I am pleased to have the opportunity today to introduce the Children First Bill 2014 to the House and look forward to engaging in a constructive debate as the Bill proceeds through the various Stages. The Bill represents an important and necessary extra protection in the child welfare and protection area. It meets the commitment in the programme for Government to put key elements of the Children First guidance on a statutory footing and will operate side by side with the existing non-statutory obligations provided for in the Children First guidance. The Bill also forms part of a suite of child protection legislation, including the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 and the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012.
The Bill has three key elements. The first element obliges certain professionals and others working with children to report child protection concerns to the Child and Family Agency and to assist the agency, if requested to do so, in its assessment of a child protection risk.
The second key element of this Bill obliges a provider of services for children to undertake an assessment of the potential for risk of harm to a child while that child is availing of its services and to prepare an appropriate child safeguarding statement in accordance with the Bill. The third element provides statutory underpinning for the Children First interdepartmental implementation group which will promote cross-sectoral implementation and compliance with Children First guidelines. This group, which comprises a representative of each Department and a representative each of the HSE, An Garda Síochána and the Child and Family Agency, will be required to keep the implementation of this legislation under review and to report annually to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. On the whole, this Bill represents an important addition to the child welfare and protection measures already in place and will help to ensure child protection concerns are brought to the attention of the Child and Family Agency without delay.
I now turn to the provisions of the Bill. In Part 1, sections 1 and 2 provide for the Short Title, commencement and definitions of the Bill. I brought forward an amendment to the definition of "harm" on Committee Stage in the Dáil to qualify that the threshold for reporting by a mandated person is where a child’s health, development or welfare is seriously affected. There was concern that without the introduction of this threshold, the child welfare and protection system could become overwhelmed which could, in turn, delay the response to reports of serious concern.
Section 3 provides for a general regulation-making power for the Minister.
On Committee Stage in the Dáil I brought forward an amendment to section 4 with the purpose of setting out in the Bill the manner in which a notice is to be served to a provider who has, following a request, failed to provide a child safeguarding statement to the Child and Family Agency.
Section 5 provides that expenses incurred in the administration of this Bill will be provided by the Oireachtas.
Section 6 provides that the Minister may issue and publish guidelines for the purpose of providing practical guidance in respect of the protection and welfare of children, and such guidelines in force at the time of commencement of this section are deemed to be guidelines issued by the Minister under the Bill.
Section 7 provides that the Child and Family Agency shall, in performing a function under the Bill, regard the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration. It is of the utmost importance that in legislation such as this, the best interests of the child be given paramount consideration.
Section 8 provides for the definition of terms used within Part 2. Consequential to the provision of a non-compliance register, a number of new definitions were added on Committee Stage in the Dáil, namely, "advance notice", "non-compliance notice" and "register of non-compliance", about which I will speak more. The definition of "provider" was amended to provide greater clarity and to ensure the obligation to prepare a child safeguarding statement falls solely on the provider of the service as opposed to those who commission the service. This is to ensure there is no scope to misinterpret the obligation for the provider to prepare a child safeguarding statement under this legislation.
Section 9 provides that Part 2, regarding child safeguarding statements, is not applicable to an individual who undertakes any work or activity in the course of a family relationship, where the work or activity is undertaken solely for the benefit of his or her child or a family member. Equally, where the work or activity is undertaken in the course of a personal relationship or where assistance is given on an occasional basis without payment, there is no obligation to prepare a child safeguarding statement. This is a practical arrangement given that the requirements of the child safeguarding statement include recruitment, vetting and training of staff and the procedures in place for the reporting of harm by staff. These exemptions are to ensure onerous statutory responsibilities are not placed on persons in circumstances where arrangements are in place as a result of personal rather than commercial relationships. Occasional assistance in local and community events is also exempted in order not to discourage participation in such activities.
Section 10 provides that a provider of relevant services is to ensure that, as far as practicable, a child, while availing of its services, is kept safe from harm.
Section 11 provides that where a person proposes to operate as a provider of services to children, he or she shall, within three months of the commencement of the service, carry out a risk assessment and prepare a child safeguarding statement. A person operating as a provider of services to children immediately prior to the commencement of the Bill must carry out a risk assessment and prepare a child safeguarding statement not later than three months from the date of commencement of the Bill. The section provides that a child safeguarding statement shall include a written assessment of risk, including an outline of the procedures in place to manage any risk identified. The section also provides that a child safeguarding statement must specify procedures in place in respect of any member of staff who is the subject of an investigation in respect of a child availing of the service; for the selection or recruitment of staff with regard to suitability to work with children; and for the provision of information and, where necessary, instruction and training in the identification of the occurrence of harm. The child safeguarding statement must also include procedures for reporting to the agency. The statement should also include a list of the mandated persons working in the service.
Section 11 also provides that a child safeguarding statement is to be made available to staff and, on request, to parents, the Child and Family Agency and members of the public. The child safeguarding statement is to be displayed in a prominent place related to the service. This section also provides that the Minister may make regulations in regard to child safeguarding statements. In response to concerns from stakeholders regarding the lack of sanctions for non-compliance with the provisions relating to child safeguarding statements, I brought forward an amendment to section 12 on Committee Stage in the Dáil to set out the process to be followed by the agency if it becomes aware that a provider of relevant services may not have prepared a child safeguarding statement.
I also brought forward an amendment on Committee Stage in the Dáil to section 13 to provide for the agency to establish and maintain a publicly available register of non-compliance, that is, a register of organisations that provide services for children that fail to provide a child safety statement to the agency when requested to do so. This section also sets out the criteria by which a non-compliance notice may be removed from the register, namely, on receipt by the agency of the child safety statement or the agency being satisfied that the statement is no longer required.
Part 3 deals with the reporting aspect of the Bill. Section 14 provides that certain professionals and other persons in specified occupations, as listed in Schedule 2, are mandated persons for the purposes of the Bill. The persons who have been identified as mandated persons are those whose professional education, training, expertise or the nature of their specific role in certain organisations prepares them to be aware of the risks to children and their responsibilities in that regard. The section provides that where a mandated person knows, believes or has reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is being harmed, has been harmed or is at risk of being harmed, he or she shall, as soon as practicable, report that belief or suspicion to the Child and Family Agency. Where it is the case that a child makes a disclosure to a mandated person that he or she believes he or she is being harmed, has been harmed or is at risk of being harmed, that mandated person shall, as soon as practicable, report that disclosure to the Child and Family Agency.
A mandated person shall not be required to make a report to the Child and Family Agency where a young person aged 15 years or more but less than 17 years is engaged in sexual activity with a person who is not more than two years older than the young person, and where the mandated person knows or believes there is no material difference in capacity or maturity between the two parties, and where the child has made known his or her view that a report should not be made to the Child and Family Agency. I brought forward an amendment on Committee Stage in the Dáil and the Bill now provides that a mandated person must also be satisfied that the relationship is not intimidatory or exploitative before deciding not to make a report in the circumstances I have just described.
Also, a mandated person is not required to make a report where the sole basis for his or her knowledge, belief or suspicion of harm to a child is as a result of becoming aware that another mandated person has made a report to the Child and Family Agency in respect of the child concerned. A mandated person is required to make a report if he or she becomes aware of the information after the commencement of this section, irrespective of whether the harm occurred before or after the commencement of the section.
The report is to be made to the agency on a mandated report form. It can be made by one mandated person or jointly with one or more mandated persons. I introduced an amendment on Committee Stage in the Dáil and, as a result, the Bill now provides that a joint report can be made by a mandated person together with another person, regardless of whether that person is mandated to report. While a report may be made other than on the mandated report form, if a mandated person has reasonable grounds to suspect that a child may be at risk of immediate harm, the mandated person must provide a report to the Child and Family Agency on a mandated report form in respect of that child within three days. The Bill provides that the Minister may make regulations regarding the procedures for the making of reports to the Child and Family Agency. This section also provides that the reporting obligations under it are in addition to and not in substitution for any other obligations of a mandated person to disclose information to the Child and Family Agency.
Section 15 provides that the chief executive officer of the Child and Family Agency shall authorise a member or members of staff for the purpose of receiving reports made by a mandated person. This section also provides that an authorised person shall be deemed to be a designated officer within the meaning of the Protections for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act 1998 for the purposes of that Act.
Section 16 provides that a mandated person may be requested to assist the Child and Family Agency and to give such information and assistance to the agency as is reasonably required by the agency. This section also provides that a mandated person shall comply with such a request. Assistance by a mandated person includes the provision of verbal or written reports, attendance at meetings arranged by the agency and the production of any documents to the agency. This section also provides that the Child and Family Agency may share information concerning a child who is the subject of a report with a mandated person who is assisting the agency, but the sharing of that information shall be only as considered by the agency to be necessary and proportionate in the circumstances of the case. I introduced an amendment to this section on Committee Stage in the Dáil to ensure the agency may only request such assistance from mandated persons as is reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances of the case.
Section 17 provides that information shared during the course of an assessment shall not be disclosed to a third party and that it is an offence if a person discloses such information.
Section 18 provides that the Child and Family Agency is a specified body for the purposes of the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012. The effect of this provision is that the agency is an organisation required to notify the National Vetting Bureau of information in respect of a person if it has a bona fide concern that the person may harm a child.
Section 19 amends section 9(4) of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 to include a reference to the Children First Act 2014. This will provide for the views of the child to be taken into account by the agency in performing its functions under the Children First Act.
Section 20 provides for the establishment of the Children First interdepartmental implementation group to perform functions assigned to it under the Bill. Section 21 sets out the membership of the implementation group. Section 22 provides that the functions of the implementation group include the promotion of compliance with the legislation and monitoring of the implementation of guidelines under the legislation. Section 23 provides that the interdepartmental group may be given a direction by the Minister to comply with a policy of the Government as specified in the direction. The terms and conditions for the appointment of members of the interdepartmental group are set out in sections 24, 25 and 26, as are details relating to the conduct of meetings and the provision of annual reports.
Section 27 provides that each Minister shall publish a sectoral implementation plan concerning relevant services provided by or on behalf of the Department concerned.
I look forward to a productive debate on this important child-centred Bill which endeavours to improve the care and protection of children in the State and will, for the first time, put key elements of the Children First guidance on a statutory footing. I commend the Bill to the House.