I am pleased to bring the Child and Family Agency Bill 2013 before the House and look forward to engaging with Senators in a constructive debate as it proceeds through the various Stages. Last week we completed Report Stage in the Dáil where the Bill was the subject of some intense and lively debate. In the course of the various Stages in the Dáil a number of amendments were made and the version before the House constitutes strong and comprehensive legislation.
The Bill is the legislative element of one of the Government's largest public service reform initiatives. More importantly, it is the most ambitious and comprehensive reform of child protection, early intervention and family support services ever undertaken. The need for change is undeniable, as shown by nearly 20 major reports in the past 30 years on child protection failings, most recently last year's report of the independent child death review group. Stark findings have emerged of service dysfunction and fragmentation and a lack of inter-agency working. Recent inspections by the Health Information and Quality Authority and last month's pilot phase report on the national audit of neglect demonstrate that structural and systemic deficits and inconsistencies remain in services.
If one wishes to make improvements to a system, one must first identify what are its failings and outstanding issues and which of its elements are operating successfully. The HIQA reports on child protection services are providing such information on a frequent basis. For this reason, I welcome the agency's reports on child protection services, fostering and residential services. A consistent feature of the reports is that dedicated staff went above and beyond the call of duty. However, they have also found that some staff fell far short. While some geographical regions were excellent in how they operated, others required significant improvement. Similarly, while many legislative and financial supports were found to be robust, some were treated as purely aspirational.
There is no doubt that serious gaps persist in basic data for children in care, referrals and service provision generally. These gaps are being addressed and the country has become data rich in respect of children. I have just returned from the launch of the Growing Up in Ireland survey which examines the position of five year old children. It is encouraging to note how well these children have made the transition into primary school. While specific issues such as obesity need to be addressed and the past five years have been tough on families, it is to the credit of families and parents that the country's five year old children are doing well, as the study found.
The identification of systemic gaps related to the safety, protection and well-being of the nation's children was a call to arms for the Government that could not be ignored.
The need for change gave rise to the establishment of the first dedicated Department of Children and Youth Affairs and it gives rise to the need to establish a body such as the child and family agency. In order to do things differently, we must proactively identify and correct our failures. Since taking up my position as Minister, I have introduced the new Children First national guidelines and overseen the Children First implementation framework. I recently secured Cabinet approval for the publication of sectoral implementation plans. This is important because it means that every Department is responsible for implementing Children First. Representatives from Departments work together to share what they are doing in their respective areas. This has been done in advance of the legislation so that we are well prepared once it is in place. We have introduced the first ever national standards for child protection services and an independent inspection regime under HIQA. This new standards-led approach is central to fostering a new culture of transparency, accountability and effectiveness. We have recruited additional social workers, although we need more. We have a young workforce, and the retention of social workers is a big issue in this country and every other European country. We can retain front-line social workers and staff by giving them support and better training for their challenging work.
We are designing new models for assessment and referral to ensure that young children who have been sexually abused get the response they require when they present to services. They have to be seen as a priority, as do cases of child protection and serious neglect. Gordon Jeyes is reorganising care services so that they respond in a timely and effective manner to those who need them. We are implementing new models for data management and performance monitoring. We have seen the publication by the HSE children and family service of the very useful child welfare and protection practice handbook. We have arranged training sessions around the country whereby those who work in the field of child protection can examine in detail the handbook and the Children First guidelines. The main message that emanates from these sessions is on the need for inter-agency co-operation and partnership. GPs need to be good partners with child protection teams, which in turn need to work with local schools, so that when a referral is made ongoing exchanges of information and support form part of the response. We are emancipating our child protection and welfare services from the monolith of the health service, where for too long in the past they were lost and effectively rudderless. Inter-agency co-operation will be a big part of the way forward. We need more integration of policy and services so that we do better for children and families. In 2011 I established a task force of dedicated expert volunteers chaired by the very able Ms. Maureen Lynott to advise me on the establishment of the new agency. The task force examined international best practice and made recommendations on the development of the agency.
The task force report referred to the once-in-a-generation opportunity to fundamentally reform children's services in Ireland. The Bill I am now presenting seeks to make that opportunity a reality. It provides the organisational context, leadership focus and accountability within which real improvements in child and family services can be achieved. I do not pretend this will happen overnight. It is an ongoing challenge, but we are putting the building blocks in place. Just as the creation of my Department brought child-related policy out of the shadow of the Department of Health and into the direct light of ministerial, Cabinet and public scrutiny, this legislation will once and for all move the services for children and families into the light of day. Put simply, we are moving from a position in which child and family welfare was barely a priority to one in which it is the sole focus of a single dedicated State agency, overseen by a dedicated Department. I pay tribute to all the workers who have laboured on the front lines over the years to deliver effective services to families. I recognise the need for continuity as well, to make the best of our new start.
In bringing the Bill before the House, I am delivering a key commitment in the programme for Government and something that has been a priority for me as Minister. I thank all the staff who have been involved in the preparation of the Bill. A considerable amount of work has already been undertaken on the logistical, organisational and financial management aspects of the establishment of and transition to the new agency. With 4,000 staff transferring, Senators will understand that more work remains to be done. We have recruited a new management team led by CEO designate Gordon Jeyes and are setting up a transitional board chaired by Ms. Norah Gibbons.
The Bill seeks to facilitate each of the distinct elements that make up the programme for Government commitment through the creation of an agency which is solely and exclusively dedicated to children and families, has an improved range of services to meet the needs of children and families and is subject to best practice in the discharge of its accountability to the Government and the Oireachtas. The establishment of a dedicated agency recognises that the complex operational management and reform of child welfare and protection services have jostled with many other competing objectives within the large and demanding health and personal social service arena. The Bill provides a mandate to a dedicated agency to lead the improvement of children's services. It will allow for the development of expertise and support for professionals in delivering some of the most complex interventions the State is charged with undertaking. The Bill provides for the child and family agency to assume responsibility for a range of services from establishment day. These services include child welfare and protection services, family support responsibilities and National Educational Welfare Board responsibilities. It is extremely important that educational welfare services are included because serious school non-attendance is often the first sign that a child is in trouble. We need to be proactive in responding to non-attendance. The agency will also assume responsibility for preschool inspection services, in which regard Senators will be familiar with the work I am doing on the preschool quality agenda; domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services - we have a long way to go to ensure we have the kind of service that can react effectively and quickly to children and women who face violence; and services related to the psychological welfare of children. We decided it was important that psychologists work with the agency so that front-line interventions can draw on psychological expertise. One of the recommendations from the reports prepared in recent months is that we need better assessment of children's needs at the point of intake.
This is a major public service reform involving 4,000 staff across three existing agencies and a budget of nearly €600 million. The children and family services transferring from the HSE include the full range of family support and child welfare services, child protection, foster care, residential care, after-care and adoption services. They include responsibility for some of our most vulnerable children, many of whom are doing extremely well. There are very good statistics on how children in care are doing in the education system. The vast majority of them are in full-time education. We will also have responsibility for the more than 1,500 young people who are getting after-care services and will also be responding to nearly 40,000 child protection and welfare referrals every year. The incorporation of preschool inspection services will further promote a nationally consistent approach to regulation, inspection and enforcement, all of which are key elements of my Department's ongoing preschool quality agenda. The transfer of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services from the HSE is important in equipping the agency to provide an integrated service to vulnerable families. Support to victims and groups working with those experiencing such violence, including rape crisis centres and refuges, will in future be the responsibility of the child and family agency. The HSE will retain responsibility for the sexual assault treatment units which are located in acute hospitals and other medical facilities.
While improving child protection is a key priority for us, it is my firm belief - which I am sure is shared by the Senators in this room, who have a lot of experience of working with families - that early intervention is the key. In this regard, I am delighted that I was able to announce the area-based childhood, ABC, programme, through which the Government is investing €30 million in working with families in certain areas.
There is a good history of working with voluntary organisations such as Barnardos and the ISPCC which work in this area.
Section 14 will oblige the agency to furnish information to the Minister which he or she is likely to consider significant for the performance of his or her functions or which has been specified by the Minister as falling within a class of developments of public interest or concern. This is about good information. It was difficult at one stage to obtain documentation and data from the HSE. Section 15 empowers the Minister to require the agency to furnish certain information or documents where he or she considers it necessary in the public interest to do so for the performance of his or her functions. Section 16 enables the Minister to share certain information or documents with the agency.
Section 19 provides for the composition of the board of the agency. I have appointed Norah Gibbons as chairperson of the interim board and a range of representatives who have good experience in the sector and in human resources, governance, finance and public accountability. The board will transition to being the board of the agency once it is established.
Part 3 deals with the duties and responsibilities of the board. Part 4 deals with the functions of the chief executive officer. It covers the delegation and sub-delegation of functions by the agency to the chief executive officer. It provides for everything one would expect in terms of the good governance of such a major organisation.
Part 5 addresses standards and qualifications. Section 36 provides for the maintenance of proper standards of integrity, conduct and concern for the public interest by specified persons performing functions under the Bill. This Part also provides for clear recommendations and codes of conduct.
Part 6 covers accountability and the funding of the agency.
Part 7 deals with provisions relating to employees and advisers, while Part 8 address the provision of services. Section 56 enables the agency, subject to certain matters, including the resources available to it, to enter into arrangements with not-for-profit service providers for the provision of child and family services. The other sections in this Part are necessary for an agency of this size and clarify the governance and accountability measures that need to be in place for such an agency.
Sections 60 to 70, inclusive, in Part 9 provide for complaints, while Part 10, sections 71 to 81, inclusive, deal with the dissolution of the Family Support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board on establishment day. This will allow the important functions in which they are engaged to transition to the new agency. Part 11 outlines how the staff make that transfer and how their rights, terms and conditions, tenure of office and remuneration will be protected following the transfer. An intensive human resources process has been ongoing for approximately a year and a half with the staff and we have received great support from those who are transferring. I thank all those involved in the process because this is about change for people who are moving employment from the HSE to the new agency. It has been responded to well by all who have been involved. I thank the unions, employers and staff who have engaged in the process. They got on with the work in a private way to make sure the agency could be established. I express my gratitude to them for the serious way in which they have done the work and its success, as evidenced by the fact that every staff member who is transferring was informed of the transition several months ago and some of the complexities that inevitably arise from such a transfer have been worked out. This Part also provides for the transfer of certain staff functions from the HSE to the agency.
Part 12 deals with the amendment of the Child Care Act 1992. Under section 92, a new Part is being inserted into the Child Care Act 1991. I have taken the opportunity to use the legislation to deal with issues relating to the early years sector which have been highlighted in recent months by "Prime Time" and which clearly needed to be addressed. The section provides for the registration of early years service providers, minimum qualifications for those working in the early years sector, enforcement of standards in early years services and increased penalties on conviction for breaches of statutory provisions. Sections 93 to 97, inclusive, deal with miscellaneous provisions relating to the continuation of appointments, designations and authorisations under various statutes where the person held the appointment immediately before enactment. Much of this is technical to make sure we have continuity when people transfer from one agency to another.
I hope that gives Members a sense of the philosophy behind the setting up of the agency, the services it will provide, the transfer, governance and accountability. I thank Members, many of whom are supportive of the principle of establishing a new agency, and look forward to the debate on the detail of the legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.