I am pleased to have the opportunity to update the Joint Committee on Health and Children on the progress made and the key issues on which we have been working since the last quarterly meeting which was held on 19 February. Several issues of relevance to the Department have been raised before the committee in the intervening period. I thank the committee for its ongoing interest in these issues and the value that derives from its active involvement in dealing with them.
On 24 April the Supreme Court delivered a unanimous decision to uphold the result of the referendum on the 31st amendment of the Constitution which explicitly enshrined children’s rights in the Constitution. I welcome the Supreme Court’s judgment.
The Thirty-First Amendment of the Constitution (Children) Act 2012, inserting Article 42A into the Constitution, was signed into law on 28 April 2015. The referendum on children's rights was an important part of the Government's commitment to reorient fundamentally the way we make policy as well as the context in which we provide services for children.
We continue to make progress on important issues in the Government's legislative programme. The Government approved the Committee Stage amendments to the Children First Bill 2014 in April and the Bill is now progressing through the Oireachtas. Subject to availability of time in the Oireachtas, I hope to have this important legislation enacted before the summer recess.
The Children (Amendment) Bill was published on 14 May 2015. It updates the legal framework for the detention of children, including the amalgamation of the three existing children detention schools. Again, I hope to have this Bill enacted before the summer recess and will arrange for commencement as quickly as possible. This will coincide with the completion of the national children's detention facility project at Oberstown, Lusk, County Dublin. We invested a further €13.5 million in 2015 towards the completion of this project which, in line with the commitment in the programme for Government, will see an end to the detention of children in adult prisons. I welcome the visit of members of the committee to see the new facilities in Oberstown on 23 June last, to which the Chairman has referred already. I know that committee members saw at first hand the significant progress made to date and got a sense of the challenges ahead as well as the genuine efforts of all involved to address them.
Intensive work is continuing on the adoption (information and tracing) Bill. I am proposing as progressive an approach as is possible within the significant legal and operational complexities that arise. Recently I gave a set of specific proposals to the Attorney General for her consideration. Following this, it is my intention to have the general scheme and heads of the Bill finalised as soon as possible and submitted for the consideration of Government in advance of referral to this committee for pre-legislative scrutiny.
The Government has recently approved some amendments to the aftercare Bill. Work is progressing with the Parliamentary Counsel in the Office of the Attorney General and I hope to publish the Bill as soon as possible. Work is also continuing with the Parliamentary Counsel to finalise the draft child care (preschool services) regulations, which will strengthen the regulatory and inspection powers of Tusla in respect of early years services.
In accordance with legislative requirements, Tusla has developed its first three-year corporate plan for 2015-2017 in response to my Department's performance framework. The plan includes the agency's key objectives, outputs and related strategies and sets out the agency's medium-term strategy for service delivery and reform. Tusla has continued to work to develop its services and address a number of key concerns regarding child welfare and protection services. As Minister, I am fully supportive of the agency's implementation of a wide-ranging programme in this area. Tusla is progressing the roll-out of national standardised business processes to promote and support consistency in the delivery of services and to improve outcomes for children and families. Tusla will build on these initiatives in 2015 and the further necessary reform of services will continue to be a high priority. In this regard, the committee will be particularly mindful of the issues highlighted by the agency and the Health Information and Quality Authority that arose in some parts of the country, including Laois, Offaly, Louth and Meath. Tusla has worked intensively to address these matters by dealing with the areas of immediate concern and putting in place special measures to support good practice in future. Naturally, there is more work to do and those in Tusla would be the first to say as much. However, in its recent annual overview, HIQA noted evidence of improving services and good practice in children's social care in many regions. Moreover, in the context of concerns raised about child protection services, all urgent cases referred to Tusla are dealt with immediately. It is important to emphasise that point and HIQA has found this to be the case in its inspections.
The committee will be aware that for some time I have been concerned about the number of cases awaiting a dedicated social work service. At my request, Tusla has carried out an audit of these cases and is finalising its report to me on the matter. Action in this area along with its work on developing caseload management, standard business practices and a quality assurance strategy will help Tusla identify fully the demands on the service to enable it to meet the needs of all vulnerable children in the right way and at the right time. It will also give Tusla and my Department strong evidence to support our efforts to secure resources in the annual Estimates process and ensure the services continue to meet the protection and welfare needs of children and families.
I am pleased to report on a number of important developments in the area of children and youth affairs policy over the past quarter. I realise the joint committee is undertaking independent work in the area of affordable child care costs and that it has met all the key stakeholders. I know officials of my Department met the committee last week to outline the approach being taken by the interdepartmental group I established on the matter and to listen to the views of the committee. The group will report shortly and I will bring the document to Government in the next few weeks. I will then deal with the matter as part of the Estimates process for 2016.
The committee may also be aware of the work in progress to agree and cost a model to meet the requirements of children with special needs in mainstream schools. The group responsible, which includes representatives of the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs, Health and Education and Skills as well as relevant specialist agencies, will report in early September. I will also deal with the associated proposals in the context of resources for 2016.
Since our last quarterly meeting I have launched a number of important initiatives. On 4 June, I launched phase two of Growing Up in Ireland: The National Longitudinal Study of Children. This second phase of the study will run from 2015 to 2019 and will be implemented by a team of researchers led by the Economic and Social Research Institute and Trinity College Dublin. The purpose of the study is to understand the factors that contribute to or undermine the well-being of children in contemporary Irish families. Through this, it will contribute to the setting of effective and responsive policies relating to children and to the design of services for children and families. My Department will continue to fund and oversee this important study in association with the Central Statistics Office and the Department of Social Protection. I am pleased the Government will continue to invest in Ireland's research and data infrastructure relating to children. It is critical that this study is continued. It has been invaluable in terms of the information it has given us and many researchers. It will absolutely inform our policies in future and will assist in realising what I have always sought, that is, evidence-based policies.
On 17 June, I launched the National Strategy on Children and Young People's Participation in Decision-Making 2015-2020. It is the first national strategy to give children a role in making decisions. The strategy is intended to ensure children and young people have a voice in decision-making that affects their lives and I am proud that we are the first country to take this initiative.
I hope to be in a position to publish our new youth strategy soon. An extensive process of consultation has been completed. I know this will be an important supporting strategy as part of the national policy framework, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures. I also hope to publish a new early years strategy later this year to build on the extensive commitments already contained in Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures.
We have made good progress in the initial year of implementation of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures. We have a comprehensive implementation structure in place and it is working well. We have developed an implementation plan and I look forward to presenting shortly the annual report on the first year of implementation. A key element of implementation arises under the children and young people's services committees or CYPSCs, as they are known. I was pleased to launch the blueprint for the development of the children and young people's services committees recently and to note the progress being made.
Last week, I launched Comhairle na nÓg's Let's Go Mental campaign. This is a major new nationwide campaign designed by young people - a critical factor - to promote positive mental health among young people. The campaign involved 31 separate events in every local authority area throughout the country, using music, sport, the arts and other activities to stress the value of positive mental health.
On the same day that I had the pleasure of celebrating the exuberance of youth in launching this important initiative, sadly, we stopped to commemorate the loss of six young Irish people who died in such tragic circumstances in Berkeley, San Francisco. I imagine the committee members share the nation's sadness in this tragedy. I offer my condolences to the families of those who lost their lives and reaffirm the support of the Government for those who were injured.
On a different theme of remembrance, on 26 May, along with the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys, I met a group of primary school children to hear their ideas on how the children of the 1916 Rising should be remembered next year and to hear their view on the future of Ireland beyond 2016. This meeting was part of a series of children's consultation events led by my Department as part of the youth and imagination strand of the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme. The children will explore what life was like in 1916, imagine what they would like for Ireland in the future and consider ways to honour the children who died during the Easter Rising.
On a separate note, I attended the EU Council of youth Ministers meeting in Brussels on 18 May last. Ministers adopted the Council's conclusions on enhancing cross-sectorial policy co-operation to address effectively the socio-economic challenges facing young people and reinforcing youth work to ensure cohesive societies. Along with the other youth Ministers, I participated in a public policy debate entitled Empowering young people for political participation in the democratic life of Europe. Luxembourg presented its upcoming EU Youth Presidency programme in the field of youth for July to December 2015. It will focus on youth empowerment, including encouragement of young people's rights, autonomy, participation and active citizenship.
We have had a busy and productive period of work since our last quarterly meeting. I am pleased with the progress made but, as always, there remains much to be done. I will press ahead with my priorities in the coming months. I look forward to the committee's support, involvement and encouragement to get as much done as possible in the interests of our children.