I welcome the opportunity to speak on the rapporteur's report. I also take this opportunity to congratulate Senators on their election to the House.
I am delighted to be here as it is important that we debate the reports that are available on child protection. This report is one of a series which I will receive in the coming weeks and months regarding child protection issues and the situation of Irish children in a range of areas. It is important that we examine these reports in detail, consider the recommendations and do our best to implement them.
The reports paint a disturbing picture of the state of child protection. We know from the reports that have been received in the last few years that there is an ongoing task to be carried out on strengthening the law and improving our services. The issues which affect the lives of Irish children are of major importance to the Government. This is reflected in the decision to establish, for the first time, a dedicated Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The Department, which formally came into being last week, will lead the development of harmonised policy and quality integrated service delivery for children and young people. "Harmonised policy" and "quality integrated service delivery" are two important phrases. We have not had harmonised policy in this area and we have seen from the reports that there has not been quality integrated service delivery. We need to ensure that will happen now.
The Department will carry out specific functions in the social care field and drive co-ordinated action across a range of sectors, including health, education, youth justice, sport, arts and culture. The Department will have core responsibility for a number of areas including education welfare, the youth justice system, early childhood care, youth work services and child protection. They are the core areas because we must ensure, first, that children are safe, that they have adequate health and education services and that young people are given opportunity. There are 1.1 million young people in this country and what is more important than ensuring they get the opportunity they need and the range of services which make a difference to the quality of their lives? The presence of a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs at the Cabinet table will facilitate the development of a seamless approach to the delivery of services for Irish children.
We must ensure that the maximum protection possible is afforded to the most vulnerable members of society, our children. We will set a wide and challenging agenda covering all aspects of child welfare and protection services. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the recent publication of the 2010 report of the special rapporteur on child protection, Mr. Geoffrey Shannon. He is a leading authority in the field of child law and his work is of enormous value to the child welfare and protection services. I thank him for his painstaking work.
As Members will see from the report, Mr. Shannon goes into huge detail on four areas. He examines youth homelessness and makes recommendations, and examines the right of children with mental health difficulties to be heard. There is a huge focus on mental health issues. I have just come from a seminar on mental health and young people. It is really encouraging to see the amount of work being done throughout the country by young people to deal with the stigma associated with mental health issues in the past and their efforts to change this. They are using art, drama, group work, working in schools and holding seminars to address this topic. The rapporteur also deals with children and the criminal law, and the trafficking of children and prostitution.
Mr. Shannon makes detailed recommendations in each of the areas. Of course, many of the recommendations will have resource implications. The clearly critical issue is the type of resources that will be available to implement the type of work he says is necessary. We are living in a time of limited resources and we must seek greater value for money and reform in how we deliver many services. This applies equally to this area. Reform in the delivery of services and evaluating what works with families will be a critical part of the Department's approach. We must examine what the research tells us about what works for children and families, learn from it and transfer it across the sectors.
The report has implications for a number of Departments and State agencies. It includes a detailed examination of systemic issues and points to solutions with the potential to improve the lives of children and young adults. I will discuss a number of areas in the report. If Members raise other issues, I can return to them in my reply, as well as to issues I might not get to address in these opening comments.
One of the main issues the rapporteur addresses is youth homelessness, on which he makes a series of recommendations. The most important is that a full and comprehensive review of the co-ordination, implementation and continued relevance of the youth homelessness strategy be undertaken. A number of Members of the House have a particular expertise in this area and I look forward to hearing their comments. I accept the rapporteur's view that a review is necessary and I have identified youth homelessness as a priority issue in 2011.
Last month, the Department organised a youth homelessness seminar with key stakeholders to assess and review the current demand for services, the progress made to date on the strategy and the need to address outstanding deficits in this area. We all know there are deficits. The stakeholders involved include Focus Ireland and the Irish Association of Young People in Care. These are an important group who are very vulnerable when they leave care in terms of housing and services. We have discussed this in the child care legislation, and we must look at services for when a young person leaves care. No more than in an ordinary family, young people need ongoing support, and we have made progress in this area. That has been highlighted, not least by the young people in care and research in this area.
The other stakeholders were the Ombudsman for Children and the HSE. That consultation process will be ongoing with these groups which are the key providers in this area, and we will make progress working with them. It is interesting to note, however, that the number of homeless children has declined in recent years.
Mr. Shannon made the point about the quality of information available to us. He recommended the removal of the age limit of 18 years on the provision by the HSE of homeless and after care services and improved co-ordination between local authorities and the HSE in tackling homelessness through the provision of social housing.
Inter-agency co-operation is a major issue and of concern to many people. We must focus on quality inter-agency co-operation, especially in this area and in service delivery in general. It can be part of a proactive reform agenda to look at how agencies work well together and how to avoid overlap while continuing to deliver quality services. The development of the new children's services committees will form an important aspect of the co-ordination and will help agencies to work well together. I see a children's services committee in every county bringing together service providers, with some good pilot projects taking place in this area. We must now decide on the model that will be developed and ensure this happens.
The provision of a 24-hour out-of-hours social work service or an alternative mechanism was a further recommendation, with the discontinuance of the use of Garda stations as part of the out-of-hours service.
I share Mr. Shannon's concerns about the quality of information on the number of homeless children accessing services. Work is under way to improve the quality of information collected on the number of young people under 18 years who are homeless, and to establish what areas of the service are working well and where further improvements are needed.
It is also important to acknowledge the services which have been put in place and which are operating well. The HSE provides a crisis intervention service in the Dublin region on a 24-hour basis, seven days a week. This service provides an out-of-hours emergency social work service to vulnerable children. Previously there was concern about the lack of a standardised national system outside the Dublin area whereby gardaí can access an appropriate place of safety for children found to be at risk out of hours. The service is provided by a private foster care company and has foster families on call and available throughout the country to receive a child. The provision of this service aims to ensure children presenting as at risk outside of normal working hours are provided with an appropriate emergency place of safety, thereby reducing or eliminating social admissions of children in an acute hospital setting, and also addressing the use of Garda station facilities.
I can also advise the House of significant progress on two upcoming pilot projects involving out-of-hours social work services in Donegal and Cork. A number of reports have stated the need for out-of-hours social work services. This has probably been a resource issue but it is important the pilot projects are now up and running and we can see their cost and how they work. They are in line with the implementation plan prepared in response to the findings of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. Arrangements for these pilots are being finalised and will provide a model for the future development of out-of-hours social work services which will be informed by those two upcoming pilot projects
I mentioned the need to prioritise child protection. The harsh reports on the experience of children indicate that we have a lot of work to do in this area. Mr. Shannon makes several recommendations on the Children First guidelines, most notably that they be put on a statutory footing, thereby ensuring a collective duty to report concerns of neglect or abuse of a child. There is still evidence that cases of abuse do not get reported and there is an ongoing ambivalence in various sectors about reporting, sometimes as a result of concerns about data protection or to whom to report. There is no doubt there have been improvements, but there is a need for greater focus on the area and to be clearer with people on their duties and obligations.
I will shortly bring proposals to the Government in conjunction with the Minister for Justice and Equality in which will be set out a series of proposed actions on the strengthening of Children First. It is my intention to publish a revised set of Children First guidelines in the very near future and these will be supported by a child protection practice guide to be published by the HSE. It is one thing to have guidelines but to ensure they are implemented there must be a commitment by all agencies that come into contact with children. There must be clear practice guides as to the action to take in order that no one is in any doubt about to whom he or she should report or what to do if he or she discovers a situation where he or she believes a child is being abused.
The operation of the guidelines will be supported by an assurance framework which will set out the responsibilities of each Department and sector working with children. Every Department has a role to play in the implementation of these guidelines. It is not just about my Department. This involves the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Health and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, where people are working with young children in a sports setting. We need all Departments to be clear about their areas of responsibility while also being clear that the community has a role, that this is not just a job for social workers, and that people must act if they have a concern about the safety of children.
In line with the commitment in the programme for Government, legislation will also be introduced to put the Children First guidelines on a statutory footing, a key priority for me as Minister. I am pleased to say substantial work has been done to progress this in recent weeks and I will be outlining further details of these proposals very shortly.
In his report, Mr. Shannon expressed the view that the failure to regulate the exchange of soft information severely compromises the protection of children in the State. I am working closely with the Minister for Justice and Equality to put in place additional safeguards for children, including finalising the national vetting bureau Bill, which will include provisions of legislation on soft information and vetting. This is important and challenging legislation which will be designed to introduce greater safeguards for children while also having regard for the protection of the constitutional rights of any person who may be affected by this proposed law reform. Policy in this area will take account of the recommendations of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children.
The joint interviewing of children involving gardaí and social workers was an area of concern. There was a feeling it was very upsetting for children if they were being interviewed again and again and we must ensure we avoid such duplication while having due regard to the legal process. A national network of interview suites has been established by the Department of Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána for recording statements by those who are under 14 years of age and against whom physical or sexual abuse or both are alleged to have been committed. This is a step forward in terms of how child victims of sexual and violent abuse are dealt with by the criminal justice system. The facilities are designed to help put the child at ease and address, in a more relaxed atmosphere, any trauma he or she may have gone through. I am delighted that these facilities are in place and are being fully utilised. The establishment of this network of facilities is an example of different Departments and agencies working closely and effectively together in the interests of the child.
As outlined in the Children First guidelines, An Garda Síochána and the HSE child welfare and protection services have different functions, powers and methods of working. The specific focus of the Garda is on the investigation of complaints and establishing whether a crime has been committed. Joint working between An Garda Síochána and the child welfare and protection services is integral to an efficient child welfare and protection service.
The involvement of An Garda Síochána in cases of child abuse stems from its primary responsibility to protect the community and bring offenders to justice. Where it is suspected that a crime has been committed, An Garda Síochána will have overall responsibility for the direction of any criminal investigation.
I met members of An Garda Síochána, up to assistant commissioner level, to discuss joint working with the HSE, including joint interviewing. There are interesting initiatives on this in the North and we can learn and address the issues raised in the report. As made clear in the programme for Government, we will establish a new children and families support services agency, which will see children and families services separated from the HSE. This has been recommended by many and generally welcomed by those working on the front line. It is a major task, but we have started and must ensure the new agency has the budget and support to do its work. It should make a difference on the ground as services for children are reorganised into the new agency, which will be responsible for a wide range of support services for children, young people and their families, and which will report directly into my Department through its chief executive. This is a change from how children's services have been organised until now.
Mr. Shannon makes several recommendations on trafficking of children and prostitution, including consideration of the position in Sweden and other countries in which the purchase of sexual services has been penalised, with a view to introducing a similar system here. He says legislation should be introduced to criminalise grooming of children and that Ireland should ratify the optional protocol to the convention on the rights of the child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. Ireland has already signed this protocol but not ratified it. Work on the legislation is being done to enhance the protection of children against sexual abuse and exploitation, including exploitation through prostitution and pornography. This is at an advanced stage of preparation.
I am sure Senators are interested in the report published in the United Kingdom yesterday, concerning the exploitation of children through the commercialisation of various products directed at children. Parents have expressed concerns about this in the United Kingdom and I am sure the same applies in Ireland. It is an interesting area. I had a quick look at the report that came out yesterday. It recommends voluntary agreement between the retailers, various groups and the Government rather than statutory intervention. This should be reviewed. It is an interesting area and will be the subject of further focus in the coming weeks.
The measures being worked on will facilitate full compliance with the criminal law provisions of a number of international legal instruments, including outstanding requirements in the optional protocol. These will be brought before the Government. A report on the Swedish Government's evaluation last year of its 1999 legislation criminalising the purchase of sex was submitted to the Attorney General for advice. The report and the recent advice of the Attorney General concerning the legal and constitutional implications of introducing a ban on the purchase of sex will be submitted to the Minister for Justice and Equality shortly.
Work is being done on the range of areas highlighted by Mr. Shannon in his report. Much legislation is required in this area. A wide range of work must be done to enhance the protection of children and the integration of services, which is necessary and comprehensively addressed in the report. I thank Mr. Shannon for his carefully considered report and the detailed work done. The issues addressed will need a focus of consideration across various Departments and I hope I have illustrated this in my response to the report. I commend Mr. Shannon for his valuable work as rapporteur. I thank the Seanad for allowing me to address some of the issues he addressed in the report that require action.