As the debate must conclude not later than 1 p.m., I ask Senators to be mindful of the time constraints as I am unable to change the Order of Business.
Missing Children Hotline: Motion
That Seanad Éireann is keenly aware that Ireland was required, under the 2007 EU Universal Services Directive, to make ‘every effort' to ensure that the 116000 Missing Children Hotline, already operational in 16 EU Member States, was reserved and operational by 25th May 2011 and that while ComReg has made the 116000 number available the service is not yet operational. This House calls on the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the Minister for Justice and Equality and Defence to inform the House of a definitive plan for putting the Missing Children Hotline into operation with adequate and proper funding.
I thank Senators for tabling this motion and welcome the opportunity to discuss with them the issue of the 116000 hotline. I also acknowledge the keen interest and commitment of many Members of the House on this matter.
The issue of missing children is understandably an emotive one. I hope, in my contribution, to begin to unpick what is envisaged in the missing children hotline service, outline the services already in place and provide the House with an understanding of the extent to which missing children is an issue in Ireland.
I will address immediately the main objective of the motion before the House, namely, to seek a definitive plan for putting the 116000 missing children hotline into operation. I am pleased to accept the motion. My new Department has a large number of priorities, the first of which is to address the significant challenges facing the State's child protection and welfare services. My new Department has a large number of priorities at the moment, the first of which is to address the significant challenges facing our State's child protection and welfare services. Senators will be well aware of these challenges which we must address at a time of significant financial constraint. Nonetheless, in the context of other challenges, the priority I have attached to the establishment of the 116000 hotline is only right.
The decision of the Taoiseach to establish for the first time a senior Ministry and full Department of Children and Youth Affairs was designed to bring added value to the Government's approach to children's issues. The fresh impetus brought by a new Department to take on the co-ordination of this development is resulting in long-awaited progress. Since its establishment in June my Department, in conjunction with the Department of Justice and Equality, has embarked on a preliminary scoping of the many issues involved in establishing this hotline. This week I brought a memo to the Cabinet on the next steps to be taken in establishing the hotline. Today I can advise the House that a new project team is being established, with representation from both Departments and from the Garda Síochána and ComReg. This team will examine how best to set up the hotline in the context of the demand for the service, and by establishing the extent to which existing Government funded services, including the Garda and victim support services, can be mobilised to meet Ireland's commitments to the hotline. I share the concern of the House that this should happen as soon as possible and I therefore hope, subject to identifying the appropriate partnerships and funding, that both my Department and the Department of Justice and Equality can support the establishment of the 116000 hotline during 2012.
It is important to note that the incidence of children who go missing in Ireland is, fortunately, low and numbers have fallen significantly in recent years. Up-to-date statistics provided for me by An Garda Síochána indicate there are five open cases of children who went missing in Ireland in 2010. The reduction in the number of the children going missing is itself a tremendous achievement, and full credit and recognition should go to all who worked to effect such an impressive improvement in these figures. However, five children missing are still five too many. One child missing is one child too many. For a parent, the very idea of a child going missing is frightening. If the panic a parent feels when a young child is momentarily out of sight is magnified to that felt when a child is deemed officially lost, the situation is almost too terrifying to contemplate or understand.
In the first instance and ideally, every effort must be made to ensure a child does not go missing. The skills and mechanisms a child needs to stay safe are first taught in the home. Common simple messages abound and are reiterated to young children all the time: "Don't talk to strangers," "Stay there and don't move," and "Don't go where I can't see you." We have all been through this. When children enter primary school, they encounter the Stay Safe programme which I have always supported, as have many Members of this House. This programme teaches children preventative measures, while preserving their sense of the world around them as a basically safe and secure place. This approach allows children to exercise control and be assertive and enables them to seek help for any problem they may encounter.
In spite of all this, unfortunately, children occasionally go missing, whether this happens through running away,economic migration, or abduction. This leads us to the need for clarity around definitions for children who are missing. It is common across EU member states to accept that a key factor in any definition relating to a missing person is that the person's whereabouts are unknown. There are many variations and additions on this theme but most definitions are focused on providing law enforcement with an effective threshold for intervention rather than being child centred, with a focus on the needs of the child. The two can go hand in hand. This issue of definition is one that requires more investigation in the Irish context as we, too, have tended to look at the establishment of the 116000 hotline in a way that is not necessarily child focused. It may be of assistance to the House to outline the categories of children who may come within the definition of missing children. It will help give a sense of which children we are talking about, and the extent to which the necessary services are already in place, to deal with the issues involved.
I shall go through the different groups of concern. One category of missing children are those who go missing from HSE care and I shall outline what happens in that situation. The HSE operates a joint missing in care protocol with An Garda Síochána which sets out an agreed procedure between the two agencies and clarifies the roles and requirements of both in regard to all children missing from their care placements, as set out in the Child Care Act 1991. Many of the cases that are reported refer to a child who is late going back to care, perhaps by some three or four hours. People have to make a sensible decision based on the previous history and circumstances around the child and consider at which point they should report to the Garda. Obviously, people err on the side of caution. A missing child from care is one whose whereabouts are unknown and the circumstances of whose disappearance are such that the Health Service Executive or its agents assess the absence as high risk. The agreed joint national protocol on children who go missing from care should improve interagency co-operation in regard to these vulnerable children.
A second category that has received much attention in this country is that of unaccompanied minors who go missing after they enter the State. It is important to state that this phenomenon is not unique to Ireland. The issue is a complex one and at times the treatment of this issue has been over-simplified. There have been positive developments in this area which highlight the positive outcomes of interagency co-operation. To tackle this serious problem, the HSE developed a strong working relationship with the Garda National Immigration Bureau in regard to missing children. As many Senators will know, the level of interagency co-operation between the HSE and the GNIB has been consistently high and was rightly intensified in the face of the increase in missing children that presented in late 2008 and early 2009.
Following a series of intensive meetings which took place last year between HSE management and the GNIB and local gardaí — to which I referred when responding in this House to the rapporteur's report — the joint national protocol on children who go missing from care agreed between the Garda and the HSE was adapted in terms of application to unaccompanied minors who go missing. A series of collaborative measures was put in place which built on previous developments and resulted in improved outcomes in 2009. There were several surveillance operations with the collaboration of HSE staff and many children who had been reported missing were successfully tracked. As a result, there has been a decline in the number of unaccompanied minors presenting and remaining missing. The figure for 2010 was 11, down from 27 in 2009 and from a high of 81 in 2001. This is the welcome result of intensive interagency efforts throughout that year. There has clearly been a change in the numbers coming into the country in general which will account in part for those figures. It should be noted that these children make up the bulk of the children who are classified as still missing and the majority of these were near the age of 18 when they were reported missing. Many were 17 years of age but this is still a cause of concern. One asks what has happened to these young people but there may be a range of explanations. The Garda and the HSE take every incident of missing children extremely seriously and are committed to ensuring that vulnerable children are not exploited or ill-treated. We know that internationally there are serious concerns about the exploitation of young people, whether they are aged 17 or 15. It is a serious issue.
Another area of concern in any discussion about missing children is that of child abduction related to family disputes, a third category of children who may be reported missing. The Central Authority for Child Abduction was established on foot of the Child Abduction and Enforcement of Custody Orders Act 1991. This Act gave the force of law in Ireland to the Hague and Luxembourg conventions on child abduction. The purpose of these conventions is to facilitate the return of children who have been taken from one contracting state to another against the wishes of a parent with custody rights. The Department of Justice and Equality currently acts as the central authority in Ireland on international child abduction. The Irish central authority processed a total of 233 cases in 2010 — a large number. Of these, 140 were new cases, four more than in 2009, while 93 were ongoing cases carried over from 2009. Of the 140 new cases involving 193 children, 64 concerned abductions into the State from other countries while 76 concerned abductions from the State to other countries.
Of the 93 cases still active from the previous year, 53 were incoming and 40 outgoing. During 2010, therefore, a total of 117 incoming cases and 116 outgoing cases were being processed by the Irish Central Authority for Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters in liaison with the other national central authorities involved. Senators will appreciate that there are many families and children involved and that a great deal of inter-country and inter-agency work is required in order to discover precisely what is happening in respect of such children. Major issues arise in the context of provididng support for the families and children involved.
I have no doubt that the availability of an EU-wide 116000 hotline, operational in Ireland, would be of assistance to those affected. When a child goes missing, support mechanisms are very important. The Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime was established in 2005. This is an independent body which operates under the aegis of the Department of Justice and Equality. In the past five years the commission has allocated €7.3 million in funding to over 50 non-governmental organisations, NGOs, which support the victims of crime. Superb work is being done by the organisations to which I refer. I examined the position on where this money is being allocated and I am aware that superb work is being done throughout the country by the organisations and NGOs which work with the victims of crime.
One of the agencies for which the commission has provided funding is Missing in Ireland Support Services Limited, a registered charity which provides emotional and other forms of practical support for the families and friends of those who have gone missing in or from Ireland. This is achieved through the provision of an existing national missing persons helpline, a website with profiles of the missing and a Facebook presence on the Internet. The existing helpline to which I refer co-operates with the Garda Síochána and community-based organisations and works to ensure there is a national, co-ordinated approach to the location of missing persons, to reduce the incidence and impact of missing persons and educate the broader community in respect of missing persons.
While support and services for the families of missing children are vital, the first action which should be taken when a child goes missing is to alert the local police. Obviously, in the case of a child who goes missing in Ireland, this is the Garda Síochána. The investigation of a child's disappearance is the responsibility of the Garda and its structures in this regard include not just local gardaí who will have primary responsibility for the investigation but also the Missing Persons Bureau. I am sure Senators will agree that it is of paramount importance that any arrangements which are put in place to establish the 116000 hotline in Ireland do not compromise the requirement that the first and most important contact to be made is to notify the Garda of the fact that a child is missing in order that an investigation can commence without delay.
The 116 numbers are freefone numbers to be used throughout Europe in situations of need or distress. If a person has a problem when travelling abroad in Europe, he or she need only remember one number instead of several. In February 2007 the European Commission adopted a decision requiring member states to reserve the 116000 number for missing children hotlines across the Union. The revision of the telecoms package adopted in November 2009 and, in particular, Article 27a which, I do not doubt, is what the relevant Senators were referring to when they tabled the motion, inserted a new requirement on member states to "make every effort to ensure that citizens have access to a service operating a hotline to report cases of missing children. The hotline shall be available on the number 116000". At this stage member states are expected to "make every effort" to act on it. However, in a communication last November, the Commission stated that "if no further progress is made within a reasonable timeframe, the Commission will consider presenting a legislative proposal". I hope that will not be necessary.
The allocation of specific numbers in the 116 number range in Ireland is managed by the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg. I will not trouble the House with the details, but Senators will be familiar with the 116 numbers that have already been allocated. In essence, the purpose of the 116000 phone number is to provide a contact number for families if children go missing. ComReg advertised the availability of and invited applications for the 116000 number in Ireland on four separate occasions during the past four years. It has advised that to date no organisation has applied for the missing children hotline number. It is clear that significant financial issues for the relevant organisations are involved.
The establishment of the hotline is a cross-sectoral issue which involves a number of Departments and agencies. My Department has had a number of preliminary meetings in recent months with representatives from the Departments of Health, Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and Justice and Equality, the HSE and ComReg. We have also been in contact with the Garda Síochána, representatives from which will also be involved in the discussions on this matter. In order to progress the matter, it will be necessary to co-ordinate the activities of these Departments and agencies to ensure the 116000 hotline is established in the most effective and efficient manner. Earlier this year I met representatives from some NGOs which are eager to assist in the establishment of the hotline. These organisations have already done some work on the process. Across Europe, NGOs have made a contribution to the running of the hotline and the project team being established will examine if NGOs in Ireland can add value to the scheme. While the introduction of a missing children's hotline involves, as stated, many Departments, I reiterate that the investigation of incidences of missing child is primarily a matter for the Garda. I have, therefore, been in contact with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, in the context of discovering whether we can jointly achieve the establishment of this service.
We are all too well aware of the fact that we live in financially challenging times. Initial costings have been made, including by interested NGOs, for the provision of a hotline service. We want to take the most cost-effective approach to establishing the service. I am acutely aware than many Irish NGOs which run similar hotlines and telephone counselling services are struggling to meet the costs involved. The Commission noted in its communication of last November that the running and telecoms costs which could arise in setting up and servicing a 116 EU-wide hotline could act as a barrier to implementation. We must, therefore, give careful consideration to this matter.
We have carried out an initial scoping exercise of the issues involved and the project team which will include representatives from my Department and the Department of Justice and Equality, the Garda Síochána and ComReg is being established. We will examine how best to operationalise the hotline in the context of the demand for the service. I have outlined the figures involved for the latter and there is no doubt that some discussion is required in respect of them. It is fortunate that there has been a reduction in the figures in certain areas in recent years. We need to establish the extent to which services, including Garda and victim support services, which are already in existence and in receipt of Government funding can be mobilised to meet Ireland's commitment to the hotline.
As stated, it is my hope, subject to identifying the appropriate partnership and funding, that both my Department and the Department of Justice and Equality can support the establishment of the 116000 hotline during 2012. I thank Senator Cummins and his colleagues for tabling the motion and giving me the opportunity to outline the position on these important matters to the House. I thank Senators for their attention and look forward to their contributions.
I extend a very warm welcome to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on her return to the House in which she previously served. All Members of the Seanad were involved in the tabling of this joint motion, but I must commend Senator Jillian van Turnhout, in particular, for initiating the process relating to it. I also commend the Minister who provided one of the most comprehensive responses I have ever heard to any motion tabled in the House. It is obvious that she took the matter on board and her contribution was so good that I do not have anything to add. She went to the Cabinet, explained the position to it and obtained its support.
What is happening here today defines what the Seanad is about. A Senator initiates a motion, carries out research, brings it to his or her colleagues in search of their support and, if such support is forthcoming, it is put to the line Minister. The fundamental reason Deputy Fitzgerald was appointed Minister for Children and Youth Affairs was that she would have a dedicated responsibility in respect of the matters under discussion. She has begun her work with great gusto and energy. The issue which is the subject of this debate is extremely sensitive. As the Minister outlined, however, if a child goes missing, the Garda Síochána is the first port of call in seeking assistance. The 116000 number would not be required in such circumstances, but if it were in use, it would certainly add to the services already available. The number would be of particular assistance to new entrants to the country because it would be easier for them to use it to contact the Garda. It is a pan-European number. It would be very useful if the European Union provided some support funding for this initiative. It is fine to publish regulations and requirements for initiatives but rolling this out in 27 countries does not seem to be the most expensive action ever taken. Anybody who has experienced a child missing for a few minutes on a beach would realise the panic that sets in when this happens. Most families have experienced moments when children have been out of sight for a few minutes, and it is a terrifying experience. This number will be very useful to families and young parents in particular. They will know exactly what number to ring to contact appropriate authorities.
I welcome the fact that a project team has been set up to consider this in great detail. There is no point in having the 116000 number in place if the back-up does not exist to ensure that when a person rings the number, action will be taken. There is no point having somebody at the end of the line who can give consolation but cannot act. There is a cost involved.
I also note the Department of Justice and Equality allocates money for support organisations of victims of crime, which is very welcome. It is frightening to see the number of children involved. One of the biggest problems now is children being abducted by a parent and being brought to a Middle Eastern state. That is a serious act and I have noted some tragic cases where children, because of religious or other reasons, are abducted by a father or mother before being brought to a country that does not recognise extradition of individuals. The Minister might examine the issue because there are some well known cases. A former MEP and candidate for the presidency, Ms Mary Banotti, is an expert in this regard and we should recognise her contribution. She has taken a particular interest in the issue and has helped hundreds of families, personally investigating the abduction of children. She has supported and assisted the return of those children to the family home.
As was mentioned, it is important for people to explore this area and I hope the Minister's speech will get widespread coverage in the media. It is useful and I know it will be on the departmental website. The information in it is revealing from a statistical perspective and the Minister has gone into great detail. I commend the motion to the House and thank the Minister for accepting it in a comprehensive fashion. Senator van Turnhout should be commended for initiating the motion, and that shows the benefits of our new Seanad with so many Members with expertise. I am delighted to be associated with and support it. I thank the Minister for her response.
I welcome the Minister to the House; she is a regular visitor and is always most welcome. We are very lucky to have a full Cabinet Minister with responsibility for children and the various issues associated with the well-being of children and families. We can finally put issues relating to children's welfare, safety and protection on political and social agendas. We must ensure immediate and co-ordinated action can be taken whenever a child goes missing.
The purpose of the 116000 telephone number is to provide a contact number for families of children who go missing, and the hotline will take calls on missing children, liaise with the Garda, provide a point of support and guidance for parents and family members of missing children and support ongoing investigations. I know the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, has recently met non-governmental organisations, NGOs, which are eager to assist in the establishment of the hotline and she is grateful for the work they have already put into this process. I know that she is anxious to move this matter forward as quickly as possible.
The Garda and the HSE take every incident of missing children extremely seriously and are committed to ensuring that any vulnerable children are not exploited or ill-treated as part of their responsibility to provide care for any children in the State who are deemed not to have appropriate or satisfactory care arrangements. This includes separated children seeking asylum. It is important to note that the input of the Garda is central to the issue of missing children and it has ultimate responsibility for the investigation of these matters. The Garda and the HSE have worked closely in this regard in recent years and the HSE, as the major statutory child care authority in Ireland, recognised the value of an EU common hotline for missing children. Access to a hotline telephone number can be of great assistance to parents when a child goes missing from home or while travelling in another European country.
It is important to acknowledge the services available via some charitable organisations and others. The national missing persons hotline, in association with the Garda, works very well, and working with the agencies is important. The Minister has stated that one child missing is one too many but it is astonishing to hear the figures for child abduction, with 117 incoming and 116 outgoing. This issue must be very challenging for the relevant authorities.
Whereas the introduction of a missing children's hotline involves many Departments, the notification of a missing child is particularly a matter for the Garda Síochána. I understand that the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, are jointly seeking to achieve the establishment of this service. Different costings for such a service have been calculated, including by NGOs interested in providing the service. In the current financial climate, it is essential that the most economical approach possible is taken to providing any service. The Minister hopes a partnership approach will achieve a cost-effective solution to the implementation of this important initiative. I know we are in unprecedented times economically and budgets are tight but this EU co-ordinated hotline for missing children must be given priority.
I welcome the Minister and her detailed summary of the current position. My involvement goes back to 2007 to 2009 in the European Parliament, when this issue arose on a number of occasions. I note that to date 16 countries have signed up to the initiative and have the helpline in operation. Funding is an issue to the fore in dealing with any new service but it is interesting that in some countries the telecoms operator is providing the funding. I wonder if that avenue could be considered. In some countries there is a public private partnership and in others it is fully publicly funded.
It is particularly important to set up the helpline because more people are travelling between countries within the European Union. It is essential that it be established. The European Union set up the RAPEX system to identify defects in toys for children in a very short time. If a defective item is identified in toys in Ireland, the other 26 member states must be notified immediately. This initiative is just as important if not more so and I urge that everything be done to set it up as early as possible.
I thank the Minister for coming before the House and accepting the motion. I also thank her for the detailed statement. I wanted to hear that the hotline would go into operation without delay but I accept the Minister's integrity and the proposals laid before us.
I welcome that and will obviously monitor it. As the Minister said, this dates back to a decision of the European Commission in February 2007 requiring member states to reserve a six digit number range starting with 116 for the harmonisation of access to services of social value in the European Union. This decision was based on reason and pragmatism, which I fully commend.
This line is critical for the parent of a missing child and for a child who is scared and vulnerable having run away from home or for a person who finds himself or herself outside his or her home country and is in dire need of help having been smuggled or trafficked into Ireland. It is also critical for someone who has been abducted by perhaps one of their own parents to know there is a number he or she can call day or night to find assistance, support and guidance.
This was the rationale behind the European 116000 missing children hotline. It was part the EU strategy on the rights of the child, which recognises that every missing child is, as the Minister said, a tragedy and that member states have not only a legal obligation but a moral one to implement whatever measures are necessary to prevent such tragedies.
The service is currently operating in 16 EU member states. A parent, guardian, professional, concerned member of the public or child who lives in Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungry, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and the United Kingdom can call this missing children hotline on a 24-hour basis.
The value of the missing children hotline, in particular in the context of increasing cases of cross-border child disappearances, is exemplified by a recent cross-border parental abduction case. In Belgium, a father took his daughters aged seven, ten and 14 and hid them for nine and a half months in very poor and dangerous conditions. In September 2008, following a request from the Belgian and Portuguese missing children hotlines, the evening news on Portuguese television opened with an appeal for information about these missing children and concluded by showing the 116000 missing children hotline number on screen. Minutes after the broadcast, the case was resolved. That is the power of this line. This shows the real and urgent need to establish a systematic exchange of information, standardised operational procedures and increased cross-border co-operation to resolve cross-border cases of missing children in the EU.
It is a sad indictment of the priority afforded to the safety and well-being of children in the EU that there are still 11 member states in which the missing children hotline is still not operational. European Commission Vice President and Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, Viviane Reding, recently commentated that:
It is hard to come to terms with the fact that measures that could help are not yet fully operational across the Union. It would be a double tragedy to imagine a missing child trying to call the 116000 hotline only to hear an answering machine playing a prerecorded message announcing that the service will be operational in 2012.
Unfortunately, this has been the case in Ireland.
When preparing for today's debate, I decided to dial 116000 and I got the following message:
We are sorry but we cannot connect your call because the number you have dialled is not in service. Please check the number you have dialled and try again.
What about those children from the 16 member states who are aware of this line? We have a border with the United Kingdom but what happens if children from the United Kingdom are here and they telephone that number and get that message?
It was against that backdrop and following the interventions of a number of Senators, notably, Senators Daly and Quinn, that I worked over the summer to co-ordinate and seek the approval of my fellow Senators for their support for this motion. As Senator Leyden said, the Seanad is about us working together and not just raising issues but seeing how we can make a difference and put things in place.
The Minister mentioned the situation of runaways and children in the care of the State. This line has been proved in other EU member states to be a safe contact point for these missing children to be able to telephone. They do not wish to telephone the Garda or the HSE. By using this line, perhaps we could save resources for the Garda and the HSE and know a child is safe and try to reconcile the difficulties.
The Minister said that five missing children was too many but I was disappointed when she updated us on the situation in regard to unaccompanied minors. She informed us that 11 of those children from 2010 are still missing. For me a child is a child and his or her status is of secondary importance. For me, there are 16 children from 2010 still missing and cases are still open. That is the accurate figure.
The Minister outlined the importance of the statutory agencies working together. They are doing some invaluable work but the line for me is about children and parents having easy access to those services and to give them a voice.
The Minister mentioned that ComReg has advertised the line four times but there have been no applications. I should note that a non-governmental organisation has submitted two funding proposals over the past few years to Government seeking funding in order to be able to apply for the line.
I very much welcome the Minister's announcement that the Cabinet gave her memorandum time, that it will be put into operation and that the Departments of Justice and Equality and Children and Youth Affairs, the Garda and ComReg will work together on a project team. I urge her to follow the lead of 13 of the 16 member states in which the service is operational by assigning the number to a member of Missing Children Europe because it has built up the links and the contact points.
I noted my colleague, Senator Henry, spoke about cost-effectiveness but we also need to ensure there are minimum quality standards and a practical guide for hotline providers to ensure the hotlines operating throughout Europe are run professionally, efficiently and effectively and meet the European standards for best practice for service requirements.
The Seanad will not go away. People may talk about its abolition but we will monitor this to ensure it is implemented in full. We will work with the Minister to do what we can. We want to see that Ireland moves from being good on paper when it comes to the rights of the child to being good in operation and implementation and that we uphold those rights.
I welcome the Minister and thank her for accepting the motion tabled by the Seanad. Obviously, there are a number of very significant caveats to the Minister's acceptance of the motion, to which I will return.
A number of Senators mentioned that this 116000 number initiative arose out of a 2007 EU initiative; therefore, it behoves us to mention that is almost five years ago. It is a national disgrace that Ireland has been so slow to act in this matter, in particular given that in 2007, funding was not the critical issue it is today.
This measure has been implemented in 16 European countries. Ireland is not alone in being slow to act. In other countries, disputes in government, telephone companies, NGOs, operators of the service and, in particular, funding have been considerations. However, it is important to note that on a number of occasions, the European Commission has offered its services to countries which have not put in place the 116000 missing children helpline and has offered to share the experience of other countries which have been successful in putting the number together. It is important for us to acknowledge that in not actioning this missing child helpline number, we have failed not only our own people but in our obligations to others as well.
By its very nature, the problem of child abduction and child trafficking is one that spreads across borders. Ireland is not immune to this purely because it is an island. We have a Border with Northern Ireland. In my children's school in the Dún Laoghaire area, there were two attempted abductions. There are many reasons children go missing and there is no doubt that, irrespective of the numbers, which may be in dispute, it is a very significant matter.
I refer to some of the Minister's statistics. She mentioned the progress made in regard to unaccompanied minors in Ireland. I note that more than 513 unaccompanied children who came to Ireland seeking asylum without a parent or guardian, have gone missing from the care of the State since 2000. I accept what the Minister said in that these numbers have dropped significantly but the fact remains that 440 of those 513 children who disappeared from the care of the State between 2000 and 2010 have never been found.
The unfortunate truth is that child trafficking is the third largest international crime and child trafficking for sexual exploitation accounts for 79% of all trafficking. While we have made progress, we should not pat ourselves on the back with too much fervour.
I welcome the Minister's commitment but I am concerned about the caveats that surround it. She intends to establish a new project team but I would like a definite commitment on when this will be done. She further noted that the 116 number would be set up "subject to identifying the appropriate partnerships and funding". One of the reasons the number is not yet up and running has been precisely the failure to identify appropriate partnerships. There has been too much emphasis on identifying a suitable NGO to operate the service. As someone who comes from the NGO sector I believe there is too much expectation on the part of the State generally that NGOs will fulfil these functions, particularly when resources are an issue. In regard to the Garda Síochána number, which she mentioned on a number of occasions, why was the Garda not tasked with also setting up the 116 missing child helpline?
When the number is up and running, it will need to relate directly with the other 116 numbers, and particularly the Childline number. If it is to be successful all arms of the State will need to communicate with each other. The role of educators is particularly important in this regard. It is critical that educators and children are made aware of the purpose of these numbers.
From a practical perspective, we need not only to investigate the finances of setting up the childline and missing child numbers but to ensure every school diary lists the numbers in order that all children have ready access to them. I accept the Minister's bone fides in giving us her commitment but, being a lawyer, I recognise caveats when I hear them. Rather than phrases like "subject to", "under condition of" and "maybe 2012", this House would like to get a firm commitment.
Ba bhreá liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire. Tá áthas orm go bhfuil an méid ráite agus atá ráite aici. Chomh fada agus a théann sí, tá fáilte le cur roimh an méid sin. Is maith an rud é go bhfuil sé i gceist ag an Rialtas an líne chabhrach seo a chur ar bun. Tá géarghá leis. Chuala mé cad a dúirt an Seanadóir van Turnhout — bhí an ceart ar fad aici faoi na hábhair a chlúdaigh sí. I welcome the commitment given by the Minister in so far as it goes and I pay tribute to the people who maintained pressure on the Government to treat this issue with urgency. I first heard about the issue from Mr. Tom Brown, who I note is in the Visitors' Gallery for this debate. It is important that we continue to listen to those who are most concerned about these issues. Sometimes the political establishment can be slow to do what is needed unless the pressure to act is maintained.
The Minister outlined, with certain caveats, what she intends to do. It is welcome that she has brought a memorandum to the Cabinet and that a project team is to be established. To sum up what she has said, she intends to do what she can to put the number in place in 2012. However, a number of questions arise from her comments. She referred to the need for the service to be financially sustainable. I find that language rather unusual because I regard sustainability as meaning something must pay for itself. That is what sustainability means when we speak about energy, for example. We must acknowledge that the service will give rise to a cost irrespective of whether the State provides it directly or in partnership with an NGO. While she is correct to draw our attention to the need to operate the service in the most cost effective manner, she also needs to describe the issues arising in a more focused way. She did not go into detail on the costs that may be incurred. If she is going to make a comprehensive statement on an issue such as this, she will have to try to set out what she thinks it will cost. That is a basic requirement in addressing the issue at this early stage. Perhaps she has figures in mind but is not prepared to share them because it is early days but it would be useful for us to hear her estimate.
I did not clearly understand her comments on the position of NGOs. She noted that no organisation applied for the missing child hotline number when ComReg invited applications but she also admitted that she has met NGOs which were eager to assist in the establishment of the hotline. Perhaps she can join the dots by explaining how both these statements can be true. What was preventing NGOs from applying for the mandate or licence to provide this service?
Senator Hayden was correct to refer to what can be done in schools. It is a question of helping people who are in a bad place in their own minds. Children who go missing after entering the State and children who are abducted in the context of family disputes were mentioned. It is important that a straightforward message is provided to those who are in vulnerable situations. This is precisely why it is important that the same number applies across the EU.
Everybody is familiar with the 999 number. How would that interact with the hotline? Would emergency service providers be in a position to connect callers with the hotline?
As we have the Minister in the House, it is appropriate to ask for her response to a somewhat extraneous matter. The Ombudsman for Children wants the legislation to be amended to provide for an independent complaints mechanism for two categories of children, namely, children who are in prison and separated children seeking asylum. Yesterday she told the Oireachtas Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions that she was happy with her interaction with public bodies in cases involving these categories of children. They had responded positively to her interventions and certain changes had ensued. Nonetheless she is anxious that an independent complaints mechanism be established. Perhaps the Minister will outline her views of the Ombudsman's aspiration in that regard.
Guím gach rath ar an Aire agus í ag tabhairt faoi na hoibrithe tábhachtacha seo. Tá súil agam nach fada a n-imeoidh sula mbeidh an líne chabhrach in úsáid sa tír seo. Tá súil agam go mbeidh an Rialtas in ann na hacmhainní cuí a aimsiú laistigh den Roinn Leanaí agus Gnóthaí Óige nó an Roinn Dlí agus Cirt agus Comhionannais. Tá sé deacair teacht ar airgead chun seirbhísí a chur ar fáil sa tír seo faoi láthair. Tá sé seo i measc na seirbhísí is tábhachtachtaí a d'fhéadfaimís a chur ar fáil do dhaoine.
I wish to share my time with Senator Conway.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I will refrain from repetition because much of what I intended to say has been said by others. I thank the Minister for her contribution. I thank Senator van Turnhout and the various groups, including my group, for supporting this motion. This matter has been debated for so long that it is time for action to be taken on it. That is what we are about here. Nothing is more important for anybody than a child. When a child goes missing, that is the most serious thing. Obviously, it is a legal issue as well as an organisational one.
EU legislation makes it mandatory for this hotline to be available in every member state. It is not its availability that is the problem — it has been available in Ireland — but the take-up of its availability. That is why the Minister has stepped in to say she has established a new project team comprising representatives of the Garda Síochána, various Departments and ComReg. I hope the team will draw up some proposals and recommendations. The Minister said this will happen in 2012. Like Senator van Turnhout, I will keep an eye on this matter to ensure the 2012 deadline is met. Regardless of what we do, there will be a cost. If it were merely a question of putting in place a hotline and publicising a telephone number, that would have already been done by many of the organisations that deal with children. There are additional costs, however.
We do not need to reinvent the wheel. I recommend that we consider which aspects of this service could be provided by each of the organisations that are working with children at the moment. At the end of the day, it will fall to the Garda to go looking for the missing children. We do not want to establish various new quangos. The aim of this Government is to reduce the number of quangos. We have to support the organisations that are working in this area. We support the Missing in Ireland Support Service, or MISS as it is known. If MISS and other organisations were given additional support, they could have the capacity to take on certain aspects of the service. All of the organisations dealing with children should be brought around the table and asked what they have to offer. The service could then be co-ordinated centrally.
In some European countries, this service is provided by community organisations that are co-ordinated by local or county authorities. That might be the best way to proceed. I would be the first person to say that an onus cannot be put on a local authority without back-up funding being provided. The Minister should keep that in mind when she is considering the matter. I compliment the 16 European countries that have put this service in place. I hope the Minister will be back here in the not too distant future to give us details of the actual proposals and recommendations she is bringing on stream to put it in place here.
I welcome the Minister to the House. The fact that a senior Cabinet Minister has responsibility for children, for the first time, makes a statement that the protection of children is one of the Government's key priorities. The Chair may recall that last July, I raised the question of the 116000 number on the Adjournment. I got a very positive response from the Minister on that occasion. Much of what was said on that occasion was incorporated in the speech the Minister made today. I am delighted that a working group is to be established. It is a tangible thing that can be done very quickly. I hope this service will be rolled out in the early part of 2012, as opposed to the latter part of 2012. Sixteen countries have started a service and there is no reason we cannot be the 17th country to do so. The 116000 number is available. As Senator Keane said, it has been reserved throughout the EU. It is part of EU legislation. It would link well with the 999 service and services like that provided by Childline.
I suggest that the proper place for this service to be located is not with a non-governmental organisation. I think it should be based within the structures of the State, for example, within the Garda Síochána. Perhaps it could be operated directly by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Too many things have been farmed out to non-governmental organisations. We need to pull it back and run it within the State, where those responsible for it will be ultimately accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas as opposed to a non-governmental organisation. I say that with all the best will in the world. I wish the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, well in her endeavours and I look forward to receiving a progress report on the launch of this service in the early part of 2012.
I should have mentioned Senator Conway in my contribution. He was the first person to raise this matter, which he did during an Adjournment debate.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I commend Senator van Turnhout for tabling this motion in the first instance and seeking the support of all parties for it. My party is very pleased to support and co-sponsor it. A number of Senators have spoken about the need for the Government to vindicate the rights of children. It is interesting that since I was elected to this House, we have had a number of discussions on children's issues. The Minister was present for the recent discussion on the Cloyne report. We have discussed children's rights on several occasions, most recently when Dr. Maurice Manning came to the House to speak about human and civil rights.
Other Senators mentioned that the Minister is a former Member of this House and has been involved in politics for a long time. Many fine speeches, motions and contributions have been made by people from all political parties. When the time comes to deliver on children's rights in a range of areas, however, the system seems to suffer from inertia. In such circumstances, it is easy to see why people get frustrated with the political system and with politics. For some reason, the system has failed to prioritise the rights of children. I do not believe these rights should be bartered for. I do not believe we are being unreasonable in the requests we are making.
It would be easy for the Government to ensure this hotline is established. I accept that the Minister has given a commitment to examine the matter in 2012. It was interesting to hear her say that no organisation has tendered for, or expressed an interest in, the provision of this service at this number. I understand that the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has publicly expressed its interest in doing so, through the media and through official channels. The problem is that it needs the resources and funds to provide the service. It is not the case that these organisations are not willing or capable of providing a hotline service. There are people and organisations that are ready to do so, but they need the funding.
I welcome the commitment given by the Minister to establish a new project team and examine the funding of this project. A previous speaker spoke about the funding issue. Perhaps the Minister can respond on that issue.
The Minister needs to examine the question of vetting and cross-Border issues. When we debated the Cloyne report, it was mentioned that sex offenders have crossed the Border on occasions, unfortunately. There is a need for an all-Ireland approach to ensure there is no hiding place for sex offenders in any part of Ireland. The Border should not be seen as presenting an opportunity to those who seek to exploit children.
As many of the points I wanted to make have been made, I will not repeat them. It is important that the Minister does not merely acknowledge the sentiments of Senators. This should not simply be another motion that is passed. We should not be still talking about the same issues six months, 12 months or two years from now.
This motion relates to the hotline, which we hope will be operational in 2012. It should have been operational a long time ago. The Minister cannot be held responsible for that. She can make sure the line becomes operational on her watch. I believe she will do so. I hope she goes further and examines all of the many other issues, such as those relating to migrant children, people in direct provision centres and children from different backgrounds who go missing.
The most important thing we can do is not agreeing a motion or speaking fine words, but vindicating of the rights and needs of children. This is one of them. I acknowledge the commitment the Minister has given today and the contributions of previous Senators, including Senator van Turnhout, who tabled this motion in the first instance.
I extend a warm welcome to the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald. I had the pleasure of working with her in another capacity in this House. She has hit the ground running. She has an active interest in child care. As chairman of my local county child care committee, I am aware of the priorities the Minister has set since she took up her brief and the manner in which she has been carrying them out. I wish her continued success in that regard. I have had an interest in the issue of missing persons, children in particular, since I began my broadcasting career. Given my close links with the Irish Diaspora during the years, I have had occasion to broadcast requests from families of missing persons and, in some instances, I am glad to say connections have been made. That is the context in which I make my remarks.
I have tried to parse the Minister's contribution in which she talks about setting up a team to examine how best to operationalise the hotline and refers regularly and correctly to the Garda in this regard. I draw the attention of the House to the Report of the Garda Síochána Inspectorate: Missing Persons Review and Recommendations of 2009, with which I am sure the Minister is familiar. In 2009 there were 1,672 reports of missing persons and the number still missing in March that year was 123. Obviously, in this instance we are talking about setting up a hotline to address the issue of missing children. However, it is important to indicate — the Minister has touched on this question in the context of the individuals she will draw into the project team — that the report of the inspectorate reads:
Unlike the scenes depicted in the media, locating a missing person is much more complicated than assembling a police squad, a team of volunteers, and a few well-trained search and rescue dogs. In fact, the missing persons issue is extraordinarily complicated. An investigation may span an urban or suburban neighbourhood, miles of rural countryside, or stretch across several nations and every possible type of transport. It may involve multiple categories and subcategories of missing persons – from children to vulnerable adults, from those who wish to remain missing [of course, this does not apply in the case of children] to those whose lives are endangered until they are found ... Throughout the course of this review, the Garda Inspectorate was struck by the complexity of the missing persons issue and the significant resources that are required to address cases effectively and compassionately. The Inspectorate reached one stark conclusion early in its review – the police cannot address this complex challenge alone. Coordination and communication are essential. Strong partnerships are required, not only within the State but in the international arena as well.
The Minister is attempting to draw all of these disparate forces together and I wish her well in that regard. This highlights again the complexity of the issues involved. It is important and positive that in setting up the project the Minister, from what I have read, is committed to being all-inclusive.
A number of NGOs are doing excellent work. One resource I use in my capacity as a broadcaster to the Irish Diaspora is www.europeanirish.com, the website of an NGO run by a gentleman in Cork which incorporates a number of missing persons agencies which use the website as a link for those who wish to contact them. I am aware of at least three agencies operating in this way. I have no doubt that the Minister, given her reference to NGOs, and her Department are aware of these agencies which are doing a very positive job with very limited resources, for which I commend them.
I commend Senator Jillian van Turnhout for bringing forward the motion. The Minister has made it clear that in spite of or despite our efforts, ultimately, money will raise its somewhat ugly head in this regard. While it seems it will be an expensive operation, I hope the Minister, in her usual direct way, will ensure whatever money is available is given to this exceptionally important initiative.
I call Senator Mary White who has two minutes.
I formally object. It is up to the Chair to regulate the time allowed.
I cannot extend the time allowed as other business is due to begin at 1 p.m. and the Minister wants to respond.
My colleague, Senator Paschal Mooney, and I know the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, better than most others in the House. As she knows, I believe in her and know that she will prioritise the issue of the establishment of a hotline for missing children. Former Senator Maria Corrigan and the then Senator Frances Fitzgerald spoke passionately about this issue last year. It had been drawn to their attention following the death of the young boy, Daniel McAnaspie, who went missing early last year. I attended his funeral and witnessed the pain and saw the tortured look on the faces of the members of his family. As a 17 year old, if he had had access to a hotline at the time he went missing, he might have been saved. His death brought the issue onto the radar strongly and there were calls for the establishment of a hotline at the time. The ISPCC stated the Government needed to establish the European telephone hotline number for missing children as a matter of urgency in order that no matter where a child was in Europe, including for those children who came here from other European countries and covered by the ERASMUS programme, he or she would be able to access the service. This would provide security for parents where a child was abducted.
The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children does amazing work and embarrassed the previous Government because of the lack of attention to and support for the organisation. I suggest the society be given the money to operate the hotline as it deserves funding and would not be able to do this through the Childline service. The volume of voluntary work carried out by the organisation is extraordinary.
I reiterate that the Minister, then a Senator, and former Senator Maria Corrigan pleaded last year for the establishment of the hotline. It is shameful that it has not yet been establishment, given the scandalous way children have been treated in our society, about which we continue to hear on an ongoing basis.
I thank the usher, Mr. Tim Hayes, for valiantly using his initiative and skills to obtain a copy of the Minister's speech for us. She stated:
The skills and mechanisms a child needs to stay safe are first taught in the home. Common simple messages abound and are reiterated to young children all the time: "Don't talk to strangers;" "Stay there and don't move"...
Many children are tortured by people who know them outside the family — it is not just strangers who do so. In the majority of cases children are abused by people known to them and who are looking after them. I know the Minister will prioritise this issue, as she is a go-getter and now has her chance to be a super Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I know she will be.
I thank Senators for their contributions to the debate which has been extremely helpful. The first thing I willdo is ensure the members of the project group receive a copy of the debate becauseevery aspect of the setting up of the hotline has been raised in the contributions made. All of the key questions have been asked and the key points made about how we need to progress the issue.
I wish to make several points. I am establishing the project group and have asked for nominations from the relevant Departments and the Garda Síochána. I expect that we will have a meeting of the group in the next couple of weeks. Therefore, there has been no delay in setting it up.
Many of the questions raised need to be addressed by the project group. I was asked what was meant by "sustainable funding", which applies to everything set up in this day and age. What I mean by it is an appreciation of what the costs will be in the longer term. We want to ensure that if we start something, we will be able to continue.
I cannot give a figure to the House for the cost involved because the funding estimates vary widely and I want to ascertain first the projected level of usage. For example, Senator van Turnhout makes a compelling case as it happened in Belgium. Obviously this depends on the number being known and on people being aware of its existence and being in a position to use it. I wish to ascertain the extent to which it has been used in other countries. The project team will assess this and will examine the costings in other countries. The Government certainly will link with NGOs to see if they are in a position to participate and I note the ISPCC has expressed some interest. However, I make the point that all organisations currently offering telephone counselling and services are under severe pressure in respect of costings. Some of the costings for services that are available have been very high. Many 116 numbers are in operation here. We do not wish to deflect from calls to the Garda where children are missing. This is extremely important and quite a number of Senators made that point. Interestingly, several Senators asked why one should not use the Garda numbers. Although other Senators entered some caveats in this regard, it is an issue that must be explored. It may be possible to establish a project to get this number in position and to review it thereafter to ascertain how effective it has been, what usage there has been and the costings. I am committed to doing this and there is ongoing work to be done.
The time for debate has expired.
I have put some money aside under the comprehensive review of expenditure to begin this work. I will further it and will be happy to return to this House to respond to the many detailed points raised by Senators. I thank them all for their contributions.
I thank the Minister. I apologise but the time allocation ordered by the House has been exceeded.