a report, the terms of reference explained the pattern of the process would involve observing and engaging with staff and young people, consideration of Oberstown's policies and procedures, speaking with relevant stakeholders including young people, staff, management, the board and others as required by the review, presenting findings and recommendations to staff, management and the board, and delivering a final report to the board and the Minister. As the terms of reference made clear, the emphasis was on engaging with staff, young people and other stakeholders, considering the policy framework and reflecting this learning back to staff and management before a final report of the process was presented to the board and Minister.
With the appointment of the two reviewers, Professor Barry Goldson and Professor Nick Hardwick, whom I contacted as a colleague in the academic sphere, a preparatory visit took place in October with the scheduled two-day visit taking place on 7 and 8 November. An itinerary of meetings was scheduled for the reviewers entirely at their discretion. They were provided with extensive information on the campus, which they sought and we sought to provide. The reviewers were free to engage with young people and staff on an ad hoc basis throughout their visit. They also received emails to a confidential inbox that Oberstown established for the review. At a brief informal exit meeting with the chairperson and director the reviewers provided a summary of the issues but no formal presentation of their findings took place.
The first draft of the report was submitted to me at the end of November 2016. Substantial concerns about the report were flagged to the reviewers at the time and a meeting took place between the director, myself and the reviewers in December 2016 to highlight factual inaccuracies. A further version of the report was received just prior to Christmas 2016, and in January 2017 I again met the reviewers to seek to address the ongoing concerns with the report. By that point, the date for the reviewers' return visit to the campus, which was envisaged as a forum to present the findings and engage with staff and the board on the issues, had passed. To my mind, the reviewers wanted to finalise the report before undertaking the visit and, as we have heard, it has not been rescheduled.
The reviewers forwarded to me what they consider to be the final version of the report at the end of February, at which time it was flagged to the reviewers that legal advice would likely be required and a decision on when and in what form the report would be published would need to be determined by the board in line with its legal responsibilities. On 9 March, the board decided to independently seek legal advice on the publication of the report and this was notified to the reviewers on 13 March. The report was forwarded to the Minister by the reviewers on 17 March 2017. In April, the board established a sub-committee to deal with the matter and in May the independent legal advice was received, following which we sought and received additional legal advice on the possibility of publishing a redacted version and on the management of the legal risks in dealing with the matter. On 22 May, at a special meeting, the board decided in light of the independent legal advice not to publish the full report.
It is important to stress that throughout this process the board, which represents a broad cross-section of people with an extraordinary commitment to the interests of young people in Oberstown, sought to deal with the matter fairly and prudently in light of its substantial legal responsibilities to the young people in Oberstown and the staff who work there. In light of our commitment to transparency and to reflect the important progress made since the review was commissioned, the board published recommendations of the review in July 2017 following a meticulous and detailed process that considered the implementation of each recommendation. At the same time, the board published a summary of all of the reviews undertaken into aspects of the campus and throughout 2017 I chaired the review implementation group, which was established by the Minister, comprising representatives of staff, trade unions, the board and the Irish Youth Justice Service and an independent child welfare expert. We collated and analysed the hundreds of recommendations that arose from all of the reviews undertaken on Oberstown throughout 2016 and 2017. This very complex task was completed on schedule in December 2017, when, along with progress reports that were published in 2018, it was presented to the Minister and published by her. I am very pleased to say a further progress report on the implementation of the recommendations of all of the reviews was presented to the Department in January 2019 indicating all of the relevant recommendations have now been implemented.
The decision not to publish the report was taken by the board following a process of exceptional care and diligence. The decision was not one the board wanted to make. It was its full intention to publish but, regrettably, we were left with no alternative when the serious legal risks associated with publication were brought to our attention in the form of independent legal advice. In particular, the board was advised that placing the report in the public domain would be fraught with legal risk in the absence of the protections of the fair procedures and due process that Irish law requires.
There is no doubt the campus faced real challenges between 2014 and 2017 in particular, which peaked in 2016. Efforts in all areas of staff and management, with leadership and accountability provided by the board, have played an important role in bringing about the transformative change that has been documented by our statutory inspector, HIQA, following its two full five-day inspections in 2017 and 2018. In addition to the significantly improved environment, the board has taken a range of initiatives to improve and enhance transparency and the oversight and accountability the board provides. It is developing and adopting the campus's first strategic plan, with full details of the implementation and progress reported and published by the Minister in December 2018. There is also a communications and engagement strategy and the Oberstown strategy on the participation of children and young people in decision-making. We also have the review, development and approval of a range of policies, and an entire new policy framework is under development in line with international children's rights standards and best practice. There is also the first adoption of a governance handbook for Oberstown that sets out the respective responsibilities of all of the parties. The board has been evaluated by the Institute of Public Administration, another first in the organisation's history.
Throughout my time as chair of the board of management I have worked consistently and tirelessly with fellow board members to ensure Oberstown continues to provide the best possible care to young people although many challenges remain. Together with staff and management we have delivered and enhanced a more stable environment with objectively documented improvements happening in all areas of responsibility. This has been done to ensure young people detained in Oberstown now and in future have the best possible care and life chances. This has and continues to be our exclusive focus.
Throughout this time also, the board has delivered accountability through regular reporting to the Minister and her officials and to the Oireachtas through our annual reports and appearances at the committee - this is my fourth time to come before the committee - and in many other formal and informal ways.
Notwithstanding the very regrettable decision not to publish the report, during our term the board has delivered substantial improvements in the transparency of operations at Oberstown. In that context, I am very happy to be here with my fellow board members. I will endeavour to answer any questions from the committee.