Ombudsman for Children Report on Children First Guidelines: Statements.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the recent publication of the report of the Ombudsman for Children entitled, Investigation into the Implementation of Children First: National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children, which guidelines were first published in September 1999. They are the over-arching national guidelines that apply to all individuals and agencies which come into contact with children. Their aim is to assist in the identification, investigation, assessment, reporting, treatment and management of child abuse. The Ombudsman for Children has acknowledged that Children First is by far the most comprehensive and far-reaching document on child protection and welfare in the history of the State. Since 1999 the guidelines have formed the basis for the many child protection guidelines and practices operated across a wide number of sectors, including education, sports, youth work, leisure, community and voluntary organisations.

The Ombudsman for Children's report identifies many of the implementation difficulties highlighted in previous reviews of the Children First guidelines. They include a comprehensive review conducted by my office and published in 2008. The report acknowledges that planned and substantial steps were taken to implement the Children First guidelines. The investigation finds that insufficient efforts were made by the HSE to drive forward implementation of the guidelines and identifies the failure of the former health boards to solve problems arising with Children First, including variable implementation. The report is also critical of the degree of inter-agency oversight and the role of the Office of the Minister of State with responsibility for Children and Youth Affairs in this regard. The adverse findings focus, in particular. on the period 2003 to 2007. The report recognises the advances made since 2008 and the potential of these initiatives to realise effective change in the area of child protection. This, in itself, should not give rise to complacency, as sustained action is required.

In response to the publication of the Ferns Report in October 2005 a national review of compliance with the Children First guidelines was conducted by my office in partnership with all relevant Departments. The key finding of the review, published in 2008, was that, in general, difficulties and variations in implementation of the guidelines arose as a result of local variation and infrastructural issues, rather than from fundamental difficulties with the guidelines themselves. I stated at the time that the issues of consistency in implementation and the development of standards should be given priority and I am determined to ensure this will be the case in practice.

The Children First guidelines have recently been revised by my office to take into account the findings of previous reviews. The revised guidelines were published on my office's website in December 2009. Some textual amendments have since been made, including a response to issues raised by the Ombudsman for Children in the report being discussed in the House today. Many of the broader recommendations made in the Ombudsman for Children's report align with the Government's implementation plan arising from the Ryan report and the reform efforts under way across the HSE's child protection services. The focus now has to be on sustained implementation, rather than further reviews, in order to ensure the systems for protecting children from harm are strengthened. The newly revised guidelines will be supported by a detailed and comprehensive implementation framework which will apply across all sectors. The framework will include particular emphasis on the need for robust implementation assurance systems, including, as appropriate, data analysis and reporting, spot checks, examination of case files, audit and complaints procedures. I will be bringing proposals to the Government shortly in this regard.

The implementation plan includes a number of specific recommendations relating to Children First, including the development of legislation to provide that all staff employed by the State and staff employed in agencies in receipt of Exchequer funding who work with or are in regular contact with children will have a duty to comply with the Children First guidelines; a duty to share relevant information in the best interests of the child; and a duty to co-operate with other relevant services. The implementation plan also includes commitments to ensure compliance with the Children First guidelines will be linked with all relevant inspection processes across the education, health and justice sectors. In addition, it commits to HIQA developing outcome-based standards for child protection services. I particularly welcome the role HIQA proposes to play in the future framework. The ultimate aim of all these endeavours and initiatives must always be to ensure the protection and well-being of those children who are being abused or are at risk of being abused.

I am aware that the discussions on child protection generate further discussion on the issue of mandatory reporting of abuse. The introduction of mandatory reporting has previously been considered by the Government which is not proposing to introduce any form of mandatory reporting at this time. The 2009 report of the special rapporteur on child protection, Mr. Geoffrey Shannon, advised against the introduction of mandatory reporting of child abuse on a legislative basis, citing international evidence which suggested mandatory reporting only served to overload child protection systems with high volumes of reports which often resulted in no commensurate increase in the number of substantiated cases. I am in agreement with this view.

Recent reviews of the Children First guidelines have found them to be robust and appropriate. I am satisfied that the commitment in the Ryan report implementation plan in relation to the development of legislation to introduce a duty to comply with the guidelines is seen as the most effective way to ensure people will fulfil their obligations to protect children from abuse.

Last year the Government accepted in full the recommendations made in the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse which revealed harrowing details of abuses perpetrated on children who had been placed by the State in residential institutions run by religious orders. I was asked by the Taoiseach to prepare an implementation plan, drawing on experience from all relevant Departments and public bodies. The plan is a very comprehensive response to Mr. Justice Ryan's recommendations. It contains a total of 99 action points to address each of the commission's 20 recommendations. I am chairing a high level group to monitor implementation of the plan. The group includes representatives from my office, the HSE, HIQA, the Irish youth justice service, the Department of Education and Science and the Garda Síochána. It meets twice a year and a progress report will be presented to the Government each year. The lifetime of the group will be a minimum of four years.

Many of the actions outlined in the Government's implementation plan will have a direct impact on the operation of the child welfare and protection service, including implementation of Children First. The Government is committed to implementation of the plan and €15 million is being made available this year for the implementation of these actions.

Successive Ministers have taken a series of initiatives since publication of Children First in 1999 to improve the quality of children's lives and protect children at risk. The legislative and policy framework has been significantly strengthened through the passage of major pieces of legislation such as the Children Act 2001, the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002, the Child Care (Amendment) Act 2007 and the continuing passage of new legislation through the Oireachtas, including the Adoption Bill 2009 and the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2009. Key policy initiatives include the agenda for children's services, the Irish youth justice service strategy, the youth homelessness strategy and the report of the working group on foster care. Major developments have also taken place at service level including the establishment and expansion of the social services inspectorate under the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, the development of national standards for children in the care of the State, the continued development of special care units for vulnerable children, the expansion of the Garda vetting services; the establishment of the children's services committees, the development of standardised service delivery and business processes in the HSE, the development of a knowledge management strategy for child welfare and protection services, including reform of the child protection notification system, and the development of a sustainable and cost-effective solution for the provision of out-of-hours services for gardaí who remove children under section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991.

The Government is committed to building on the existing legislative and policy framework and to taking any additional actions deemed necessary to ensure greater protection for children at risk. One key commitment of the Ryan report implementation plan is to ensure all children in care have an allocated social worker and care plan. To this end the HSE has been given approval to recruit an additional 265 child welfare and protection staff, including 200 social workers, in 2010. The recruitment process is under way and will continue until the additional posts are filled. I have previously placed on the record of this House my appreciation for the work carried out by social work teams. Any person who has followed any recent child welfare cases through the courts appreciates the often trying circumstances in which social workers operate.

Approximately 5,700 children are in the care of the State. Between relative and general foster care, in excess of 5,100 children are accommodated. This reflects the Government's commitment to ensuring children are placed in a stable and loving family environment, allowing them to develop close bonds that nurture their emotional and physical needs. It is a very positive development that of the children placed by the HSE with foster carers, approximately one third are placed with relative carers.

While I recognise this is an important development for the benefit of children, I am aware of the challenges which face us in this area. One area of concern to me is that 16% of these children do not have an allocated social worker. The many actions set out in the Ryan report implementation plan were developed to assist me and the HSE in resolving problems such as this.

Since 2003, funding for family support services has increased by 80%, with funding for foster care up by 34% and residential care by 7%. The smaller increase in residential care reflects the positive steps taken to prioritise providing care in a family setting rather than in a residential setting. The HSE budget for 2010 for children and families is €53.6 million. This covers a wide range of services which includes family support services, child protection services, youth homelessness services, children's residential centres, fostering and relative care services.

Recent days, weeks and months have seen much adverse reporting of various aspects of services provided to the most vulnerable members of society. It may often seem as if the responses to the harrowing stories of abuse and neglect highlight only deficiencies and inadequacies in the services tasked with meeting such a range of challenges. The initiatives which we are taking will result in better outcomes for children. The problems we face are not insurmountable but we should be under no illusions about the environment in which we operate. It is extremely challenging and we must recognise that there are no quick fixes in this area. The problems will not be solved overnight. To suggest otherwise is politically naive and foolhardy.

Society must recognise it is the responsibility of each and every individual in Ireland to play their part in protecting children from harm. Without such vigilance we risk placing all responsibility on our child welfare and protection services. Like all public services, child welfare and protection operates with many resource constraints. It is a continuing challenge to have both a proactive and responsive service.

The Government is committed to addressing the crucial challenge of protecting the most vulnerable members of society. When children are failed for whatever reason, they must be protected by society and the State must live up to its statutory responsibilities and more in this regard. As every parent knows, this is a complex and difficult task. It requires an ongoing commitment, imagination and hard work.

The context in which a debate takes place more often than not has a major influence on the outcome of that debate. In the aftermath of the publication of the Ryan report last May, we were galvanised as a nation in our resolve to ensure no child would ever suffer the kind of horrific abuse described in that report. We said: "Never again and not on our watch." We in the modern and enlightened Ireland would not tolerate such atrocities. We laid the blame for this abuse at the door of generations past.

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the publication of the report yet what has really changed in the past 12 months? While there has been much hand wringing with ambitious commitments made, not one Bill has been passed to strengthen children's rights. Ultimately, it is all a question of priorities and protecting children but it does not seem to be a priority for the Government. If protecting our children was not a priority in the immediate aftermath of the Ryan and Murphy reports or in the aftermath of the deaths of children in the care of the HSE, we must accept that child protection will never likely be a priority for Fianna Fáil or the Green Party.

The Minister of State continues to respond with assertions that he and his Department have either commissioned a report, are awaiting the publication of one or are about to act on one. The saddest part of this whole saga is the conclusive proof that the Government is more than capable of swift and decisive action when it feels the need to take such action. In September 2008, the House sat through one night to pass legislation guaranteeing bank deposits. We drafted and passed in several months the complex legislation underpinning NAMA. Despite this, we are seemingly incapable of affording the same priority through far simpler legislation to ensure the protection of children.

The Children First guidelines were published in 1999. Eleven years later these guidelines have yet to be put on a statutory footing. For example, the guidelines require each local health office to draw up local procedures to give guidance on implementing the guidelines. Eleven years later, half of local health offices do not have proper local procedures or have only recently drawn them up. Eleven years later there is no 24-hour access available for gardaí or social workers to the child protection notification system. It is particularly shocking, in light of the revelations of the past decade, that the Ombudsman's report documents the continuing failure of the HSE and the Garda to operate joint liaison and documentary arrangements in many parts of the State in respect of allegations of child abuse.

Eleven years later, the rate of social workers in this country is one to every 1,800 persons while in Northern Ireland it is one to every 660 persons. Even the social workers we do have are not allocated on a needs basis. For example, the Ombudsman's report tells us that County Galway had the highest number of reports to social workers in the State while Dún Laoghaire had the 31st highest. Despite this, both had the same number of social work posts.

Eleven years later we learn that an industrial dispute which began in 2002 continues to affect the implementation of Children First. It has never been resolved. Not alone that, it has also been kept secret by the HSE and the trade union, IMPACT.

So abysmal has been the HSE's and the Government's performance on this issue that when PA Consulting finalised its recent report on children in care, it felt obliged to give it the title "Putting Children First and Meaning It". Then we learned the HSE had no intention of making this report public. This report and the Ombudsman for Children both highlight major inadequacies in our child care services.

I acknowledge the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, is determined to address these inadequacies. That determination must now be matched by swift action. The Ryan report implementation plan commits to drafting legislation by this December to provide that all staff employed by the State and in agencies in receipt of Exchequer funding will have a duty to comply with the Children First guidelines. The deadline for delivery of this commitment is the end of this year.

If it is to be met, legislation must be drafted without delay. It is now almost the beginning of June and time is rapidly running out. The Bill should be published with enough time to allow for consultation with relevant stakeholders, including professionals working with children and non-governmental organisations. If the deadline of December this year is not met, then whatever credibility the Minister of State has in this area and whatever trust is placed in his role will surely evaporate into thin air. Earlier, I remarked that tomorrow is the first anniversary of the publication of the Ryan report. Would it not be a most fitting marking of that anniversary if the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, were to announce a date for the referendum on children's rights? Though he has 24 hours left to make such an announcement, I do not expect it will happen. The Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children has done the State some valuable service by providing the basis for the referendum. The Minister has €3 million in his budget to cover the cost of the referendum. What more appropriate gesture of solidarity and love could we extend to our 1 million children than to enshrine their right to a happy and carefree childhood in our country's Constitution? The Minister of State and the Government should recall their own human reaction to the publication of the Ryan report one year ago. They should recall their revulsion and horror, but above all they should recall their steely determination at that time to protect our children in the future.

I recall the words of the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, in the introduction to the Ryan report implementation plan:

There are many reasons why we were shocked by the Ryan Report. Not least of these was the sense that more could have been done and that many of us ignored warning signs. We need to challenge ourselves as a society to do more to protect children . . . The sense of indifference that was all too obvious in the 20th century needs to be replaced by a sense of engagement.

It is now time to challenge and engage, but above all to act.

I welcome the Minister of State. He is doing an excellent job ensuring the children of the country have a voice through the preparation of the legislation. I refer to the remarks of Senator Cannon. It is not long since he was involved with the Government on this side of the House. He made little or no contribution on child care while on this side of the House. Since he went over to the other side of the House it has been a case of empty drum banging and point scoring, which is not what we should be doing. We should ensure the children of this country are No. 1. The Government has appointed two Ministers of State in the Department of Health and Children with responsibility for child care. The current Minister of State has done great work since taking over.

The children of this country will have a voice for the first time and they will have protection under these new proposals. We must ask ourselves what we have done in the past six or seven years. I recall when I was on a health board there was no health care or child care policy within the health system. The current and preceding Governments introduced legislation to ensure children would be on top of the agenda. The current Government is the third in a row to take on board the importance of our children.

What did we do? We have come from a very low base to ensure child care and associated facilities are monitored. What have we done in the areas of play centres for child care? During the past 12 or 13 years, every county council throughout the country has ensured there are proper playgrounds and child care facilities throughout the country. Regardless of where one goes now, one will see a playground for children. There is a lovely playground in Graiguenamanagh, completed in the past year and a half or two years. It is a credit to the local county council. That represents true investment by the Minister of State, who ensured funding for facilities for young children would be included in the budget.

How do we ensure the Ryan report and the various other reports are a thing of the past? It was important to establish the problems that arose within the child care system. We trusted various people to look after the children. Perhaps the Governments of that time should take as much responsibility as the churches and other organisations which looked after our children. We left it to those people to do the job but we had no way of checking it. Now, we have a Minister of State in place and there will be legislation and child protection in place.

We have come a long way and it is important not to rush the required legislation. Proper thought and benchmarking should be included in the legislation to ensure that when we introduce legislation for child care and hold a referendum, the proper referendum is put to the people. We should not rush the process because Senator Cannon and his colleagues on the other side of the House wish to include by-elections in any poll. We all know what happened in the last by-election.

The Senator's colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, is calling for the referendum.

Following the last by-election, one of Senator Cannon's colleagues was only able to stay the pace for six months.

The Senator should speak to his colleague, Deputy O'Rourke.

Should we put the cost of another by-election in Dublin South to the taxpayer?

Did I mention by-elections?

One of the Senator's colleagues could only stay in the House for six months.

Senator Cannon should note that other Senators did not interrupt.

I must raise questions about the Senator's credentials.

The Senator should stick to the statements under discussion.

I am sticking with the statements but it is important to bear in mind that we should hear solutions in the House rather than criticisms. Too many people are criticising various organisations but do very little themselves. I would prefer to see a more hands-on approach and proposed solutions to matters under discussion in the House, whether legislation, guidelines or whatever. It is important to take such an approach and to take responsibility for it. The Minister of State has done this since he came to office and he has highlighted the importance of child care and what we are doing. Much work has been done in this regard in terms of facilities for child care.

The Minister of State has funded the pre-school year during hard times, a very important first step to ensure we have good facilities in place and that our children can get a good start when they begin at school. The pre-school year is very important. The take-up of the pre-school year has been positive and we must ensure it increases. I refer to the facilities on which money has been spent during the past 12 to 18 months. The spending has taken place during difficult times and we had to borrow the money. However, I believe it is an investment in our children. We have borrowed the money to ensure they get better education and facilities and it is important we continue to do so.

The Ombudsman for Children has been critical of the Minister's office and that is no harm. It is important that the Ombudsman does her job and examines what is taking place in child care to establish if there is any area not fully in line with how we should handle things in the HSE. As someone with some experience in this regard, I maintain the HSE will need to tighten up its organisation in the area of child care. There is a job for the Minister of State to do in this regard. I refer to the figures quoted by the Minister of State of 5,100 children in foster care, which is very impressive. If a child cannot live within his or her own family, foster care is one of the better options. Foster parents are wonderful people. They are the unsung heroes who take in children and ensure they have a normal life. They make sure very few children are in the care of the State and that there are proper checks and balances within the care system. I hear very few complaints about foster care. It is probably the better way to go to ensure children are well looked after.

An increase of 80% in the HSE budget for 2010 and an expansion of the child care service are commendable, when one considers the cutbacks that have had to be made. That is a very important point.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I welcome the Minister of State, for whom I feel great sympathy, as this is a very difficult brief. I do not doubt his bona fides and desire to do his utmost to make sure children are protected in society. The sympathy I feel for him personally is combined with a sense of asperity about the continuing failure of the State and State agencies to do the needful.

I recognise that it is extremely difficult to foresee all possible situations in which children might be harmed, take the appropriate actions and provide the appropriate resources to make sure children are fully protected. There are few crimes more evil than the abuse of children, sexual or otherwise. Once stolen, a childhood cannot be returned. Sadly, we have learned that the abuse of children is far more common than once supposed. The Ryan and Murphy reports in Ireland have opened many people's eyes, as has the Johansson report in Sweden, according to which 61% of women and 42% of men were subject to sexual abuse during their time in state-run foster homes and orphanages. The reports make for horrifying reading. It is incumbent on every organisation in the State, religious and secular, and the State to make sure we put in place whatever procedures are necessary to ensure children will be safe from harm. There can be no exceptions or excuses for failure.

I welcome the Ombudsman for Children's report on the investigation into the implementation of Children First: Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children. It is timely in that it deals with a matter of grave public concern. If one strips away the polite public service jargon, the report is an indictment of the HSE and will lead people to question the extent to which Government responses extend beyond the commissioning of reports. It concludes that, at times, child protection services were not given priority in the reform process. It states, "To date, there has been no shortage of analysis of what the problems are, but far less action to tackle them". In the very next sentence it states, "The HSE is currently undertaking a strategic review of the delivery and management of child protection services". How many reviews do we need before something is done? This is what many will feel entitled to ask.

It is important to note that Children First was published in 1999. It provides detailed guidance for HSE staff, the Garda and others involved in child protection. Its goals are to ensure children are protected from abuse and that their welfare is promoted. The fact that in 2010 we are still looking at reviews and investigations of this kind is an indictment. Putting Children First on a statutory basis is only part of the solution. There is a need for additional resources to make implementation possible. There are significant issues which must be addressed in an implementation strategy, including communicating widely the revised guidance; development of a range of protocols related to information sharing; co-operative working between statutory and voluntary agencies and the church; and the development of strategic plans across the HSE.

The report finds that half of local health offices either do not have proper local procedures in place or have only recently drawn them up. The Ombudsman for children is greatly concerned that in most parts of the State there is no 24-hour access to the child protection notification system, despite the fact that such access is required by Children First guidelines. This means the Garda and accident and emergency departments in hospitals cannot check, out of hours, on a child, about whom they have concerns. Furthermore, in almost no part of the State are joint action sheets implemented. These sheets are intended to record exactly who is responsible for what when a child protection concern being dealt with by the HSE is also the subject matter of a criminal investigation by the Garda.

The report's investigation also confirms the finding of previous reviews that Garda and HSE co-operation is not working as required. Although many links between the two are based on informal co-operation, this, too, is contingent on personal relationships. There should be created a statutory duty to develop protocols which would allow for better communication between the key agencies and between statutory and other agencies. The HSE and the Garda should co-operate to a much greater degree. This would not, necessarily, be resource intensive. It requires a greater willingness on the part of people to be less protective of their own organisations and more proactive about safeguarding children. While the HSE and the Garda have statutory responsibilities, children would be safer if a more collaborative working relationship was built with other organisations working with children.

All of these failings increase the likelihood of vulnerable children falling through the cracks. They are described by some, euphemistically, as systems failures. In plain English, this means no one is held responsible when a child in Government care dies. It is not good enough. No one would accept such an explanation from the church and one would be right not to. Nor should we accept any such explanation from the State.

The actual recommendations of the Ombudsman for Children contain some startling suggestions. Recommendation No. 18, for example, states record-keeping should be sufficient to record decisions taken and guide future actions and that sufficient resources should be put in place to ensure this. What health care organisation does not keep a record of decisions taken? It is disheartening that such action has to be recommended in the first place.

Part of the problem is attributable to the shortcomings of the Children First guidelines. Clearly, Garda vetting is an important part of the recruitment process, but it is not helpful to refer to vetting without talking about proper recruitment procedures, as the guidelines do. Vetting and the exchange of soft information need to be underpinned by legislation.

Little attention is given to supporting the maintenance of a child's links with his or her family when such links are in the best interests of the child. Outcomes for children in care can be catastrophic, as recent events demonstrate. Given this, we would expect to see in the document more detail on the importance of family support, both at a strategic level and in care plans.

Unfortunately, the Children First guidelines do not adequately address the issue of oversight of the statutory agencies involved in child protection. For example, it is their role to carry out child protection inspections. I suggest to the Minister of State that a sign of genuine action would be for the State to appoint a Government equivalent of Mr. Ian Elliot who has been a godsend to the church who would ask the tough questions about child protection and name and shame those failing to do their duty. It is evident that such a person is needed to fire a rocket of reform into the morass of systematic maladministration which characterises the health service on this issue. Failure to do so will, in time, lead to further Ryan and Murphy reports. The mere thought of this should be enough to fill us with horror.

It is easy to point to all of the things that are going wrong, but I recognise that individuals nearly always mean well. That applies to the Minister of State downwards. In a recent debate in this House all Members subscribed to the idea that in the words of the Proclamation we should cherish the children of the nation equally. I apply this to minors, not just to all of the children of the Gael.

We should accept the difficulties faced by the Government. I do not like to see this become a political issue, where one party accuses another of not caring enough about children. That is not where the problem is. There is a need for a wider analysis of the currents and trends in society. The breakdown of family life, lack of access of children to father figures in their lives and the greater economic challenges we now face all make it harder for the State to do its duty by vulnerable children. We must also recognise the limitations of the State. There is no substitute for the functioning family in the welfare of children. At best, the State will always be playing catch-up.

Criticism is deserved. I respect the fact that the Minister of State is taking advice and do not think he is being personally obdurate on the issue. I speak as someone who has tracked it for a long time, from my time working in the press office of the church, in which I experienced at close quarters the pain of having to learn hard lessons about how situations had been dealt with in the past. A particular debt of gratitude is owed to victims of abuse who were not silenced and were clear and sometimes relentless in their criticisms, necessarily so. However, the Minister of State says the Government is not proposing to introduce any form of mandatory reporting at this time. The reason given is that Mr. Geoffrey Shannon, with whom I was at college and for whom I have the highest regard, advises "against the introduction of mandatory reporting of child abuse on a legislative basis, citing international evidence that suggests that mandatory reporting only serves to overload child protection systems with high volumes of reports, often resulting in no commensurate increase in substantiated cases". While the Minister of State said he agrees with this view, I find myself scratching my head.

We are talking a lot about the past failures of the Archbishop of Armagh. I would hate to have to live with the thought that my not having gone to the police with knowledge I had at a particular time might have contributed to the context in which a person proceeded to abuse children. That argument has been very well ventilated. It is a personal story about which we are all hearing, yet the State is saying it still does not believe people should have to go to the Garda. Perhaps I am missing something but I believe there is a disconnect. The Minister of State says we should not make it a requirement for people to report crimes involving child sexual abuse to the Garda because it will not necessarily lead to more convictions——

That is dangerous nonsense.

I am asking for an explanation.

I will give the Senator an explanation.

I am not criticising the Minister of State but asking him to stand up his case.

It is reckless.

There is no question of recklessness. I am taking the Minister of State at his word.

No, the Senator is extrapolating or inferring something theological.

I will listen respectfully to the Minister of State's further analysis.

The Senator should clarify his phraseology.

On the basis of what the Minister of State said in his speech, it does not stand up.

The Senator's time is up.

I do believe in mandatory reporting and do not believe the reason the Minister of State has adduced is, of itself, sufficient. He may produce further——

I cannot go into all the detail.

We are willing to hear it in the Minister of State's response. There is no need to attack me; I am simply making the point that the words themselves do not make the case add up. We should not be afraid of dialogue and to hear the hard criticisms of policies and decision making. That is what these Chambers are all about. We should all be united in the common goal of ensuring people are under an onus to report criminal activity of which they have knowledge. That will always lead to a better outcome.

That is not the same as mandatory reporting.

I very much welcome the Minister of State responsible for children to the House. It is very important that there be a Minister of State responsible for children. We are here to discuss the report of the Ombudsman for Children. It is very important that there be an ombudsman for children.

Senator Mullen stated all the Government seems to do is produce reports. That is always a criticism of Governments and can sometimes be valid. I would like to refer to the renewed programme for Government. Under the heading "Children" on page 19, the first sentence states, "We will fully execute the Government Implementation Plan in response to the Ryan Report, including the improvement of children's services and a National Day of Atonement." When reports are produced, their recommendations should be implemented. The key item in the renewed programme for Government refers to the implementation of the recommendations of the Ryan report. Implementation is crucial.

I have spoken on the protection of the children of the nation before. It is one of the most important issues that any of us can speak on in this House. Clichés apart, the children are the future of the nation. How we treat, educate and raise our children very much frames how society will be shaped in the future. It is crucial that any mistakes our generation made are addressed. The Senators present are of a number of generations but common to us all is the fact that we are not children, most of us. We are either middle-aged or older people.

Perhaps we are all children of the universe. I remember meeting the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, as a child. He was not a Minister of State then. He was a young fellow and I do not know whether he was in short pants. I cannot quite remember that much. I believe he was on the rugby field at the time.

Senator Cannon made a number of very interesting points. He said the context of the debate frames the debate, and I agree. The programme for Government refers to a day of atonement. I urge the Minister of State to consider this. A day of atonement is very important and would help us all.

I previously called for a Seanad debate in a location such as Letterfrack, which I have investigated. I have talked to the local community there. It would be very proactive to bring the Oireachtas to places relevant to this debate. We need to be proactive and work with communities. There is nothing better the Oireachtas can do than work with the people who are relevant to this debate.

It would be very poignant to have a debate in a place such as Letterfrack. It is a very powerful place and a very suitable place for it. Having discussed the matter with the local community recently, I noted there is a lot of hurt in that community. Many children were hurt there and the hurt remains today. The people are very clear about the fact that the institution in Letterfrack, which is so notorious, no longer exists. It has a new purpose and is now part of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.

The people of Letterfrack say we must look at the matter from a past-present-future point of view. We must recognise and accept what occurred in society and move on from it. We must accept where we are in the present and the fact that child abuse has not gone away and will probably always be with us. We need to minimise it to the greatest possible extent and put in place as many checks and balances as possible, including having a Minister of State responsible for children, which is very important, and an ombudsman for children. It is also important to have proper institutions and checks and balances to ensure the blind eyes turned to child abuse in the past cannot be turned to it today. We must always be vigilant. We cannot just assume child abuse occurred in the past and will never occur again. If we do so, we will leave ourselves very much open to its recurrence.

Senator Cannon stated the first anniversary of the issuing of the Ryan report is tomorrow. It is fantastic that the report has been published. It would not have been published many years ago. Those who say the Government can do or has done nothing should note the report has been published. The Government is seeking to implement its recommendations and that is very important.

A number of Senators referred to the referendum on children. It is very unfortunate that the debate on the referendum has got tied up with the debate on by-elections. This is very wrong. The referendum needs to be held at the earliest possible juncture and with all-party agreement. I urge the Minister of State to proceed with full haste to hold the referendum as early as possible because it is crucial that children's rights be enshrined in the Constitution in a way that a large majority of the people can support. This is important and achievable. The referendum should be decoupled from the three by-elections which are to be held on the same date. The debate on the by-elections is political and is hampering what is a very important referendum.

The Seanad can contribute greatly to child protection and Members must work on an all-party basis. Bringing politics and religion into the debate is wrong. It is a societal and community issue.

I am in almost complete agreement with what has just been said. However, politics enters the equation when we come to discuss the requirement to allocate resources, expand provision and fund changes and improvements to services. At its heart, politics relates to the allocation of public resources and the setting of priorities. As stated on previous occasions, I have never perceived debates of this nature as occasions on which to engage in party political contests. I certainly did not perceive the two to two and a half years the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children spent discussing this matter as an opportunity to engage in such a contest. However, that is not to state that politics does not enter the equation. As already indicated, it enters the equation in the most general sense when we discuss the level of priority we ascribe to this subject and the level of priority we are prepared to attach in respect of the requirement relating to the provision of additional resources.

We have debated matters of this nature with the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, on several occasions. I have no doubt that he is obliged to watch his p's and q's. I am not stating that he might misrepresent the position but he is obliged to defend the Government. He is not going to inform us that he is pressing for additional resources but that his requests have so far been refused. Nor is he going to state that attempts to employ the additional 265 social workers that are required will be accelerated or that these people should be recruited forthwith. I would be surprised if I was wrong in thinking that if it were left to the Minister of State, the recruitment of these social workers would be completed very quickly. However, action in this regard has been no more forthcoming than that required, in the context of additional funding and resources, in the area of child protection. Politics, therefore, enters the equation in that sense.

Opposition politicians are not only entitled to criticise the Government but are under a duty to do so, particularly where it makes commitments on which it fails to deliver. We would not be doing our job if we failed to engage in such a critique of the Government. However, I am not, as already stated, seeking to obtain a party political advantage in respect of this issue. I disagree with those who attempted to take such an approach to this matter in the past.

This debate on the report of the Ombudsman for Children provides us with a good opportunity to reflect on what we are doing. I accept we would not have time to do so but I believe we would be better served if we were to examine the report on a line-by-line basis.

Hear, hear. Absolutely.

When discussing reports of this nature, Members tend to make Second Stage speeches and engage in something of a rhetorical analysis. In circumstances where terrible tragedies have taken place and where undoubted gaps in provision have been exposed as a result of some of the awful events that have occurred, I am continually prompted to inquire as to what Opposition politicians can do. The Ombudsman for Children has an independent and statutory role and I am glad this was not — despite Government attempts to the contrary last year — merged with the roles of any of the other ombudsmen. The Ombudsman for Children retains a strong, independent and autonomous position in our system.

In the context of my question with regard to what Opposition politicians can do, I am of the view that we can examine the report line by line and ask the Minister of State to identify the conclusions and findings with which he agrees and those with which he does not agree. We can also ask him about the action he intends to take. That is the only reason for engaging in a debate of this nature.

The Minister of State referred to the Ombudsman for Children's report identifying many of the implementation difficulties highlighted in previous reviews of the Children First guidelines. They are not just implementation difficulties, they are failures. Language is an important and essential tool in any debate. I would love everyone — the Minister of State, the Government and Members — to use the English language in the way it is intended to be used. What the Minister of State refers to as implementation difficulties are actually failings. We cannot hope to change the system unless we are honest about the areas in respect of which it has fallen down.

Perhaps the Minister of State will comment on some of the findings of the Ombudsman for Children. The third of these contained in her report states:

[U]p until the establishment of a HSE Taskforce in February 2009, this Office concludes that insufficient efforts were made to drive forward implementation of Children First by the HSE internally, such as failure to ensure that Local Health Offices had local procedures, and that this involved unsound administration by the HSE in the period since its creation.

The phrase "unsound administration" is slightly awkward. However, it emanates from the statute under which the Office of the Ombudsman for Children was established and by means of which she is obliged to deliver her criticisms. What efforts are being made by the Minister of State's office to "drive forward the implementation of Children First"? During his contribution, he provided a commitment to the effect that certain things will be done and used language which referred to the necessity for progressing matters etc. Members on this side of the House could usefully insist that the Government establish timelines in respect of the making of progress with regard to issues of this nature.

The Minister of State indicated he will be bringing proposals to Government shortly in respect of the implementation of the guidelines. He also stated that rather than concentrating on reviews, he wants to consider how a process of sustained implementation might be put in place. When will the proposals to which the Minister of State refers be brought to Government?

When they are ready. A great deal of progress has been made in respect of this matter. Senator Mullen was extremely accurate when he stated it is necessary to deal with the statutory aspects as well as those relating to implementation.

I understand the difficulties involved.

As stated earlier, HIQA will be involved.

The Minister will have an opportunity to reply at the close of the debate.

The Minister of State indicated he intends to take action. In such circumstances, it is not unreasonable for us to request that an objective timeline be put in place. Everyone would be interested in there being a greater degree of clarity.

The question of recruiting 265 additional social workers has been invoked on many occasions.

The Senator——

I do not mind arguing the toss with the Minister in respect of this matter. Apparently, however, procedures do not appear to allow for that.

I must ask the Minister of State to refrain from interrupting.

I do not mind engaging in an argument. It might be possible to make more progress if we proceeded in that way.

Senator Alex White has the floor.

The Minister of State indicated the HSE has been given approval to recruit an additional 265 child welfare and protection staff, including 200 social workers, in 2010. He also stated that the recruitment process is currently under way and will continue until the additional posts are filled. How many of these posts have been advertised?

They are trying to——

I do not wish to be the first Acting Chairman to remove a Minister of State from the Chamber.

Approximately one year ago, I heard that an additional 270 social workers were to be recruited. How many advertisements have been placed in the newspapers in respect of this matter? Will all of the posts be net new posts? There was a suggestion at one stage that people within the system would be redeployed. I expect the Minister of State will be able to provide information in this regard.

The Minister of State acknowledged the contribution social workers and those involved in child care make. Those who work for NGOs and others state it is difficult to find people who work in this area who are not either burnt out or seriously overworked. That is a fact. The people to whom I refer are at the heart of the system and they are under enormous pressure.

They are overwhelmed.

The Minister of State accepts that additional staff are required. It is not unreasonable, therefore, for us to inquire as to how many new staff have been introduced to the system.

I simply do not understand the delay in bringing forth the so-called soft information in vetting, something which has been promised for a good 18 months. In my presence the Minister of State indicated to the committee 18 months ago that this legislation was imminent. I shall check the record. It was to be produced by the end of January 2009. That is what we were told in the committee. Perhaps it was not the Minister of State. It might have been his colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, who said it. Even if the committee was not given that information with such clarity at the time, certainly there was an indication that this matter would be dealt with quickly and efficiently through legislation. We have not had anything in this respect and it is unacceptable that this is the case a year and a half later. The commitment we are getting now looks less clear than it was originally. It is getting more vague all the time. The job we can do on this side of the House involves actual specifics and actual commitments and it is a question of debating these with the Minister of State. I do not, unfortunately, see anything new in what the Minister of State had to say about specific commitments to action.

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I am pleased to have an opportunity to contribute to this very important debate and I acknowledge the work the Minister of State has undertaken in this area.

I am very conscious the Minister of State's portfolio is not just about child protection, but covers many other areas. It must seem to him, however, that at present his portfolio almost completely comprises child protection issues. This reflects the fact that child protection is very complex. It impacts on almost every aspect of our lives, but its function is unambiguous. It is about keeping children safe, and that is the core message.

We are reminded every day of the impact of child protection, the challenges we face in keeping children safe and the tragedy that overtakes us when that is not possible. I am sure every Member of the Oireachtas as well as members of the public can recall numerous tragic incidents involving children such as that of Daniel McAnaspie and others whose protection was not fulfilled and who found themselves in danger. In Daniel's case, unfortunately, this resulted in the loss of a very young life. That brings a sobering perspective to us all when we engage in debates such as this.

The report before the House from the Ombudsman for Children raises very serious concerns about the implementation of Children First: national guidelines for the protection and welfare of children. That said, she points to some very positive developments and progress that has taken place in the area. I acknowledge that progress. It is very important it is placed on the record of the House. I am sure, however, the Minister of State would not want us to dwell on this in the limited time available today. Perhaps it would be much better to consider constructively how to address the issues raised by the Ombudsman for Children. Her report has multiple findings of unsound administration by the HSE. There are 11 findings under section 8 of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002. While it is not possible to address all these in detail today, I shall return to a number of them but not before I consider something else.

I was very struck by the fact that throughout the report there are constant references to reviews, reports and investigations. I am very conscious during the Order of Business that we hear calls for debates on various reports such as the Murphy report, the Ryan report or this report. These reports merit a great deal of consideration, but there comes a time when we have to go beyond debate, when it becomes a question of the action to be taken. I was very struck by a particular quote in the Ombudsman's report to the effect that, to date, there is no shortage of analysis of the problems but less action to tackle them. It is appropriate for us to bear this in mind.

I want to propose to the Government that consideration be given to the establishment of an Oireachtas joint committee for the protection of children and vulnerable adults. A significant body of work needs to be undertaken in this area and there is a strong message to be delivered in terms of the priority the Oireachtas affords this area. This should reflect the priority the Minister of State with responsibility for children has afforded this area. It is unacceptable that the only role for the Oireachtas in this is to participate in endless debate but not to have a participatory role in any action taken.

The Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children demonstrated the very real work that may be undertaken by an all-party committee. It highlighted in the course of its work the many needs that are required to be addressed within this area. Hunting for time among the Committee on Health and Children and the Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights and settling for statements and debates is not the optimum way forward in providing an opportunity for the Oireachtas to make a contribution.

All the reports and accounts published in recent years, such as those of Ryan, Murphy, the Ombudsman and the Minister of State's office, have pointed to the work that needs to be done as well as the challenges for inter-agency co-ordination and accountability. The establishment of an Oireachtas joint committee specifically for the protection of children and vulnerable adults would provide a very clear focus for such disparate work. It would provide an excellent forum for adequate consideration of policy, legislation and reports such as these. The establishment of the Minister of State's office was a very positive step. An Oireachtas forum such as a committee or sub-committee needs to be the next step.

On the specifics of the report, perhaps I can ask the Minister of State about a couple of reports that are named. The Ombudsman for Children has said a strategic review of the delivery and management of child protection services is under way. If not already completed, when will it be finished and will it be published? A second report mentioned is the national social work and family support survey. It says this has been completed but has not been published. Are there plans to publish it? I was very struck by some of the findings the Ombudsman made available in the body of her report. It would be very useful for Members to have access to the full report in that regard.

The Ombudsman pointed out that the HSE is obliged under section 8 of the Child Care Act 1991 to publish a report on the adequacy of services offered to children and families in each functional area and raised concerns that this had not happened in 2008. She also spoke about the industrial action by IMPACT and the effects this was having on the administrative side of child protection in so far as outcomes or reports were not being lodged. Has any progress been made in that regard or has this been addressed? Will the Minister of State say whether there are any plans for the establishment of a child protection notification service on an all-country basis?

I very much welcome the commitment the Minister of State gave in his speech this afternoon to the effect that his priority would be the sustained implementation of Children First and also that he would be looking into an audit of the case files. What is very clear from all these reports is that they have not looked at active case files. The framework that will underpin this will play a very crucial role. We must have training for people in the area, but this must be in tandem with support. It has to be about learning. Everyone who works in this area wants to keep children safe, but there is incredible anxiety and concern about getting things wrong. This may result in paralysis which is of no use to anyone. We must ensure people have the confidence and the competence to make the decisions we depend on them to make.

I welcome the Minister of State. I also welcome the Ombudsman for Children's report which is critically important. Approximately 24 children have died in care, including Tracey Fay and Daniel McAnaspie recently. We have had the Ryan report and an implementation plan, but I do not know what has been implemented or how much progress the Minister of State has made with it. We have also had the Murphy and Monageer reports.

Child protection is in crisis and we must ask whether children's lives are more at risk in care than in homes that cannot cope. I have come to the latter conclusion. The Minister of State's office is under incredible pressure. The Ombudsman for Children's report is another damning indictment of the State's failure to provide for children at risk the protection to which they are entitled. I welcome the report, but, as Senator Corrigan said, an implementation plan with commitments, timeframes and funding is needed. Will these be forthcoming today? If not, when? We do not want other cases similar to those of Tracey Fay and Daniel McAnaspie.

It is incredible that the HSE reviews have not involved an examination of case files to see how Children First is being implemented. The Ombudsman for Children's report points out that the findings of the audit were worrying. For example, the screening of child protection reports took on average 21 days, which meant that urgent cases might not have been identified speedily. The initial assessment took on average 95 days. A child could die in that time. What is the Government at? Why was the HSE not fined? What is the Government's response? I know from previous experience that in Galway the HSE did not have sufficient social workers. There have been improvements in the past 18 months, but this is appalling. Furthermore, the audit revealed that 75% of files contained no record of the outcome of an assessment. By contrast, Children First requires that outcomes should always be recorded. These findings show why internal auditing involving examination of case files needs to be conducted across the State. With the exception of counties Cork and Kerry, this has not happened. If good practice is followed in one area, why is the model not replicated?

This goes back to Fine Gael's requirement that child protection guidelines be placed on a statutory footing. If that was done, behaviour would change. I am also a supporter of mandatory reporting. The report details the failure of the HSE to comply with its statutory obligations regarding the care and protection of children. Findings of unsound administration and lack of clarity and consistency across the State against the executive raise serious questions about its capacity to provide a child care and protection service of appropriate standard and the report seriously questions the desirability of the executive retaining this statutory function. What is the Government's response to this? Does the Minister of State agree the HSE should retain this function?

Recommendation No. 4 of the report refers to ensuring the focus on child protection services is not lost amid wider concerns about health services. The Minister of State's office has been overstretched for a long time and he should highlight this issue because it is a challenge. His office needs more help and resources. There is also a crisis in adoption services.

It is particularly shocking, in the light of all the revelations of the past decade, that the report documents the continuing failure of the HSE and the Garda to operate joint liaison and documentary arrangements in many parts of the State in respect of allegations of child abuse. Immediate action must be taken to address this issue to ensure the successful prosecution of those who perpetrate child abuse is not thwarted by the failure of State agencies to comply with the Children First guidelines.

Recommendation No. 16 which refers to joint strategy meetings between the Garda and the HSE must be easily implementable. How difficult can it be? For example, joint policing committees are in place to address anti-social behaviour. Recommendation No. 14 is similar in that it addresses joint liaison structures between the Garda and the HSE. It is clear from the report that radical change and reform are required. It is also clear that the Minister of State with responsibility for children and the HSE have not yet recognised the need for transparency and accountability in child protection services. The Ombudsman for Children makes reference to the executive undertaking a strategic review. The Minister of State and the Minister for Health and Children must explain the failure of the Government to take all necessary action to ensure the uniform implementation across the State of the Children First guidelines. Putting them on a statutory footing and introducing mandatory reporting would change behaviour. In a former life, I taught in the United States and worked in a state in which there was mandatory reporting of child abuse. Having undergone training, my awareness and behaviour were totally different. I was involved in two cases at the time. Mandatory reporting should not be dismissed, as it could save children's lives.

Having met in 2008, why did the high level group established by the Department fail to meet in 2009? This failure was justifiably criticised by the Ombudsman for Children. Is this not another example of bad practice? Recommendation No. 2 mentions inter-agency work. How difficult can this be? The explicit nature of the Ombudsman's recommendations is helpful. If designated persons are accountable and this is deemed important enough to ensure the inter-agency work is done, it will happen; otherwise, people will have questions to answer.

Recommendation No. 22 calls on the HSE to provide further training for professionals regarding their duty to report abuse. Students in teacher training colleges need three days on the child protection guidelines before they enter a classroom, but that is not happening. Every report has suggested this should happen, but this is the fault of the Department of Education and Science because the bachelor of education degree course should be of four years' duration. Whole staff training is needed on the guidelines in primary and secondary schools. Currently, only designated liaison person training is provided, but that is not adequate. Every teacher must be a child protector.

Recommendation No. 17 states a list of sex offenders in an area should be given to each local health office in order that the risk to children can be assessed. When will this happen? What are the blocks? I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's answers.

I am pleased to welcome the Minister of State back to the House. He has been in attendance frequently of late.

I welcome the Ombudsman for Children's report, but it would be much better if we were able to debate it without the tragic discovery of the body of Daniel McAnaspie in recent days. It would benefit us all if we were not as emotional about the issue. The atmosphere is charged and we would get more out of the debate if we had not encountered this tragedy in the past week.

This has been ongoing for years.

No interruptions, please.

I did not interrupt anybody. Fine Gael and Labour Party Members said this issue was not political, but when there is a tragedy, every issue is political. Senator Cannon's speech was good and worthwhile, but I smiled when I heard it because a few short months ago he was on this side of the House and agreed with everything that was being implemented by the Government. Now, all of a sudden, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, can do nothing right. This summed up for me the fact that everything is political, although I wish it were not, especially when it comes to dealing with innocent children.

The Minister of State is no stranger to my words. I was critical of the State and the church when the Murphy report was published, using the phrase, "Ireland's gulag", and I still feel that way about it. I am astonished to see that no audits have taken place. Cork and Kerry are the only areas in which there is an audit process. I do not see why we can carry out audits in Cork and Kerry but not in the rest of the country.

The Ombudsman for Children stated in her report that all is not wrong. There have been major improvements since 1999. I thank the Minister of State for his dedication since he entered the office. I do not think anybody works as hard as he does nor is anyone so dedicated. Whenever I have gone to the Minister of State with cases, I have received nothing but co-operation and interest from him and his staff.

The welfare of children is paramount and this and previous Governments have treated it as such. The setting up of the groups that produced the Ryan and Murphy reports, although they were the most unsavoury and heart-rending of reports, shows the commitment of the Government in this regard. The all-party Oireachtas committee of which Senator White and I were members did much good work, with many contributions from the Minister of State. I would like to think that the result of two years of excellent work, cross-party communication and, most important, cross-party consensus, which is most rare in these Houses, will be a referendum on children's rights. I hope the Minister of State will make progress in this regard. Senator Butler went into detail on preschool education and the number of places that are set aside, which demonstrates the Minister of State's commitment to children.

Senator Healy Eames was a little upset to see me having a word in the Minister of State's ear because she wanted his full attention, and I would not deprive her of that. I was just asking when the Office of the Minister for Children had first been introduced. I think it was around 2000. What struck me was that from 1994 to 1997, during the term of the rainbow coalition, we heard nothing at all about a Minister for children. I am glad it was a Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government — the latter being Senator Cannon's former party — that established the office.

I am glad the Senator is not being political. It is a great relief.

I am saying this in view of what I heard in my office. Questions were asked about how many advertisements were placed in newspapers to recruit social workers. Is that important? Is the important issue not——

Social workers.

——the 200 extra social workers we now have in the scheme?

Promised a year and a half ago.

I did not interrupt anyone.

No interruptions.

It is a question of accuracy. Accuracy would help.

I listened in my office to every speaker before I came into the Chamber and I did not interrupt anybody.

The Senator should be accurate.

I am being very accurate.

Her statement was entirely inaccurate.

I am delighted to see that the Department is now ready to recruit 200 social workers. The Minister of State has highlighted his great concern at the fact that 16% of the children in State care do not have a social worker. I hope the new allocation of social workers will address this.

The existence of a Minister of State with responsibility for children is a major step because now the concerns and interests of children are ring-fenced. The Minister of State sits at Cabinet, which is an indication of the weight of his Ministry. He mentioned that 5,700 children were in State care, of whom 5,100 are in foster care. The HSE tries to foster such children with their relations as far as possible. The others go to unrelated foster families, which is working well. We had an excellent debate a few months ago about foster care. It was under the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government — that is, in my previous term in the Seanad — that the position of Ombudsman for Children was created.

The Minister of State has acknowledged, and I will acknowledge again, that there are wrongs in the system, but I know that with someone such as the Minister of State at the helm, things can be put right. I acknowledge the large budget of €53.6 million for children and families, the extra €15 million the Minister of State has obtained for this year, as well as the 200 extra social workers and 65 extra child care workers.

The first thing that needs to be said is that we in the Oireachtas are indebted to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children for producing this report, which is a highly significant development. It is not entirely adversely critical of the Government but it does provide a useful foundation for progress. I hope it can be dealt with in a non-partisan way. We must discuss this in the light of tragic events such as the death of Daniel McAnaspie, but I do not think we should make political capital out of it. I was taken aback to hear the usual old ding-dong across the floor, into which the question of moving a writ for by-elections was introduced. This is irrelevant and represents an attempt by both sides, but especially Senator Butler, to make capital out of the subject. It shows that real concern for the welfare of children is not the priority people pretend it is. We are still becoming bogged down by talk of by-elections and so on. That is regrettable.

I agree with the statement of Senator Alex White, whose contribution I watched from my office, that it would be useful if we had the time to go through the report line by line. This is one of the occasions on which a lack of sufficient time is a problem. We had 15 minutes of waffle from the Leader of the House this morning which was completely irrelevant to everything, but we get seven minutes each to talk about this report. When we discussed the Ryan report, I went through the report line by line and had to gabble, as did Senator White. We need time if we wish to take such reports seriously.

I was interested but not surprised to hear the position of the Iona Institute being so articulately placed on the record by one of my university panel colleagues. To drag a defence of Cardinal Brady into this discussion is, to my mind, on the margins. That said, I would welcome an opportunity to discuss that.

The report is not unremittingly negative. I notice the Ombudsman begins:

Some of the conclusions in this report are positive. It is recognised that substantial efforts have been made at various times since 1999 to implement Children First.

The interesting phrase here is "at various times", which suggests a lack of consistency and raises the question of the priority attached to it. The other aspect of the report I found helpful was the Ombudsman's references to the office of the Minister, rather than to a particular Minister. She does not personalise the matter or make accusations against this Minister of State, who is in fact a decent, intelligent and caring person. The Minister of State himself indicated, in the section of his speech that I heard in my office, that the majority of criticism covered the period 2003 to 2008. It is recognised that efforts are now being made to implement the recommendations after a considerable time.

There is a significant lack of what one might call joined up thinking in this area. For example — this is critical — there is the lack of a 24-hour service. This means people cannot find out if children are covered by the child protection notification service. Unfortunately, crises do not neatly and obligingly arise during office hours; they will often happen in the early hours of the morning, or at some other very inconvenient time or at the weekend. In this situation where we are often talking about crisis intervention we need a full 24-hour service. I would have thought that this was inarguable.

As a member of three trade unions who supports the trade union movement and the right of every worker to join a trade union, I was saddened by the comments of the Ombudsman for Children on the industrial relations issue involved. There was such an issue because IMPACT was concerned about what it saw as an extra burden being placed on the shoulders of workers by the implementation of the Children First guidelines. It became involved in negotiations with the Eastern Regional Health Authority, ERHA, and had a prioritisation work agreement, but it did not include implementing the Children First guidelines. I have criticised politicians in this House for not having the welfare of children as their first priority and I am sad to say it seems some of the trade unions which I greatly admire also do not have it as a priority. They should.

Another issue — I am not sure whether it has been mentioned — is the disproportionate difficulty encountered by children of asylum seekers or asylum seeking children. A much higher ratio of such children disappeared from the protection of the HSE. I recall raising this issue on a number of occasions. At least one of the children concerned turned up in a brothel, which is very worrying. If a child was placed in the protection of the State and they were not sufficiently supervised to prevent them from ending up in a brothel, that is a serious criticism of what is happening.

It could be said the Ombudsman for Children's report is stating we are still failing in our responsibility to implement proper child protection systems. It is 11 years since Children First was introduced. It has been reviewed three times, but its recommendations and principles have never been consistently and fully implemented. I find this worrying. The most significant elements that are missing include a definition of abuse. The structures to enhance inter-agency co-operation at regional and local level have not been put in place or are discontinued. That is a classic example which indicates the lack of joined up thinking. Poor record-keeping is also mentioned. There was an analysis undertaken in counties Cork and Kerry which showed that 75% of files had no record of the outcome. That is absurd. Surely, the outcome is one of the most significant aspects.

The Minister of State said in a statement picked up by the newspapers that he welcomed the statements — I would expect this gentlemanly Minister of State to say this — and that the recommendations made in the report would be reflected in an implementation framework which was being developed. Can he give us any indication of the timeframe involved because it is important that we know when that it be done? I was glad he mentioned that many of the findings were constructive and that he could work with them. It is worrying that there are findings of unsound administration, bad practice and a lack of joined up thinking, but we have a decent Minister of State and if we can keep the partisan elements out and keep our minds focused on the welfare of children, we will get somewhere.

It is not particularly relevant to drag in, so to speak, the Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Brady, but I accept it is not appropriate for any institution, be it the State or the church, to abuse children. What is sauce for the goose is definitely sauce for the gander. I have no difficulty with this, but that is a matter for debate on another day and there are other aspects which will not be so pleasing to the Iona Institute mentality when I raise them in the House.

I welcome the Minister of State and the opportunity to discuss this issue. Senator Feeney alluded to the work that had been done in this area, particularly since the Minister of State was given this job and his office was established, in increasing the awareness of child care and in terms of the way in which the issue has been pushed up the agenda, rightly so. Part of what the report highlights is that if something is not measured, one cannot know what progress one is making or what is the extent of the problem. What is highlighted in the report, as previous speakers mentioned, is the need to undertake a comprehensive audit throughout the country to ensure we know what is the extent of the problem.

As previous speakers also said, our concern must be the welfare of children. I have always been of the opinion that a poor person can only afford the best and that a poor person who is required to be in the care of the State can only afford and deserves the best. I am sure it is a desire of the Minister of State, as I am sure it is of every member of the Government, to provide a service that is second to none, particularly for vulnerable children, but as we know, that is not necessarily the case. Nobody can be proud of the services we provide while children are subject to mishandling and fall through the cracks. It is our role and that of the Minister of State to provide a policy framework to ensure the cracks are filled in. That is what we must do.

A point I picked up from the Ombudsman for Children's report concerns whether child protection services are best delivered within the framework of the HSE. A brother-in-law of mine is involved in the legal profession and from time to time tells me about different cases before the courts. Frequently — Senator Norris alluded to this — young girls around the age of 12 years in the care of the State are forced into prostitution. It is heartbreaking to think that will be the fate of a young girl in the care of the State. However, she might be coerced into it, which is appalling.

The difficulty is that two State systems — the justice and health care systems — are involved. The Minister of State's dilemma — ours also — is that we must create a service, but we cannot have one element almost hoping a child will commit a crime because he or she will no longer then be its responsibility. That is the biggest challenge facing the Minister of State because we cannot have people in place who are not interested in the welfare of children, regardless of the reasons they are before the courts. It may involve something as serious as prostitution — I mean serious for the victim, the young girl who has been forced into that way of life — or a young person charged before the courts with committing petty crimes because he or she is on the streets and stealing to feed himself or herself. We must have an all-inclusive, comprehensive system that will not treat them as criminals. We do not want a system under which the people who are supposed to care for them will be hoping they will become a statistic or a problem for the other element of the service.

We must examine how we can support those working in this area. Senator Norris made reference to the industrial relations problem. I realise it is a challenge for the Minister of State when staff are reluctant to do that extra bit because it is not necessarily included in their terms and conditions. If there is one group for which I have sympathy, it is social workers because the buck stops with them. If things go wrong, the question always asked is what were the social workers doing. Time and again, when we hear about tragic cases, not only here in Ireland but also in the United Kingdom, the way in which social workers are vilified is disgraceful. I once watched a documentary on the life of a social worker and they were reluctant to do that extra bit or become too involved because it might create a liability for them. Therefore, they have a problem. They must be very careful of their legal position on such issues because if they overstep their role, this may create trouble for them. However, they are the very people about whom others ask why they did not foresee something. We are aware of the burden and caseload so many social workers have. As mentioned already, as with the health services, the service provided by social workers, which deals with people who are vulnerable, at risk or who come from chaotic lifestyles, cannot only operate on a nine to five basis. It is a 24-hour service, is highly expensive to run and trying to man it is a problem. We need to provide real support to social workers because the burden falls heavily on them. I am glad, therefore, the Minister is making good progress in recruiting for the 270 vacant posts. The sooner this process is complete the better. I do not need to tell the Minister of State how difficult the situation is because the number of social workers per citizen is low.

We all know what is wrong, but the Minister of State has work well under way to improve the services. I wish him well in doing that. He has an extremely important job and has made great progress, which is acknowledged in the Ombudsman's report. Any child in need of the care of the State deserves only the best and I look forward to us being extremely proud of the services we provide for children in the care of the State.

I welcome the Minister of State. I am concerned about children who have been in care who are released into society at the age of 18. What is our responsibility as a nation and State towards these children? Focus Ireland has pointed out that these children are released from a protected environment into the great unknown without support or care. Is it right that we consider that once children reach 18, they no longer have the same needs and requirements they had at seventeen and a half? Focus Ireland has close contact with these young people and is aware of the pitfalls facing them, such as drugs, prostitution etc. We need measures to protect them and keep them out of such situations when they are most vulnerable.

With regard to the responsibility of the statutory bodies, I welcome the Ombudsman's report. I support my Dáil colleague, Deputy Mary O'Rourke, in her call for a date for a referendum. She chaired the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children of which Senator Alex White was a member. We owe it to our children to set that date. Many Senators have already mentioned how much we cherish our children, but let us see in practice how much we cherish them and set the date. Deputy O'Rourke said there is a budget allocated for the referendum, so why has it not happened?

I would like to comment on a situation that has arisen in my area. When children seem to fall between many stools where no statutory body wants to take responsibility, it is the child who loses out. The situation in question concerns a child whose mother died and who at the age of 14 stopped going to school and was engaging in drugs and alcohol. No family member was able to control the child and the social services were called in. Gardaí were also involved. When the family sought a report on how social services were progressing with the child, a report was not provided. The family has never been provided with access to a report, even though it was involved in all meetings and discussions. The family has no knowledge of the outcome of the professional assessment of the child, who is still in a precarious and dangerous position. I am sure, however, that if anything happens to this child, the finger will be pointed at the HSE. This is preventable.

Why does the HSE not provide families with information and make reports available to them so as to prevent situations arising, such as what has happened in the case of Daniel McAnaspie? It is extraordinary to think he was probably murdered by children who have been neglected by the State. He was knifed in the throat by his peers. Why is the State failing these children? They are allowed run riot without anybody taking care of them or responsibility for them. While I believe the Minister of State is doing his best, we must do more. I do not expect he will announce a date today for the referendum or promise more money etc., but the buck stops with him and he has a responsibility. I urge him to expedite the date for the referendum and to include provisions for children who are over 18 and ensure they are not dropped from the system when they reach 18. They have the same needs then as at seventeen and a half. I also urge him to ensure that parents are kept informed. Four sessions with a HSE team is not adequate when a child is in serious difficulty.

Some of the comments made to me with regard to the problems in this area suggest that some problems are surmountable and should be examined. We need to examine, for example, how services are organised. There is, for instance, an ongoing industrial dispute in the old eastern health board region which contributes to some of the problems raised with regard to how social workers deal with implementing the guidelines. Counties Cavan and Wexford have some of the highest case loads, but they have fewer social workers than other counties to deal with the problems. It is often easy for us on the outside to look in and see the problems and ask how such things could happen. However, being a social worker is an incredibly stressful job. It is fraught with emotional problems and fraught with the problems of families and individuals who need help from the State, but who are not grateful to the State for getting involved in their lives. The job is fraught with the danger of litigation and violence and is not easy. For that reason, we need clear guidelines for all those working for the State in the area. They must know exactly what they are supposed to do in their job, but they must also get the sense from their line managers and people like the Minister of State that they stand behind them and give them their full support.

Every time a crisis happens in the case of a vulnerable family or child, there is a knee-jerk reaction that blames the social workers. However, we must look at the environment in which they work and the lack of supports. Some of the best case workers suffer from burn-out and they are dealt with by putting them in what are essentially backroom positions. Their experience is taken from the front line and more inexperienced staff are sent to do the work. There is a need to examine that issue.

I had hoped I would have more time, but I have made the essential points on this issue. The people concerned are very vulnerable and there are huge emotional difficulties involved in dealing with their cases. However, we must also consider those who are implementing the guidelines on our behalf and ensure they have our full support also.

I thank Senators for their reasoned contributions. Clearly, they have engaged directly with the Ombudsman for Children's report and the two hours have passed quickly. It has been a very interesting debate.

Senator Twomey has suggested I show support for social workers in view of the difficulty of the work they do. Last year I had four regional meetings with social workers, something that had never been done previously by a Minister and for which I did not seek press coverage. I did it because I recognised the points made by Senator Twomey and those made earlier by Senator O'Malley about the difficult work done by social workers, issues of morale within the service, the need to show leadership and the sharing of risk as a society. We try to drive that message in the reform process in which we are engaged.

Senator McFadden spoke about after-care services. That is a matter for a separate debate. We debated it when we discussed the Child Care (Amendment) Bill and I have made my commitment clear.

The issue of holding a referendum has been raised, but it is not really relevant to this discussion. However, to clarify, the referendum proposal made by the committee is not solely about child protection; it also relates to every aspect of the life of a child in Ireland, be it education, care in the health service, immigration, adoption or family law. All of these matters are covered by the proposal and we must bear this in mind. That is the reason it is taking a long time for it to be considered by various Departments.

Senator O'Malley spoke about the conflict between the justice and health elements. That is true, but there is an attempt to address the issue in the Child Care (Amendment) Bill. It provides that if a special care case is before the courts, it does not necessarily mean it must be withdrawn from HSE consideration, that a special care order can continue to be pursued up to and including a sentence short of actual detention. I hope that tension will be removed. The HSE should not try to walk away from cases just because a criminal charge might be involved. It is not the policy I would consider appropriate, as I have indicated to the HSE previously.

Several Senators raised the issue of the child protection notification system identified in the Ombudsman for Children's report. There was confusion about whether it should be accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, whether it should be just for ongoing child protection concerns or whether a closed case should also be contained within it. There were also questions as to whether it should be accessible by people who were not social workers and not involved in the child protection system. The HSE has included in its national child care information system a proposal to ensure all these areas will be covered. The only issue that has not been settled is whether it should deal simply with ongoing cases or historical cases. I am having that discussion with the HSE.

Senator Cannon started the debate and made a political point that we could legislate for the bank guarantee in a rapid manner but not for the holding of a referendum or to put the Children First guidelines on a statutory basis. We made a commitment in the Ryan report implementation plan to deal with the Children First guidelines by the end of this year and we are committed to honouring it. The referendum proposal emerged from the committee three months ago. People have been calling for a referendum for almost 20 years, initially in 1993, then in the Constitution Review Group in 1996 and many times subsequently. We have had the referendum proposal for three months and must give it due consideration. I agree that we must remove it from the discussion about by-elections, deal with it on its merits and hold it, when appropriate. We must get it right rather than do it in a rushed way for motives that are outside children's interests.

Senator Butler paid tribute to foster carers. As many have pointed out, they are ordinary people doing extraordinary work.

Senator Mullen expressed sympathy for me, given the brief I hold. It will be no surprise that I consider it a huge privilege at this very difficult time. He took issue with the point about Dr. Brady. Both he and the church generally have to deal with a generalised institutional cover-up that happened over many years. I am not talking about Dr. Brady specifically, but it is an issue, of which everybody is aware and which emerged in the Murphy report. The allegations arose at a time prior to the issuing of the Children First guidelines. They are judged against the church's own standards and the law that applied at the time. The Senator said it was hypocritical to call for Dr. Brady to resign from his position as primate while advocating compliance with the Children First guidelines. This is illogical. The Government has made no statement about Dr. Brady or his position. Today there is no doubt that a failure to report a concern about child abuse would be in breach of the Children First guidelines and that if anybody were to fail to report such abuse, there would be no hesitation in condemning such inaction. There is nothing contradictory in this.

The issue of mandatory reporting was raised by a number of Senators. Not only has Mr. Geoffrey Shannon said in his special rapporteur’s recommendation that this is not a policy we should pursue, but Dr. Helen Buckley also said it in an academic paper I read six months ago. Reviews of international literature show that in jurisdictions where there is mandatory reporting, it simply overloads the child protection system. As I said in my opening remarks, it does not lead to an increase in the number of substantiated claims. These are the facts. According to practitioners in these other jurisdictions — Senator Healy Eames did some training overseas — it is a case of trying to put the genie back in the bottle. One cannot do it. We recommended that the Children First guidelines be placed on a statutory footing. That was welcomed by the NGO community and those working with children as the right way to proceed. However, as Senator Alex White said, it is not enough to place them on a statutory footing. We must also put the implementation framework in place. The Senator was concerned about when that would happen. I indicated that I would bring recommendations to the Government and that will be done in the next few weeks. I do not wish to pin it down further and give a hostage to fortune, but it is imminent. There has been much progress and a great deal of work done in recent weeks.

With regard to the national vetting bureau Bill which also emerged from the Oireachtas committee of which Senator White was a member, work on it is being done as a priority. The heads of the Bill are in preparation. The matter was complicated because the sharing of information across agencies was not simple and, initially, the view was that it would require a constitutional referendum. Including the safeguards recommended by the Attorney General requires complicated legislation. Where the bureau would be managed was another issue. It will be managed by the Garda vetting bureau and will have a similar sharing of expertise as the Criminal Assets Bureau. It will include the various sectors in one office which will have responsibility for driving this issue. However, it will require a significant increase in resources for the Garda vetting bureau. Hundreds of extra staff will be required to cope with the obvious increase in workload that will result.

Many Senators mentioned the tragic case of Daniel McAnaspie. I add my expression of sympathy to his family and friends on the tragic circumstances that led to his death. Every care is taken with children in the care of the State. However, as the Ombudsman for Children says in her report, it is impossible to protect all children from harm at all times. The circumstances in which children come into the care of the State are usually very difficult. Sometimes it is presented in a facile way that the HSE has harmed children who otherwise present without problems. Invariably, where a care order is sought, every other intervention has failed. This view was repeated yesterday morning on RTE radio by Mary Ellen Ring who said that in much the same way that no parent could guarantee the safety of his or her child, neither could the State give such assurances. That is not to say, however, that we are diluting our responsibilities or seeking absolution for failures identified by the Ombudsman for Children in her report.

I welcome the report, even though it makes criticisms. However, we made the same criticisms in our review in 2008. We acknowledge them.

If we did not recognise the deficits in the system, we would not be embarked on a path of reform as detailed as we are.

I undertook to explain to Senator Alex White the position on social workers. The HSE service plan for 2010 undertakes to recruit an additional 200 social workers for child protection services: 50 by the end of the second quarter, a further 75 by the end of the third quarter and the final 75 in the fourth quarter. The HSE states that the first candidates have been interviewed and by the end of June, it expects to have an additional 50 social workers recruited. When I say "additional", I mean additional to the beginning number and not simply the replacement of staff who are leaving, on leave or anything like that. I also note that the HSE, as recently as the last week in April, placed further recruitment advertisements in national newspapers with a salary scale from €43,000 to €56,000 per annum. I am informed that the response to this particular advertisement was very positive.

Senator Healy Eames asked if I was not engaging with the HSE appropriately. I have met with the leadership of the HSE in the child protection area every month since my appointment as Minister of State to drive the very issues that have been raised in this House.

Senator Corrigan raised the question of whether an Oireachtas joint committee on the protection of children and vulnerable adults should be set up. It is something to which we should give consideration.

There are many other issues I would have liked to have reached but I hope I have addressed as many as possible in the short timeframe.