Children First Bill 2014: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to have the opportunity today to introduce the Children First Bill 2014 to the House and look forward to engaging in a constructive debate as the Bill proceeds through the various Stages. The Bill represents an important and necessary extra protection in the child welfare and protection area. It meets the commitment in the programme for Government to put key elements of the Children First guidance on a statutory footing and will operate side by side with the existing non-statutory obligations provided for in the Children First guidance. The Bill also forms part of a suite of child protection legislation, including the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 and the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012.

The Bill has three key elements. The first element obliges certain professionals and others working with children to report child protection concerns to the Child and Family Agency and to assist the agency, if requested to do so, in its assessment of a child protection risk.

The second key element of this Bill obliges a provider of services for children to undertake an assessment of the potential for risk of harm to a child while that child is availing of its services and to prepare an appropriate child safeguarding statement in accordance with the Bill. The third element provides statutory underpinning for the Children First interdepartmental implementation group which will promote cross-sectoral implementation and compliance with Children First guidelines. This group, which comprises a representative of each Department and a representative each of the HSE, An Garda Síochána and the Child and Family Agency, will be required to keep the implementation of this legislation under review and to report annually to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. On the whole, this Bill represents an important addition to the child welfare and protection measures already in place and will help to ensure child protection concerns are brought to the attention of the Child and Family Agency without delay.

I now turn to the provisions of the Bill. In Part 1, sections 1 and 2 provide for the Short Title, commencement and definitions of the Bill. I brought forward an amendment to the definition of "harm" on Committee Stage in the Dáil to qualify that the threshold for reporting by a mandated person is where a child’s health, development or welfare is seriously affected. There was concern that without the introduction of this threshold, the child welfare and protection system could become overwhelmed which could, in turn, delay the response to reports of serious concern.

Section 3 provides for a general regulation-making power for the Minister.

On Committee Stage in the Dáil I brought forward an amendment to section 4 with the purpose of setting out in the Bill the manner in which a notice is to be served to a provider who has, following a request, failed to provide a child safeguarding statement to the Child and Family Agency.

Section 5 provides that expenses incurred in the administration of this Bill will be provided by the Oireachtas.

Section 6 provides that the Minister may issue and publish guidelines for the purpose of providing practical guidance in respect of the protection and welfare of children, and such guidelines in force at the time of commencement of this section are deemed to be guidelines issued by the Minister under the Bill.

Section 7 provides that the Child and Family Agency shall, in performing a function under the Bill, regard the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration. It is of the utmost importance that in legislation such as this, the best interests of the child be given paramount consideration.

Section 8 provides for the definition of terms used within Part 2. Consequential to the provision of a non-compliance register, a number of new definitions were added on Committee Stage in the Dáil, namely, "advance notice", "non-compliance notice" and "register of non-compliance", about which I will speak more. The definition of "provider" was amended to provide greater clarity and to ensure the obligation to prepare a child safeguarding statement falls solely on the provider of the service as opposed to those who commission the service. This is to ensure there is no scope to misinterpret the obligation for the provider to prepare a child safeguarding statement under this legislation.

Section 9 provides that Part 2, regarding child safeguarding statements, is not applicable to an individual who undertakes any work or activity in the course of a family relationship, where the work or activity is undertaken solely for the benefit of his or her child or a family member. Equally, where the work or activity is undertaken in the course of a personal relationship or where assistance is given on an occasional basis without payment, there is no obligation to prepare a child safeguarding statement. This is a practical arrangement given that the requirements of the child safeguarding statement include recruitment, vetting and training of staff and the procedures in place for the reporting of harm by staff. These exemptions are to ensure onerous statutory responsibilities are not placed on persons in circumstances where arrangements are in place as a result of personal rather than commercial relationships. Occasional assistance in local and community events is also exempted in order not to discourage participation in such activities.

Section 10 provides that a provider of relevant services is to ensure that, as far as practicable, a child, while availing of its services, is kept safe from harm.

Section 11 provides that where a person proposes to operate as a provider of services to children, he or she shall, within three months of the commencement of the service, carry out a risk assessment and prepare a child safeguarding statement. A person operating as a provider of services to children immediately prior to the commencement of the Bill must carry out a risk assessment and prepare a child safeguarding statement not later than three months from the date of commencement of the Bill. The section provides that a child safeguarding statement shall include a written assessment of risk, including an outline of the procedures in place to manage any risk identified. The section also provides that a child safeguarding statement must specify procedures in place in respect of any member of staff who is the subject of an investigation in respect of a child availing of the service; for the selection or recruitment of staff with regard to suitability to work with children; and for the provision of information and, where necessary, instruction and training in the identification of the occurrence of harm. The child safeguarding statement must also include procedures for reporting to the agency. The statement should also include a list of the mandated persons working in the service.

Section 11 also provides that a child safeguarding statement is to be made available to staff and, on request, to parents, the Child and Family Agency and members of the public. The child safeguarding statement is to be displayed in a prominent place related to the service. This section also provides that the Minister may make regulations in regard to child safeguarding statements. In response to concerns from stakeholders regarding the lack of sanctions for non-compliance with the provisions relating to child safeguarding statements, I brought forward an amendment to section 12 on Committee Stage in the Dáil to set out the process to be followed by the agency if it becomes aware that a provider of relevant services may not have prepared a child safeguarding statement.

I also brought forward an amendment on Committee Stage in the Dáil to section 13 to provide for the agency to establish and maintain a publicly available register of non-compliance, that is, a register of organisations that provide services for children that fail to provide a child safety statement to the agency when requested to do so. This section also sets out the criteria by which a non-compliance notice may be removed from the register, namely, on receipt by the agency of the child safety statement or the agency being satisfied that the statement is no longer required.

Part 3 deals with the reporting aspect of the Bill. Section 14 provides that certain professionals and other persons in specified occupations, as listed in Schedule 2, are mandated persons for the purposes of the Bill. The persons who have been identified as mandated persons are those whose professional education, training, expertise or the nature of their specific role in certain organisations prepares them to be aware of the risks to children and their responsibilities in that regard. The section provides that where a mandated person knows, believes or has reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is being harmed, has been harmed or is at risk of being harmed, he or she shall, as soon as practicable, report that belief or suspicion to the Child and Family Agency. Where it is the case that a child makes a disclosure to a mandated person that he or she believes he or she is being harmed, has been harmed or is at risk of being harmed, that mandated person shall, as soon as practicable, report that disclosure to the Child and Family Agency.

A mandated person shall not be required to make a report to the Child and Family Agency where a young person aged 15 years or more but less than 17 years is engaged in sexual activity with a person who is not more than two years older than the young person, and where the mandated person knows or believes there is no material difference in capacity or maturity between the two parties, and where the child has made known his or her view that a report should not be made to the Child and Family Agency. I brought forward an amendment on Committee Stage in the Dáil and the Bill now provides that a mandated person must also be satisfied that the relationship is not intimidatory or exploitative before deciding not to make a report in the circumstances I have just described.

Also, a mandated person is not required to make a report where the sole basis for his or her knowledge, belief or suspicion of harm to a child is as a result of becoming aware that another mandated person has made a report to the Child and Family Agency in respect of the child concerned. A mandated person is required to make a report if he or she becomes aware of the information after the commencement of this section, irrespective of whether the harm occurred before or after the commencement of the section.

The report is to be made to the agency on a mandated report form. It can be made by one mandated person or jointly with one or more mandated persons. I introduced an amendment on Committee Stage in the Dáil and, as a result, the Bill now provides that a joint report can be made by a mandated person together with another person, regardless of whether that person is mandated to report. While a report may be made other than on the mandated report form, if a mandated person has reasonable grounds to suspect that a child may be at risk of immediate harm, the mandated person must provide a report to the Child and Family Agency on a mandated report form in respect of that child within three days. The Bill provides that the Minister may make regulations regarding the procedures for the making of reports to the Child and Family Agency. This section also provides that the reporting obligations under it are in addition to and not in substitution for any other obligations of a mandated person to disclose information to the Child and Family Agency.

Section 15 provides that the chief executive officer of the Child and Family Agency shall authorise a member or members of staff for the purpose of receiving reports made by a mandated person. This section also provides that an authorised person shall be deemed to be a designated officer within the meaning of the Protections for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act 1998 for the purposes of that Act.

Section 16 provides that a mandated person may be requested to assist the Child and Family Agency and to give such information and assistance to the agency as is reasonably required by the agency. This section also provides that a mandated person shall comply with such a request. Assistance by a mandated person includes the provision of verbal or written reports, attendance at meetings arranged by the agency and the production of any documents to the agency. This section also provides that the Child and Family Agency may share information concerning a child who is the subject of a report with a mandated person who is assisting the agency, but the sharing of that information shall be only as considered by the agency to be necessary and proportionate in the circumstances of the case. I introduced an amendment to this section on Committee Stage in the Dáil to ensure the agency may only request such assistance from mandated persons as is reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances of the case.

Section 17 provides that information shared during the course of an assessment shall not be disclosed to a third party and that it is an offence if a person discloses such information.

Section 18 provides that the Child and Family Agency is a specified body for the purposes of the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012. The effect of this provision is that the agency is an organisation required to notify the National Vetting Bureau of information in respect of a person if it has a bona fide concern that the person may harm a child.

Section 19 amends section 9(4) of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 to include a reference to the Children First Act 2014. This will provide for the views of the child to be taken into account by the agency in performing its functions under the Children First Act.

Section 20 provides for the establishment of the Children First interdepartmental implementation group to perform functions assigned to it under the Bill. Section 21 sets out the membership of the implementation group. Section 22 provides that the functions of the implementation group include the promotion of compliance with the legislation and monitoring of the implementation of guidelines under the legislation. Section 23 provides that the interdepartmental group may be given a direction by the Minister to comply with a policy of the Government as specified in the direction. The terms and conditions for the appointment of members of the interdepartmental group are set out in sections 24, 25 and 26, as are details relating to the conduct of meetings and the provision of annual reports.

Section 27 provides that each Minister shall publish a sectoral implementation plan concerning relevant services provided by or on behalf of the Department concerned.

I look forward to a productive debate on this important child-centred Bill which endeavours to improve the care and protection of children in the State and will, for the first time, put key elements of the Children First guidance on a statutory footing. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Jame Reilly. Fianna Fáil is concerned about the shortcomings in the long-awaited and long-delayed Children First Bill. In our view, the legislation, as drafted, will not deliver the protection needed by vulnerable children. The Bill does not set out the necessary sanctions for people who fail to report child protection concerns. This amounts to a major watering-down of the legislation we were promised. My colleague, Deputy Robert Troy, proposed amendments on Report Stage in the Dáil to strengthen this legislation. These amendments would have made the non-reporting of child abuse concerns a punishable offence and imposed sanctions on a provider who continued to provide services to children in the absence of a child safety certificate, having been on the register of non-compliance for 30 days. The Minister has refused point blank to accept these constructive Fianna Fáil amendments which would have given this legislation some teeth. I intend to propose my own amendments when the Bill is brought before the House again in the autumn. We will probably take Committee Stage on our first sitting day back in September. I hope the Minister will reflect on these issues over the summer.

The Bill aims to make better provision for the care and protection of children, to raise awareness of child abuse and neglect, to provide for the reporting and management of child protection concerns and to improve child protection arrangements in organisations that provide services for children. I wonder whether much of this has been watered down since we amended the Constitution in November 2012. It is difficult to believe this is the best legislation the Minister could come up with, three years on from when this issue was described as a top priority. Three years is a long time to deal with a top priority. I do not think the Minister was in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs three years ago. His predecessor made this a priority. The Minister is continuing the work he was doing in the Department of Health. When this law was first envisaged, it was to be designed as a line in the sand that would end the culture of turning a blind eye to child abuse and other child protection issues. We welcome the fact that professionals working with children will be legally obliged to report concerns under this legislation. However, the failure to provide for penalties if they do not report such concerns weakens the strength of the law we are introducing. It is astonishing that the Minister has said he does not want to overburden the Department and the Child and Family Agency with policing penalties. We should not be limited by questions of administration when we are responding to child protection concerns.

The heads of the Bill published two years ago included robust sanctions, including up to five years in prison, for failures to comply with the Children First legislation. After two years of protracted delays, we appear to have ended up with a watered-down version of the Bill. There will be no sanctions for mandated persons who do not report child protection concerns or for organisations that fail to have child safety statements in place. To date, the Minister has failed to appropriately explain this serious U-turn. According to the heads of the Bill published by the Government two years ago:

Head 20 provides for offences under the Bill and for the liabilities attaching. A person is guilty of an offence if he or she is required to report concerns or allegations of abuse under the proposed Bill to the HSE and fails to do so ... A person guilty of an offence will be liable, on summary conviction, to a class A fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or both, or on conviction on indictment, to a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years or both.

The making of a report to the Child and Family Agency in respect of children in certain circumstances requires certain persons to assist the agency in carrying out risk assessments in relation to potential harm to children and preparing child safeguarding statements. This legislation establishes a Children First interdepartmental implementation group and sets out guidelines for the provision and preparation of sectoral implementation plans by Departments. The Bill sets out the obligations of two distinct groups of people: mandated persons and service providers.

I do not doubt that the motivation of the Minister and that of his colleagues and his senior officials, whom I welcome to the House, is to introduce the best possible legislation for the protection of children. I know they want to ensure that will happen. It is not before time that this issue is being brought to the forefront of Irish life. For a predominantly Christian country of this size, we have an appalling record on the protection of children, not only in institutions but also in the home.

Far too many cases have been highlighted involving extraordinary difficulties experienced by children, including some who were raised in the most appalling conditions. It is impossible to appreciate the effects this experience will have on the children in question and their futures. The home is the one place in which a person should expect to be guaranteed protection, but this has not been true in too many cases that have come before the courts in recent years, some of which have resulted in the imprisonment of the people involved for their conduct. These facts are sometimes overlooked when abuse in institutions and schools is being discussed.

Children are vulnerable. In school, for example, they must rely on and have confidence in teachers. My experience of school was good and I was taught by the Christian Brothers in Roscommon. However, the order has acquired a poor reputation in recent years, although it provided an education when no one else in the State provided it. It should also be recognised that the Sisters of Mercy and other teaching orders provided an education when the State was not in a position to provide educational facilities. Both the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy were exemplary in that regard, although some members of both orders failed dismally, as we have learned in certain institutions and schools. Having said that, at least we have recognised what took place.

I hope the Bill will go a long way towards ensuring no child is ever abused again. Abuse is completely unacceptable and my party will co-operate fully with the Minister in doing everything possible to strengthen the legislation.

I welcome the Minister to discuss the Children First Bill 2014. As he indicated, this legislation will place on a statutory footing elements of the report, Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children. Published in 2011 by the then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and current Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, the report underscores the Government's commitment to the rights of children. As the Minister stated in the foreword to the report:

No childhood should be shattered by abuse. No young life should be lived in the shadow of fear. While it is not possible to prevent all violence, nor possible to guarantee that no child will ever be harmed by neglect or aggression or exploitation or predation, it is our duty to do everything in our power as a Government and as a society to prevent such harm.

This begins by ensuring that children are safe and protected in all aspects of their lives – where they live, learn, pray and play.

I wholeheartedly endorse these sentiments and the Bill provides a necessary and overdue statutory basis for achieving this outcome.

The introduction of this legislation is in line with a key commitment in the programme for Government. As the Minister indicated at the time, Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children and the accompanying child protection and welfare practice handbook set out clearly how child protection was to be placed at the core of any organisation working with children. This is a basic requirement and the document details what is to be done to protect children, how it is to be done and who are the key people in each organisation to do it.

The Bill contains four key components, namely, the facilitating of reports on child protection concerns by mandated persons to the Child and Family Agency; a requirement on mandated persons to assist the agency, on request, in respect of children who have been the subject of reports to the agency under the Bill; a requirement on organisations to produce a child safeguarding statement; and provisions placing the Children First Interdepartmental Implementation Group on a statutory footing.

On the issue of mandated reporting and the requirement on mandated persons to assist the Child and Family Agency, under the Bill mandated persons will be required to report child welfare and protection concerns above a specified threshold to the agency. They will also be required to report to the agency any disclosure of harm made to them by a child. Mandated reporters will also be required to assist the agency, on request, with children who have been the subject of reports to the agency under the Bill. The list of mandated persons is set out in Schedule 2.

With regard to the requirements on organisations, the Bill provides that organisations providing services for children will have to consider the potential for risk to children availing of their services and prepare and publish a child safeguarding statement which addresses that risk. This type of audit should have been undertaken as a matter of course and formalising and standardising the practice can only be a positive development. The statement must be made available to staff and, on request, to parents, the Child and Family Agency and members of the public. This level of transparency and accountability can only be a positive development. The list of relevant service providers is set out in Schedule 1.

Committee Stage amendments in the Dáil made provision for a register of non-compliance to be administered by the Child and Family Agency. Service providers which fail, following a number of steps, to provide for the agency a copy of their child safeguarding statement will be named in a register of non-compliance. This is a useful development and will contribute to ensuring full accountability and transparency. There is nothing wrong with publishing such a register because parents have the right to know.

In addition, the Children First Interdepartmental Implementation Group, chaired by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, is in place and includes representatives of relevant Departments, the Child and Family Agency, the Health Service Executive and An Garda Síochána. The Bill includes a provision to place the group on a statutory footing and expand its membership to include representatives of all Departments. The purpose of the group is to promote the importance of Children First compliance across government and ensure a consistent approach is adopted. Departments will be obliged to produce a Children First sectoral implementation plan to address their compliance with the legislation and Children First guidance. This is a worthwhile step which will be important in ensuring Departments are held to account in this respect.

The Bill will operate side by side with the Children First national guidance which will continue to be the basis for all citizens to report concerns. It is intended that the guidance will be revised and updated to take account of new legislative obligations so as to provide in one place a comprehensive reference resource for individuals and organisations. This will provide clarity and ensure consistency between the proposed legislation and existing non-statutory obligations which will continue to operate administratively for all sections of society. Once enacted, the legislation will provide that everyone working with children will have a statutory duty to comply with the Children First national guidelines. This is a significant step in enshrining the right of protection for children and fulfils a promise made in the programme for Government. The Government has worked at all times to guarantee and protect the rights of children, as exemplified in the referendum on children's rights in 2012 and the Bill before us which I commend to the House.

I welcome the Minister and warmly welcome the arrival of the Bill in the Seanad. I actively participated in the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill at the Joint Committee on Health and Children which produced a report on the matter in July 2012. I thank all of the organisations and individuals that participated in the pre-legislative scrutiny process and provided expert advice for the joint committee. I also thank the Children's Rights Alliance, the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardos and Empowering People in Care, EPIC, for giving me their updated views on the legislation which has changed and improved significantly as it has progressed through the Houses. I hope the Seanad can make some additional changes to further ensure the Bill will achieve its stated aim.

Legislation to place child welfare and protection on a statutory footing is urgently needed and long overdue and it is essential, to solidify our good intentions, that we get it right. Before I consider the Bill, I will focus briefly on the importance of resourcing the Child and Family Agency which continues to be overstretched as a result of insufficient budget allocations. The implementation of this legislation will most certainly result in an additional workload for the agency. It is essential that financial and personnel resources are made available to ensure implementation of national policies on the ground. It is feared that the system will be overwhelmed when the Bill becomes law. The more pressing fear is that there are overwhelming numbers of children at risk of harm and abuse. This legislation must shine a bright spotlight and ensure there will be no hiding place for vile abusers. It is our job to ensure the system works, come hell or high water.

I am also concerned about the preparedness of other State agencies, which is imperative to the success of Children First, for example, the Department of Education and Skills and the HSE to name probably the two most prominent that interact with children. There is much to welcome in the Bill, but given the time constraints on us, I will outline the concerns I need to be further addressed. However, the Minister should take it that I welcome most of the provisions.

I agree with the Council of Europe and echo its call for a culture of zero tolerance of violence towards children. It is for this reason that I have advised successive Ministers for Children and Youth Affairs of my intention to table an amendment to the Bill to repeal the defence of reasonable chastisement. I look forward to formally tabling this amendment which I sent to the Minister's office last year when we take Committee Stage.

The Minister is aware of my disappointment that children are not included in the Gender Recognition Act. Last Wednesday, the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, stood where the Minister now stands and, in response to my speech, stated this was now an issue for the Minister's Department. He said, "I would be quite happy for the Minister, Deputy Reilly, to lead on this because he is the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and that Department has a wider remit than the Department of Social Protection on this issue." I, therefore, ask the Minister to include within the Children First Bill a provision to amend the Gender Recognition Act in order that the exemption process for 16 to 18 year olds is depathologised in a manner similar to the application process for adults and to include the creation of a process for interim gender recognition certificate for those under 16 years in order that their rights are fully realised in that process.

In the committee hearings the majority of organisations and experts said emotional abuse needed to be included in the definition of welfare. Emotional abuse is a form of neglect and should be explicitly stated as such. We need to broaden our definitions to include emotional abuse.

I have a specific issue about Schedule 3. I will be seeking to amend the current term "child pornography" and replace it with a more apt and reflective description, namely, "child sexual abuse material". I know that this is related to another, Bill but we need to take these steps. According to Interpol:

A sexual image of a child is "abuse" or "exploitation" and should never be described as "pornography". Pornography is the term used for adults engaging in consensual sexual acts distributed (mostly) legally to the general public for their sexual pleasure. Child abuse images are not.

I have been saying this since first tabling a motion on blocking child abuse material on the Internet in February 2012. Later, in my report, Online Child Abuse Material - Effective Strategies to Tackle Online Child Abuse Material, in September 2013, I note that a child abuse image is a crime scene. It is a digital record of sexual abuse being perpetrated against a real child in the real world. I will be seeking to have child pornography in this Bill and across the Statute Book amended to say "child sexual abuse material" to better reflect the seriousness of the offence.

Section 11 deals with risk assessment and child safeguarding statements. Subsection (5) suggests the agency can request a copy of the relevant service provider's child safeguarding statement. This enables the agency to monitor compliance, which is welcome. However, it does not specify how quickly this is to be furnished to the agency. We need to provide for specific time limits and tighten up on this issue. I am aware the Minister may issue regulations and guidance for the purpose of providing practical guidance on how to adhere to the Bill, but in the absence of a firm commitment that this will be done, how will organisations and mandated people be fully aware of their new duties, such as drafting the child safeguarding statement? Section 11(5) also specifies that the child safeguarding statement should be made available to the public on request. Part 6 goes on to state it should be displayed in a prominent place. Why are we saying "on request"? Surely we want all organisations to be open and transparent about the protection of children. We should be asking for statements to be publicly available, including online, as a matter of course.

That brings me to section 13(5). The section deals with the register of non-compliance which is only available to the public for inspection at reasonable times. If I am a mother or father in Kerry, am I to come to Dublin to try to inspect the register at the agency? Surely it should also be online. One of the best incentives for compliance would be a public list, on the agency website, of the organisations which are non-compliant. We need to change the culture of services for children in Ireland to be one of openness and transparency.

On section 12(8), a right of appeal is critical, but should the avenue of appeal not be proportionate and remain within the agency? I am fearful that if it goes to the District Court, it could be tied up for months, if not years. I do not believe anyone wishes safeguarding children to be caught up in court delays. Can we re-examine that matter?

I remain concerned that childminders are still exempt from the provisions of the Bill. Only those providing an early years service under the meaning of the Child Care Act 1991 are included, namely, those who are looking after four children or more. This is a serious omission given the number of children placed in the care of childminders. We can find a way to define it. Childminders should have been included in the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012. The childminders organisation, Childminding Ireland, came to me. It supports my stance. Organisations such as Barnardos are saying we need to ensure we bring childminders into the net.

I welcome the Bill, but I will bring forward amendments on the points I have raised. I have raised them specifically here today to allow the Minister to consider them. I will give further consideration to the Bill during the recess and look forward to working with the Minister to ensure the Bill achieves its stated aim. I know that is what the Minister wishes too.

Before I call Senator Aideen Hayden, I welcome to the Distinguished Visitors Gallery our former colleague and former Cathaoirleach Liam Cosgrave and his guests who are more than welcome.

I welcome the Minister. I am pleased we have finally reached the Seanad stage of this Bill. It seems to have been a long time since we first came into the Chamber to discuss the issue of Children First. None of us could ever disagree with the purpose of the Bill which is to make further and better provision for the care and protection of children, including raising awareness of child abuse and neglect, to provide for reporting and management of child protection concerns and to improve child protection arrangements in organisations providing services for children. As the Minister said, the Bill will operate side by side with the existing non-statutory obligations provided for in Children First. One of the things we must do is assess the Bill against that statement of purpose.

On Part 2, the Bill is providing for relevant services to ensure each child is safe from harm while availing of that service, to carry out a risk assessment and the development of a child safeguard statement. Part 3 deals with mandatory reporting, which is something that has been controversial. It does however provide the safeguard for all concerned that information shared with the mandated person by the Child and Family Agency during the course of an assessment shall not be disclosed to a third party by that mandated party unless it is done in accordance with the law or where the disclosure is authorised in writing by the Child and Family Agency. Any person who fails to comply with this provision is guilty of an offence.

I welcome in Part 4 the establishment of the Children First interdepartmental implementation group and welcome further, as I understand it, that the ISPCC and Childline have agreed to work with the Department in supporting developments in the area of child protection. This will include exploring the enhanced use of technologies to assist with the statutory roll-out of the Children First Bill.

On some of the commentary on the Bill, it has been broadly welcomed, as stated by Senator Jillian van Turnhout. However, some campaign groups and Opposition members, including Senator Leyden today, have voiced concerns about the lack of sanctions in the legislation. I note the comments of the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. She said the law aimed to make best safeguarding practice the cultural norm for anyone working with children. She stated that our focus was on who was mandated to report safety concerns in the Bill, which is in accordance with international best practice. She said she believed it struck the correct balance in achieving high quality reporting with high substantiation rates while avoiding overwhelming the child protection system with inappropriate reports. This is a key criticism of the operation of mandatory reporting in other countries. Senator Terry Leyden said a lack of sanctions for those who failed to report cases was a watering down of the legislation. While it is something which should be kept under review, it is important that we do not have a culture of fear among those who work with children but rather a culture of concern. My concern would be that were we to introduce sanctions, we would have serious over-reporting which would overload the system and make it inoperative. However, I ask the Minister to keep the matter under review.

Mandatory reporting has been widely accepted in other countries, particularly the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. While research has indicated that legislation for mandatory reporting has resulted in significant increases in cases being reported, more substantiated cases of abuse have come to light as a result.

There are difficulties within the HSE child protection services to take into account. The increase in reporting, which will occur as a result of mandatory reporting, will put pressures on the child protection system. In 2012 the HSE reported that it had received over 30,000 reports of child protection welfare concerns. Of these, 16,000 were deemed to need further assessment to be completed within 21 days, yet only 20% met the required target.

In 2012 over 13% of those children, approximately 785, had no care plan and of 6,332 children in care, more than 8.1% were without an allocated social worker. Strides have been made in the appointment of social workers and I understand there are 193 additional social work posts, recruitment for which has been achieved or is under way. There are several factors that must be in place to ensure that mandatory reporting will work effectively and will not result in a system which would be unable to function. These include, well defined guidelines of reporting thresholds and adequate resourcing and the recruitment and training of additional social workers. We need support structures such as information technology and systems, comprehensive training for front-line staff, support information and training for designated persons, public education and the implementation of an efficient system of intake screening and assessment of reported cases. The Irish Association of Social Workers noted that there was a lack of resources leading to a crisis driven service with a lack of early intervention and support for children in care and so forth.

We must ensure we do not overload an already stressed system and if we are to effectively protect children the resources must be in place. It is good to note that in 2000 the number of cases reported to child protection services was just over 9,000. By 2009, the number of reported cases had almost tripled to more than 26,000 and the rate of substantiation was at 10% of those cases. As Senator Jillian van Turnhout said, no level of child abuse is acceptable in any system. While I have no doubt that when mandatory reporting is introduced the numbers of reported cases will rise, if mandatory reporting discloses the abuse of even one child it is well worth it. Carl O’Brien reporting in The Irish Times in September 2014, noted the volume of children reported as being at risk to social services had increased by 98% over the previous seven years, from 21,000 to 41,600 cases. He said "much of this was linked to increased awareness over child-protection issues and high-profile care scandals." That is something we must welcome as a society. We have gone from being a society that hid its children under the carpet and locked them up in institutions and threw away the key. Every additional case that is reported is a victory for child protection. However, budgets and staffing levels are nowhere near what is required to reflect the increased demands in the system. I welcome the efforts made in respect of funding, but this has to be a priority for our society and the Government.

I agree with Senator Jillian van Turnhout. I ask the Minister to take very seriously her amendment on the chastisement of children. I agree that the physical chastisement of children, whether anything from a light slap to a clip across the ear is not acceptable in any civilised society.

I welcome the publication of this important and long-awaited Bill and the opportunity to address it. The topic of the mandatory reporting of knowledge or suspicions of the harm or abuse of children has been an issue in Ireland since the early 1990s. It was first recommended by the Law Reform Commission in 1990 and later by the Kilkenny incest inquiry in 1993, slightly more than 20 years ago. In 1999 the Department of Health introduced the Children First guidelines which aimed to help in identifying and reporting child abuse and to improve professional practice in State and voluntary agencies that support children and their families. The duty to report abuse was identified as a societal one that is owed by all who work with children, including members of the Garda, HSE personnel, public agencies, voluntary and community organisations and individuals. However, the guidelines did not place a statutory duty on these people, on all of us, to report suspicions of abuse or harm. I emphasise that it is the duty of all.

The implementation and operation of Children First were reviewed several times during the years after its introduction, most recently by the Office of the Minister for Health and Children in 2008. The revised guidelines published in 2011 took into account a number of recommendations in the Ryan report. One of these recommendations was that Children First should be placed on a statutory basis. The Bill before us sets out to make further and better provision for the protection of children and places the Children First guidelines on a statutory footing, which is to be welcomed. As the Minister indicated in his opening remarks, it is part of a child protection framework that includes the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 and the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012.

It will require certain persons or service providers to carry out specific functions, including the making of reports to the Child and Family Agency in respect of children and to assist the Child and Family Agency in certain circumstances. It also will require them to carry out risk assessments regarding potential harm to children and to prepare child safeguarding statements.

Provisions of the Bill also establish the Children First interdepartmental implementation group and provide for the preparation of sectoral implementation plans by Departments. As for the distinct provisions of the Bill, I note that a number of stakeholders particularly welcomed aspects of it, including the statement of the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration; the requirement for all organisations providing services for children to have a child safeguarding statement that outlines policy and procedures with regard to child protection; the establishment of a Children First interdepartmental implementation group on a legislative basis, the purpose of which will be to promote compliance and monitor implementation by various Departments and the requirement for the authorised person within the Child and Family Agency to respond in writing to all reports made. It needs to be emphasised that additional resources to give practical effect to this legislation are essential.

I want to raise some additional points of concern, the first being inter-agency co-operation. What assurances can the Minister give that the Child and Family Agency can depend on the level of co-operation that will be forthcoming from the health, justice, education and social protection services in order that the Children First Act can function effectively when passed through these Houses? Second, training is of concern. Research indicates that child protection training at basic and post-qualifying levels is essential for professionals working with children. Irish research indicates that not only is child protection training almost wholly inadequate at foundation level but it is also deficient at post-qualification level. The absence of training prevents the development of a culture of responsibility for child protection in an agency and leaves staff lacking confidence and unsure of the correct steps to take. The business of identifying and addressing child protection concerns is not straightforward and practitioners need a strong base of knowledge and information before they are competent to respond. Recent cutbacks have resulted in training being curtailed in many children's services and this is likely to have a serious impact on the positive aspects of the proposed legislation. This needs additional Government attention, but I wholeheartedly support the Bill and welcome its introduction in and speedy progress through the House.

It beggars belief when one thinks of abuse in one's own home by parents or other family members, or by trusted or well known people. We are told the figure is in excess of 90%. It endorses what I said before. This is a major issue which we must all try to address. It is a significant challenge for each of us. The Rape Crisis Network Ireland report shows that a child under 13 years is most likely to be targeted for abuse by a family member rather than an acquaintance. It is an utter disgrace that a child under 13 years would be targeted in holy Catholic Ireland and it is a major challenge to deal with it. All too easily we talk about stranger danger when, in reality, a child is far more likely to be abused by a relative or someone trusted by the family. As I have remarked, we have a major challenge.

My grievous concern is children suffering in silence and fear, afraid to tell their brothers, sisters, mothers or fathers. I would know to look at some of them, although I am not a judge. They are out there, reluctant to report abuse. The stage comes when they can leave their home and emigrate to some foreign city in the United States, Great Britain or wherever to get away from it all. It is sad to say they are glad to be able to leave. They are fearful to report because of the risk involved. I do not know if it is quite the same, but I know one young teenager who took her own life and left a note as to why she did it. She was being abused by her father. It is tragic. Even where it is a family member who is responsible, there must be no hiding place from the law. We all have an obligation, a duty and a part to play, whether we are teachers, politicians or ordinary people.

I commend the Minister for this long-awaited Bill and fulfilling the promise of the Government. The protection of children and putting children first was part of the Government's agenda. As the Minister said, "this important child-centred Bill ... endeavours to improve the care and protection of children in the State and will, for the first time, put key elements of the Children First guidance on a statutory footing." I commend the Bill to the House and congratulate the Minister and his staff.

I thank Senators for their contributions and general support for the Bill. We will have the opportunity to discuss it further on Committee Stage. I note that several issues have been raised, some of which I can address today and some of which I will remark on today although they do not form part of the Bill.

The issue of criminal sanctions on mandated persons has been raised. Taking into account legal advice and the need for a reasonable and proportionate approach, it was decided that it was unnecessary to impose a criminal sanction on mandated persons in the overall context of meeting the policy objectives of the proposed legislation. There were concerns that unfounded or misplaced fears of attracting a criminal sanction would result in over-reporting, thereby placing the child welfare and protection system under pressure. Some low level or inappropriate reporting could have the unintended consequence of delaying the prioritisation of higher risk reports if the ability to process reports was compromised. International comparisons indicate that this has been the case in other jurisdictions, for example, New South Wales, where the introduction of mandatory reporting precipitated a large increase in reporting rates with little or no improvement in child protection overall.

There are a number of administrative sanctions or consequences available if it transpires that a mandated person has failed to comply with his or her statutory obligations. The option to report a mandated person to an employer or to the fitness to practice committee of a professional regulatory body remains open to the Child and Family Agency in the event that a mandated person has failed to make a report.

The Bill includes a link to the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012, and the Child and Family Agency will now be a scheduled organisation under that Act. In cases where a mandated person has failed to make a report, the agency, following an inquiry, will pass this information to the National Vetting Bureau. The Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 provides for the reporting of relevant information to the Garda. This Act will operate in tandem with the Children First legislation. A person who fails to report to the Garda under the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 could be subject to criminal sanction.

I envisage opportunities for administrative arrangements to support the implementation of the legislation and legislative requirements. For example, mandated reporting should be incorporated into codes of conduct and contracts of employment for relevant persons. As it stands, many providers of children's services consider failure to report to be a disciplinary matter. As has been mentioned by others, I will be keeping the operation of the legislation under review. If it transpires that mandated persons are failing to comply with their legal obligations to report, I will be prepared to revisit this issue. I echo the words of Senator Aideen Hayden that what we need is a culture of concern, not a culture of fear and a system overrun with reports because people are, perhaps, more fearful for themselves than they are concerned about the child.

Senator Terry Leyden spoke about a punishable offence not to have a statement. The truth of the matter is that we covered this in quite considerable detail on Committee Stage in the Dáil. I made it very clear that the rationale behind this is sound legal advice to the effect that if we were to have a criminal sanction for not having a statement, we would have to have a very comprehensive inspection regime. The Senator will not be oblivious to the fact that this country is only recovering from the most serious financial setback it ever endured and the resources we have must be used to provide services to children rather than diverted to a complex inspection system. In our current situation it is only proper and right. As time passes and we have experience of this system, we will keep it under review and modify it.

On the issues raised by Senator Jillian van Turnhout, I have already asked Tusla to review its unallocated cases on a countrywide basis and I received the final report of that review late last week. I met Tusla and Mr. Gordon Jeyes.

I welcome the report as it gives a comprehensive overview of the position across the services and I am mindful of the scale of the challenge in addressing this backlog, but I am even more conscious that there are children who require a service and I have instructed my officials to advance the case for increased resources in the Estimates budget and negotiations to enable Tusla to address this and other issues of concern. The business case will be worked on.

On childminders not being mandated, the categories of persons set out in Schedule 2 to the Bill will include, on the basis of their professional qualifications and ongoing contact with children, a focus on a small, qualified cadre of mandated reporters which will, based on evidence, improve the quality of reports made to the agency. The receipt by the agency of better quality reports from persons who, by virtue of their training, qualifications and professional experience, are well equipped to recognise harm to a child is likely to have a positive effect on the process of assessments of risk for a child. The list of mandated persons was developed following detailed consideration of the objectives of the Bill and the research paper on how mandatory reporting is dealt with internationally.

As indicated, the persons included in the list have been selected on the basis that their qualifications, role and professional expertise means that they are aware of the risks to children and their responsibilities in that regard. It is anticipated that reports from these persons are likely to be of a high quality which will assist the agency in carrying out assessments of risk in a more effective and efficient manner. The childminding sector is not homogenous and a wide variety of arrangements, including personal family arrangements, pertain. In that context, it was considered overly onerous to impose a mandatory requirement on such a heterogenous group of providers. However, it is important to note that while not required to do so under this legislation, any person can and should report any concerns about a child to the agency in accordance with Children First national guidelines which will operate in tandem with the Bill. This position applies to childminders as well as any other person who has contact with a specific child or children, whether in the context of service provision or otherwise.

In comparison, the formal childminding sector, that is, crèches will be covered by requirements relating to child safeguarding statements and mandated reporting. The Senator's concern about protecting this group of children should be alleviated by the fact that there are many other professionals in contact with this group of children, including nurses, who are mandated persons, and GPs. In this regard, the recent extension of GP medical cards to children aged under six years should ensure greater contact between this group of children and their GPs who are mandated persons under the Bill. Child safety is everybody's concern. I cannot imagine that any right-minded, right-thinking citizen who saw a child in danger would not take action to protect that child.

Senator Jillian van Turnhout also raised some other issues around corporal punishment and her intention to table an amendment. We are examining this issue. The State has assured the European Committee of Social Rights of its full commitment to working towards the elimination of corporal punishment, specifically in regard to the defence of reasonable chastisement. We have undertaken to initiate an examination under Irish law to remove that defence. Examining the matter is not a proposed initiative but rather a work in progress in my Department. We have to ensure that any legislative measures taken are legally and operationally sound. We know this has worked regarding teachers and its broader application is something of which I am strongly supportive. However, we need to be mindful of the legal implications and, therefore, need to have the advice of the Attorney General.

The Senator also referred to gender recognition. I suggested two amendments in writing to the Tánaiste who did not accept them, but it is open to me to bring forward amendments in the autumn in this area to another Bill and I fully intend to do so. I want my Department to make available to children a role and voice in that regard through the new participation hub.

I thank Senators for their very constructive comments and look forward to Committee Stage of the Bill in the autumn.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 23 September 2015.
Sitting suspended at 12.55 p.m. and resumed at 1.45 p.m.