Wednesday, 9 June 2010
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Enda Kenny: According to Standing Orders, you, a Cheann Comhairle, are the person who has discretion in this matter, to allow Leaders’ Questions or not. Standing Orders specifically state that, at the commencement of public business on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the Ceann Comhairle may permit, at his or her discretion, a brief question not exceeding two minutes from each leader in Opposition to the Taoiseach about a matter of topical public importance and in respect of which certain arrangements shall apply.
A Cheann Comhairle, I challenge your interpretation that we agreed this approach last week. We did not agree this last week, and there was a vote on it. The impact of that vote was that there is no Leaders’ Questions, no oral questions, no Order of Business, no Adjournment Debate, no votes and no accountability to the Dáil by the Government. You are aware, a Cheann Comhairle, that Article 28.4.1° of the Constitution requires that the Government be accountable to Dáil Éireann. How is the Government being accountable to Dáil Éireann today?
I challenge your interpretation, a Cheann Comhairle, on a number of grounds. In previous times when a Deputy was suspended, the first item on the agenda for the following day’s business or the following week’s business was a vote to remove the Deputy in question. You suspended Deputy Bernard Durkan last week. There is no vote on his suspension, as was always the case in accordance with precedent. The motion that was rammed through last week specifically in respect of Standing Order 27 allows at your discretion the taking of Leaders’ Questions in the House today. I put it to you, a Cheann Comhairle, that you should use your discretion because since we met in the House last week with some acrimony, things have happened in this country that are of the most serious and sensitive import that require your discretion to allow Leaders’ Questions today. I want to be able to ask the Taoiseach about the number now on the live register, which demonstrates the unemployment rate has risen to a record level. I want to ask the Taoiseach why, on the Friday of a bank holiday weekend, the Health Service Executive released figures to the effect that 188 children died while in the care of this State. The Ceann Comhairle, with his discretion, knows this is a matter of most serious importance. It is even more significant than one might imagine considering that we heard two mothers speak on national radio stations today and yesterday about their children, who are alive, healthy and well — thanks be to God——
Deputy Enda Kenny: Those children would not have been born had their parents followed the instructions given to them under the system of the Health Service Executive set up by the Minister for Health and Children. Can anybody understand the depth of feeling of mothers who have had miscarriages where misdiagnoses occurred? I want to ask the Taoiseach about that matter.
Deputy Enda Kenny: I have no intention of engaging in any histrionics about this; it is a matter of the most serious import. The Tánaiste may smile about it if she wishes. The point is that, in the past few minutes, we have seen the publication of two banking reports. I have not had time to read them yet but if the significant statement issued by Mr. Casey, the former chief executive of Irish Life & Permanent, is anything to go by——
My point concerns the Ceann Comhairle’s interpretation of Standing Order 27, the Standing Order that allows Leaders’ Questions at his discretion. Surely the Ceann Comhairle must believe the issues I have raised are of such importance that Members of this House, who are elected by all the people, should be able to discuss them in the Chamber today and tomorrow, rather than having a situation whereby the House is spancelled and strangled by a vote taken last week. I urge the Ceann Comhairle to examine his interpretation of Standing Order 27. It is within his discretion to allow accountability, as allowed for in Bunreacht na hÉireann in Article 28.4.1°, which states the Government must be accountable to this Dáil.
These are matters about which the entire country is now talking and by which it is affected. We in this House are denied the opportunity, today and tomorrow, to say anything about them.  It makes a mockery of democracy, which is fragile, and speaks a tonne for the way the Government views the public and the issues that affect our nation.
I understand the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children responsible for children has a difficult task and I know the importance of the Ryan report and the statements thereon. Consequently, I do not wish any Member not to be able to speak about these matters in the House. It is very important that the broader issues——
Deputy Enda Kenny: I will not argue with the Ceann Comhairle. I contest his interpretation of Standing Order 27. It is entirely within his discretion to allow brief questions from each leader of a party in opposition on matters of national importance. These are matters of national importance and the Ceann Comhairle, as Chairman of this Assembly, should see to it that he uses his discretion to allow us to ask questions of the Government about matters which even Government members know are so important. One should bear in mind the telephone calls and anxiety of mothers around the country who have gone through——
Deputy Enda Kenny: ——what was gone through by those two good mothers whose children would not be with them today, happy and healthy, but for their maternal instincts. This is not a matter for semantics or for quibbles about Standing Orders. The Ceann Comhairle has the authority under Standing Orders to allow Leaders’ Questions, to change the Order of Business to allow for these matters to be discussed in this House. This is the Chair’s duty and responsibility. If the Government has not got the courage to talk about the issues, answer the questions and display some sense of responsibility and accountability, it proves that it looks at this House as a charade, a whitewash and a veneer. That is not the way politics should be. Whomever we represent, whatever party or none, we should at least be able to speak about the issues of the day and to seek responsibility and accountability from those who are privileged to hold this league of office.
I contest the Ceann Comhairle’s interpretation and ask him to respond to the issues I am raising in the spirit in which I am raising them and to allow for discussions and a change in the business designated last week so the House can discuss these matters today.
An Ceann Comhairle: The Chair does not have any discretion; the Government proposes and the House disposes. On the second point, Deputy Durkan was not suspended from the House last week, he was asked to leave the House and he graciously acceded.
An Ceann Comhairle: I have ruled on the matter and if Deputy Kenny, or any other Member of the House wishes to challenge that ruling, he must do so by way of a substantive motion on the floor of the House. There is no other way.
Deputy Enda Kenny: That is contrary to Standing Order 27, which states: “At the commencement of Public Business on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the Ceann Comhairle may permit, at his or her discretion, a brief question not exceeding two minutes from each Leader in Opposition to the Taoiseach about a matter of topical public importance”. When the Taoiseach voted here last week to strangle today’s business, he walked out of the chamber and turned his back on the Dáil and the people.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Last Thursday the Dáil passed a motion, which the Labour Party opposed, dealing with the business for this week. That motion did not exclude the hearing of Leaders’ Questions today. There was no reference in the motion to Standing Order 27, the Standing order that deals with Leaders’ Question. That Standing Order was not stood down by the motion put by the Government and passed last week.
In anticipation that I would wish to raise some issues on Leaders’ Questions today, issues that have arisen since last Thursday, such as the revelation that 187 children had died in State care in the past decade, the shocking disclosures about the reliability of scans conducted on pregnant women in a number of hospitals, the two banking reports that have been issued by the Government and about which the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources will hold a press conference at 4.30 p.m., the claims made about the role of the regulator, the Central Bank and the Department of Finance in an affadavit sworn by the former CEO of Irish Life and Permanent, and the effective hijacking in international waters by Israeli forces of an Irish-owned vessel, MV Rachel Corrie.
The Labour Party Whip, Deputy Stagg, wrote to the Ceann Comhairle yesterday, drawing attention to the fact that the motion on Thursday did not preclude Leaders’ Questions. The Ceann Comhairle replied, noting that the motion that was passed on Thursday stated that oral questions shall not be taken. The Ceann Comhairle stated in his letter that this encompasses all questions, including Special Notice Questions under Standing Order 33 and Leaders’ Questions under Standing Order 27, neither of which is specifically mentioned by reference to their Standing Order reference number. A Cheann Comhairle, when you make rulings, you normally draw our attention to precedent and rely on precedent in making rulings. I want to draw your attention to precedent for the ordering of business and motions dealing with the ordering of business. I have found four precedents that I wish to draw to the attention of the Ceann Comhairle, where motions deal with the Order of Business for particular days and where business is being stood down. In each of these precedents, it states that oral questions shall not be taken on that day but it also states there will be no Leaders’ Questions on those days. I draw the attention of the Ceann Comhairle to the motion passed on 23 March, which set down business for the day, stating that “oral questions shall not be taken today” and in a separate item that “there shall be no Leaders’ Questions today” pursuant to Standing Order 27. On 14 December 2006 another precedent was set where it says that oral and written questions shall not be taken and in a separate item on that motion it says there shall be no Leaders’ Questions pursuant to Standing Order 26A, as it was then. On 29 September 2004, the Dáil agreed “oral questions shall not be taken today” and a separate item states “ there shall be no Leaders’ Questions today pursuant to Standing Order 26A”. On 8 April 2004, similarly, separate provisions were made in a motion so that oral questions were not taken and that there were to be no Leaders’ Questions. The precedent of rulings of the Chair and the precedent of the House is that where it is intended Leaders’ Questions will not be taken, specific provision is made in the motion to that effect. There was no specific provision made in the motion passed by the House on Thursday which I submit, a Cheann Comhairle, you are bound by. That motion does not preclude a hearing of Leaders’ Questions and does not stand down the Standing Order dealing with Leaders’ Questions, as happened in the past. Therefore, Standing Order 27 applies to today’s business and Leaders’ Questions should be taken today.
I wish to raise a leader’s question with the Taoiseach in respect of one the matters I referred to earlier. No decision was taken by this House not to have Leaders’ Questions today. If the Ceann Comhairle decides and interprets the decision of last Thursday to mean there should be no Leaders’ Questions, he is setting a precedent that will seriously disadvantage non-Government Members of this House and the Opposition parties. It will be a precedent I and the Labour Party find unacceptable. A Cheann Comhairle, having drawn your attention to what was in the motion last week and the precedent of this House, I ask you to reconsider your position on the taking of Leaders’ Questions and to agree to take Leaders’ Questions as I believe you are required to do under Standing Order 27 and the terms of the motion passed last Thursday.
An Ceann Comhairle: We considered the correspondence from the Labour Party Whip, Deputy Emmet Stagg, and the reply was clear and cogent. It was not open to misinterpretation. It sets out the position and the basis for our decision on this matter. We do not have provision for Question Time of any kind today.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Last week, when we challenged the validity of the Government’s proposed ordering of business for this week, the Ceann Comhairle stated that the “Dáil could change that order”. Those were his own words. We have presented a substantial motion in regard to a revised ordering of business for today and tomorrow that will double the time for address of the Ryan report. Two hours for that debate is absolutely unacceptable.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I made this point last week. There are many Deputies on all sides of the Chamber who want to contribute on this very important issue but who will not be able to do so because of the restrictive provision of two hours for the debate. We have also provided in the proposal we have put to the Chair for address of the two banking reports. That is not to exclude any of the other matters that were indicated for address over the course of this day and a half.
Second, the motion presented by the Government last Thursday provided that the business should be ordered in a certain way “unless the Dáil should otherwise order”. This is further affirmation of the point we understood that the Ceann Comhairle was sharing with us last Thursday that the ordering could be changed. That is what we on the Opposition benches are seeking to do with the facilitation and co-operation of the Chair, in line with what he already said was possible.
We seek these changes against the backdrop of everything that has unfolded since we left the Chamber last week. This includes the absolutely dreadful situation that was exposed in regard to prenatal scans for women in early pregnancy and the fact that we only know of two or more cases at this point; heaven knows how many women will emerge in the coming days who have been through that most dreadful experience and all that flows from that in terms of confidence——
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: These are areas we should be addressing; that is the point. We wish to address urgent, important, emergency issues. We had a clear indication that if matters of such import were to present that we could indeed address them.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I ask the Ceann Comhairle to allow me to conclude. This was indicated at the Whips’ meeting as something that could be done in the event of a critical, emergency issue presenting. For women the length and breadth of this State, the revelation so bravely brought to public attention by the Redmond family certainly merits address in this House today and tomorrow.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: On the first matter I raised, the Minister for Health and Children should be here to address the matter and to make a statement to the House of what she intends to do in regard to the false scan reads. Cá bhfuil sí? Tá sí as láthair. The Minister for Foreign Affairs should be here to make a statement to the House in regard to Irish citizens being hijacked on Irish waters——
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Leaders’ Questions were not ruled out last week by the Chair. There is no accommodation for the Taoiseach to be absent from this Chamber except on Thursdays unless there is other pressing international business to be addressed.
Deputy Finian McGrath: On a point of order, on today’s statements on the Ryan report, can I ask why Independent Deputies are excluded from this two-hour debate? The solution lies in Deputy Ó Caoláin’s proposal to have a four-hour debate, which is common sense.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: ——Standing Order 27 — I will read one line of it only — states: “Every sitting of the Dáil shall be governed by a printed Order Paper which shall be prepared under the direction of the Ceann Comhairle.” The Ceann Comhairle has stated that he has no role in this matter, yet the Standing Order I quoted indicates to everyone that, in fact, he does have a role in this matter.
Deputy Enda Kenny: Semantics are important in some cases. The Ceann Comhairle ordered him out of the House, suspended him and stated that he was suspended. Deputy Mitchell said there would have to be a vote next week.
Deputy Barry Andrews: I very much welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue of grave importance to the House and the country, that is, the implementation of the recommendations of the Ryan report. I do not believe anyone in the House will forget the day on which the Ryan report was launched in May of last year and the shock it brought to everyone, including families, neighbourhoods, communities, the Government and all political parties.
I was tasked by the Taoiseach of the day, Deputy Brian Cowen, to prepare an implementation plan that would effectively respond to the issues raised by the Ryan report. Everyone is aware that in recent weeks and months the issues of child protection and child welfare have been to the forefront of public debate and it is appropriate that we take several hours to hold a discussion about how we will react to the Ryan report today. In particular, we must consider the various policy documents that have been already prepared. All NGOs that have spoken about this issue in the past few weeks and months have acknowledged that the right policies are in place. Our greatest challenge is to put those policies into action and to do so in a uniform way throughout the country.
Members should recall the building blocks to which we have referred and what we hope to put in place to ensure a child protection and welfare service in this country which is the envy of any country in the world. In particular, I refer to the PA Consulting report. This was commissioned by the HSE and finalised last October. It provides a roadmap for better management of HSE child protection services. Even the staunchest defender of the HSE would not deny that deficits exist which must be addressed in terms of management and a uniform delivery of services within the HSE. We also had the taskforce report on the standardisation of business processes, a crucial document which will ensure for the first time that the way in which one LHO, local health office, or one region of the HSE deals with a child who presents and who is vulnerable or at risk is the same regardless of where he or she presents in the country. We also have a knowledge management strategy which will, when fully rolled out, provide policy makers and anyone using the system with a contemporaneous picture of the type of child protection services available in the country at any one time.
We must respond comprehensively to the specific issues raised by HIQA in respect of foster care which have been ventilated in the newspapers and media in recent days and the lessons and risks posed by those findings when that report is finally presented by HIQA. We must also consider the implications it will have for the wider child protection service in Ireland. Taken together, these reforms must be put in place to ensure the child protection system operates to the highest standards.
Following the publication of the Ryan commission report, I carried out as wide a discussion as possible with the various survivor groups in Ireland and the UK. I met with many of the NGOs to discuss the best possible reaction.
We produced an implementation plan on 28 July 2009. It is important to emphasise that the final paragraph of that implementation plan commits me to presenting a report to the Government every year. The anniversary of that will be the end of July. Naturally, the Dáil will not be sitting at that time so I propose to present a report to Government at the end of June and to bring it before the House in order that it can be properly discussed before the anniversary when the House will not be sitting.
The implementation plan spans a four-year timeframe and is reflected in the provision of additional funding of €15 million in budget 2010 to facilitate implementation. In overall terms, the plan addresses the various action points under two distinct headings. The first of these is focused on the survivors of abuse and the second is targeted at children in the care of the State of today. It is worth emphasising that the survivor groups have consistently stated that one of their key motivators is to ensure children in care today are provided with much better services than was afforded to them.
The plan is very ambitious in what it sets out to achieve. This is deliberate. By setting ourselves clearly identified and ambitious timescales to achieve these actions we are challenging ourselves to meet the standards we have set for ourselves. That we are doing this in a time of extreme economic difficulty only serves to highlight the commitment of Government to improve services for children in the care of the State.
As I mentioned, the implementation plan focuses on both the survivors of institutional abuse and on children in care and detention today. I would like to address both of these areas. In regard to the survivors of abuse, the implementation plan made a number of specific recommendations. The very first action point provided for the establishment of a committee to examine an appropriate memorial for the victims of institutional abuse. I am pleased to report that this committee was established last October and its work is progressing. The committee has been consulting widely and I look forward to the outcome of its deliberations.
Another key action in regard to survivors was the commitment to provide additional counselling resources. Counselling for survivors is provided by way of the national counselling service, NCS. This is a professional, confidential counselling and psychotherapy service, available in all HSE areas. An additional €2 million has been made available to the service in the current year to meet this commitment. Furthermore, and as set out in the implementation plan, the NCS has been exempted from the public service moratorium on recruitment and replacement of staff.
I have had some very positive discussions with various NGOs interested in providing these services. Clearly, some people are not happy to engage with such services provided by the State given the negative experiences they had engaging with the State in previous times. The national counselling service can purchase counselling services from outside the statutory provision.
I would like to address the issue of services for children in the care of the State today. Child protection remains a critical area of Government policy. It is open to much scrutiny which, in itself, is a welcome catalyst for change. At present, there are approximately 5,700 children in the care of the State. Between relative and general foster care in excess of 5,130 children are accommodated in a family setting. This reflects the Government’s commitment to ensuring that children are placed in a stable family environment, allowing them to develop close bonds that nurture their emotional and physical needs.
Successive public debates on child protection have indicated that our policy and legislative framework is sound but that implementation and service delivery must be overhauled. What the implementation plan sets out to address is the reality that despite this strong legislative and policy base, service delivery for children in need and children at risk is not sufficiently co-ordinated, is unevenly distributed nationally and must be improved.
That said, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the vital work carried out by social work teams who deal with difficult child protection cases on a daily basis. Some of the debate in this area is not very well informed. Too often it is forgotten that children who present to our child protection and welfare services have been already failed by many agencies and other interventions. It would be wrong to conclude in all cases that factors external to the HSE do not contribute to the difficulties experienced. We must be honest about that and broaden this debate when talking about deaths in care and related issues and look at the other factors which might have led to tragedies or the very challenging behaviours some of these children present.
Some of us read in the newspapers last Saturday that many staff in special care units are on extended sick leave because of the stress of the work they do and the challenging nature of the behaviour of some of these children. Some Members will have read in the last Saturday’s newspapers reports that many staff in special care units are on extended sick leave because of the stress of their work due to the challenging nature of the behaviour of some of these children. It is extremely tough work. That is the case not only in special care units but in the case of every type of social work. We must acknowledge that of the 5,700 children in the care of the State today, the vast majority of them are being extremely well looked after. They have the best intervention they could possibly hope for, but in acknowledging that, we must also acknowledge the deficit, and that is the focus of all policy at this stage.
One of the principal commitments in the Ryan implementation plan is the need to ensure that all children in care have an allocated social worker and a care plan. To this end, the Government has committed to filling 270 HSE social worker posts by the end of 2011 and to the front-loading of this initiative in 2010, with the filling of 200 posts by the end of this year. This initiative is designed to target resources at front-line services in order to ensure that the HSE fulfils its statutory obligations. The Oireachtas has voted that the necessary finance be provided; the filling of these posts has been exempted from the public service moratorium on recruitment and replacement of staff; and there is an explicit commitment in the HSE service plan for 2010, as laid before the Oireachtas, that these posts will be filled.
I met senior HSE representatives, including the chairman of the board, in recent days to review the progress being made in this regard. The HSE has advised me that approximately 400 candidates are to be interviewed, starting next week, in order to form a new panel of suitable candidates to fill all 200 posts in the current year. The recruitment of these additional social workers is critical in terms of progressing the implementation plan and in ensuring the allocation of a named social worker to each child in care and the availability of care plans, properly updated, for all of these children. It is also important in order to ensure that all foster carers are properly assessed. I have been assured by the HSE that the matter is being afforded the highest priority by the board and by senior management. I will discuss this matter, together with other child protection matters, with the board of the HSE tomorrow.
There have been calls in recent days for the removal of child protection services from the HSE and for a new entity to be established to discharge the duties of the State in this regard. I do not share this view. While it may appear politically appealing, a fundamental aspect of a successful child care system is the ability to access early interventions, whether they are therapies delivered by health professionals or supports offered by public health nurses. In particular, there is an essential requirement to integrate our child protection services as part of the development of multidisciplinary services, both at hospital and primary care level. We have an opportunity now to plug into the developing primary care network around this country and it would be a mistake to miss that opportunity. Stripping away children’s services from the HSE, therefore, will not go solve the problem. It is a quick fix solution to a very complicated problem and, as we know, quick fixes seldom result in lasting changes.
There is a risk that we would lose ground, as it would take several years to establish a new structure and valuable time would be lost in creating a new entity. A new name does not guarantee strong leadership, effective team-working and standardised ways of delivering a professional service. Much more needs to be done to build a strong and responsive service and a fresh approach is required within the HSE to deliver the change that we all wish to see. This has been reinforced by the events of recent weeks. In the course of my discussions with the HSE yesterday, I raised the need for the appointment of an individual at a national management level who has a proven track record in the reform of children and family services and who should, in my view, have a direct reporting relationship with the board and the chief executive. I briefed my Cabinet colleagues on the initiative last night and drew a parallel between the role that Professor Tom Keane played very successfully in cancer care and the new role I envisage for child welfare and protection. I emphasise that it would be my intention that this postholder would report directly to the chief executive just as Professor Keane did in the area of cancer control. The HSE was very receptive to the proposal and committed to working with me to source and appoint a person who would have the authority to deliver on the wide and ambitious reform programme. I propose to discuss these matters with the HSE board tomorrow.
The creation of this new position is a logical development and very much consistent with the emphasis in the PA report on strengthening management systems in the HSE in this area. It complements the steps already taken in implementing this report with the appointment, for the first time, of a senior person within the HSE with responsibility for the delivery of these services. This post, at assistant national director level, is an important first step in seeking to reform the child protection services in the HSE. The appointment is being accompanied by the restructuring of the service at national, regional and local level in order to strengthen front line delivery of services.
The HSE intends to publish the PA report this week, along with the HSE’s own report of the children and family services task force, which provided a valuable insight into the current structure and deficits in the services. It is also my intention, beginning next Friday, to visit social workers at four venues around the country to have discussions on their impressions of the progress being made and the issues that need to be raised. The taskforce was also closely involved in the development of much needed and standardised business processes across the HSE child protection services. These will be necessary to facilitate the proper implementation of the new national child care information system, a national ICT system which will provide a basis for collecting and reporting on the delivery of front line services and which will help to strengthen accountability within the HSE.
Another key priority for me, as Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs, was the commitment to publish a revised Children First Guidelines. The original guidelines, first published in 1999, were revised and placed on the OMCYA website in December 2009, in line with a commitment in the implementation plan. A number of amendments have been made in the interim to take on board, for example, recommendations from the Ombudsman for Children in her recent report on the implementation on the Children First Guidelines and the recent guidance provided by HlQA to the HSE with regard to the deaths of children in care and serious adverse incidents. Arrangements for the printing and dissemination of the guidelines are being finalised. In addition, legislation is to be drafted to provide a duty to comply with Children First for all bodies in receipt of State funding, and that commitment is to be achieved by the end of this year.
I will bring proposals to Government very shortly setting out a comprehensive implementation framework, including a particular emphasis on strengthening the audit and inspection framework to exist in parallel with the statutory framework. This is to ensure that the guidelines are more effectively and correctly implemented across all sectors working with children. I anticipate that HIQA will have a very important role to play in this framework.
It is important that the weaknesses identified in various reviews of Children First are addressed in order to ensure that the State, voluntary sector and the wider community are aware of their obligations with regard to the protection of children and that appropriate mechanisms are in place to ensure that these obligations are met. Children First brings with it very clear responsibilities for those who become aware of child protection issues and these responsibilities are those we would reasonably expect everyone in society caring for children at risk to live up to.
On the issue of deaths in care, it should be noted that the creation of guidance was one of the targets of the implementation plan and that has been completed. It provides, for the first time, a national standard for systematically reviewing and reporting on child deaths and already some cases have been referred under this new system.
Delivery of any service must necessarily be underpinned by appropriate standards. The rationale for having a single set of standards is that the core principles apply to all children living away from home. Children have developmental needs and rights irrespective of their reason for coming into care. The core standards apply to all of the inspected services with some specific criteria dealing with the different contexts in which services are delivered.
The social services inspectorate of the Health Information and Quality Authority is in the process of developing a new set of standards for services for children in care. The standards are currently being amended by HIQA to take account of the response from the recent public consultation exercise and work on this is due to be completed by the end of this month. I expect that the final standards will be sent to me in October of this year.
In the time available to me I have set out the progress made to date in implementing the high level commitments, as set out in the Government’s plan. I acknowledge that there are also a number of areas where progress has not been as rapid as I would have wished. In the case where certain actions have not yet been completed, I remain determined to see that all of the actions are delivered. In this regard, and in order to ensure the momentum of progress, I chair a high level group consisting of senior representatives from the relevant Departments and agencies to monitor the implementation of the actions specified in the plan. This group has met twice to date and will shortly finalise its first report on progress as required under the plan. Once finalised, I look forward to laying this progress report before both Houses and I will do this annually over the four-year lifetime of the plan. Although the anniversary falls towards the end of July, I propose to place that report before the Houses before the House rises for the summer recess.
As I stated at the time of the publication of the Government’s implementation plan, the damage caused by a culture that tolerated and even encouraged physical, sexual and emotional abuse for decades will not be undone by words alone. Similarly, the failures in our services today will not be fixed by words and fine sentiments. Action and delivery must follow.
As a Government we have demonstrated our commitment to put in place the necessary resources to build a strong and responsive child protection system for those in greatest need. We have a detailed and ambitious programme of work which requires a sustained effort across various organisations and by the wider society. The role of Government is to provide leadership in promoting necessary change and reform. What I have set out today represents the action plan to which we are working and which will be the subject of continuing engagement within the House and elsewhere.
Deputy Alan Shatter: I welcome the opportunity again in this House to discuss child care and protection issues and, in particular, to look at the progress made since publication by the Minister of State of the implementation plan in respect of the Ryan commission report. One can only conclude that since publication of the report there has been minimal real progress or improvement with regard to our child care and protection services. Indeed, the past 12 months have been marked by a series of scandalous revelations, which clearly shows that the obsessive secrecy that the church was criticised for in covering up instances of abuse is an ethos shared both by Government and by the HSE in covering up the scandalous failures to provide protection to children to which they were entitled.
The Minister of State for some time after his appointment defended our child care and protection services when I described their dysfunction. His out was to say, “We have robust child care guidelines”, and then to make a pretence that the service was functional. What has become absolutely clear is that the service is seriously dysfunctional and the Minister of State more or less admitted this in two comments he made earlier. He stated, “What the implementation plan sets out to address is the reality that despite this strong legislative and policy base, service delivery for children in need and children at risk is not sufficiently co-ordinated, is unevenly distributed nationally and must be improved”, and he went on to say, “Much more needs to be done to build a strong and responsive service and in my view a fresh approach is required within the HSE in order to deliver the change that we all wish to see”. It is as if the Government and the Minister of State are completely separate from anything to do with the delivery of child care services, that they have no responsibility for the disasters and catastrophes of the past decade and here we have this brand new Minister of State who has suddenly discovered there is a problem which he hopes to address.
The truth is, despite publication of child protection guidelines in 1999, no coherent structure was ever put in place to ensure the high ideals of those guidelines were properly observed. No proper management was put in place within a Department to oversee implementation of the child care guidelines. No proper communications system was put in place within either the former health boards or the HSE to even facilitate the maintenance of proper records with regard to children reported to be at risk, the decisions taken with regard to such reports and the action subsequently taken where children were found to genuinely be a concern. No systems were put in place to ascertain where reports of risk were received but were not acted upon or where there was an assessment that, despite the report, there was no need for intervention to find out what happened to any of those children later. No quality controls were there to identify where mistakes were made and, even more extraordinary, no detail was maintained, not even a statistical detail, of children who tragically died who were either in the care system or who were said to be “of concern”.
Very little has changed. It has taken scandal after scandal and a drip-feed of information for us to formulate the extent of the dysfunction within our child care and protection services for which this Government is responsible. This Fianna Fáil-led Government and its predecessors were responsible for the creation of the HSE. The Minister for Health and Children steered through this House the legislation that transferred child care and protection services to the HSE from 1 January 2005 and then washed her hands of the service and took no interest in it. Both the current Minister of State and his predecessors essentially saw themselves as policy gurus who would pronounce on high on policy issues relating to children and rely on the goodwill of the HSE to inform them of what was going on. They now know what was going on. We now know it is estimated — I do not believe these figures are accurate and I have said that in the past — 188 children who died were either in care or their care was a matter of concern to the HSE. A total of 102 died as a consequence of what are known as “non-natural causes”, of whom ten were identified as dying as a result of assault or murder. This is the care the State provided to children at risk.
This is the number of children it has taken 16 months to even ascertain. I read with some interest the Minister for Health and Children saying that, “Deputy Andrews has been striving since March 2010 to get this information”. In March 2009 I sought that information in an Adjournment debate in the House and I was told the HSE was compiling it. The only reason that information finally came to public notice was Fine Gael published the report into the tragic death of Tracey Fay.
What has happened over the past 12 months? The Ryan report implementation plan promised us 270 additional social workers for our child care and protection services. In one part of the document published, it says that they will all be recruited by the end of December 2010 while, in another part, it says somewhere between 2010 and 2011. Since the publication of the implementation plan, 25 of the 270 social workers have been recruited. To what extent is that prioritising children at risk and ensuring we have the services available to them?
There is great concern that those working with children be subject to vetting. In September 2008, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children recommended vetting legislation for the use of soft information be published by December 2008. Where is the Bill? We do not even have heads of a Bill. Nothing has been published. There is no possibility that the legislation will become law until at least this time next year. What about the Garda vetting bureau, which voluntarily carries out vetting of what I would described as “hard information” both for schools and voluntary agencies and other bodies employing people working with children? Unfortunately, because of the huge pressure its staff are put under by the large number of groups, organisations and schools seeking vetting, there is a 14-week delay in getting information when one seeks to ascertain whether an individual is suitable to work with children. There is no sense of priority of any description.
Where are we today with the child care provisions? Only yesterday, Carl O’Brien of The Irish Times yet again revealed problems within our child care services. I refer to the dysfunction within the foster care service. I recall the Minister of State telling us there might be problems in the residential area but foster care is fine. We now know there was an utter failure to apply the child care guidelines to ensure both in the HSE Dublin north west and Dublin north central areas children in foster care were properly dealt with. Inspectors reviewed 1,114 files regarding 803 children in foster care and the main issues arising from this extensive audit were the inaccuracy and unreliability of information, unresolved child protection-child welfare issues, poor quality of records and inappropriate placement of children in supported lodgings. Approximately 500 possible unresolved child welfare issues were identified. The review of the files indicated possible child protection concerns relating to 76 different children. Foster parents were not properly assessed, children did not have social workers allocated to them with whom they could communicate and child care plans were not in place. What was clear was the absolute and abject failure to provide through the child care services to foster children the type of protection to which they are entitled. That was in 2009 and 2010. I have before me a letter sent to the Minister of State on 1 February 2010, detailing what occurred.
Some of this is shocking. On 14 November 2009 HIQA wrote to Professor Brendan Drumm raising some of the issues. These include information on children in foster care held randomly on hard copy files and on the HSE’s SWIS system of social work activity; no policy to guide which system should be used for different recordings; no consistency of recording of information; files stored unlocked in unsecured rooms in buildings shared with other organisations. The latter is interesting. The HSE, when asked to reveal its failures, constantly tries to avoid disclosing information based on its commitment to confidentiality in the interests of the child. However, the HSE was prepared to store files and information, unlocked in unsecured rooms in buildings, in relation to children in foster care where those buildings were shared with other organisations.
The files, to quote from the letter to Professor Drumm, contain unsecured loose leaf information that are not in an organised order, and are falling apart. There are files missing, notes are often not dated nor signed and there are a number of items belonging to children, for example photographs, letters and a baby bracelet that have fallen from the files, with no identification to attach to the file or the child. This was a disgrace.
The Minister of State was first informed of the problems within those two areas with regard to fosterage by a letter dated 15 October 2009, and he concealed that information and did not inform this House as to what action he was taking, or the HSE would take. I would say to the Minister of State that the constant drip-drip of revelations is undermining public confidence in our child care services.
Deputy Barry Andrews: On a point of order, HIQA is preparing a report in regard to these matters, as I believe the Deputy is aware. It is due to complete that report at the end of this month. To suggest that I would reveal the findings of that report during the course of its preparation and to describe this as concealment from the House is a very serious charge and it is very unfair.
Deputy Alan Shatter: That is not a point of order. The position is that HIQA took the unprecedented step on 15 October 2009 of writing to the Minister of State in advance of the report it was publishing, due to its enormous concern for the well-being of the children in foster care, whom it had discovered had not been properly provided for nor dealt with.
That is information I believe the Minister should have shared with this House. It is information that should have been brought to the attention of this House and in relation to it the Minister of State should have informed the House as regards what action, if any, was being taken by him and by the HSE to address the problems that had arisen. Those problems were enormous. I am quoting from the initial HIQA report with regard to the Dublin north-west area: The number of children in foster care – 389; number of children without an allocated social worker – 189; number of foster carers without a link worker – 62. The statistics for the Dublin north-central area are as follows: The number of children in foster care – 309; number of children without an allocated social worker – 103; number of carers without a link worker – 109.
This was contained in an interim report by HIQA to the Minister of State because of the catastrophic circumstances it discovered in the context of the abject failure of the HSE — and this followed similar reports relating to deficiencies in those areas which first started to be made to successive Ministers of State with responsibility for children in 2004, and thereafter. I want to know why the Minister of State with responsibility for children and the Minister for Health and Children did not put in place an oversight after the first report of problems in this area, relating to 2004. Why did they go to sleep and do nothing until HIQA discovered what was happening? The dysfunction that exists within our child care services, the lack of co-ordination and oversight and the attempts to escape from political accountability and responsibility continue to this very day, because——
It continues to this day, and not just in the area of foster care. In the past few days I have received representations from a school that provides special education to children identified as severely emotionally and behaviourally disturbed. The children who attend this school have been identified by child and adolescent mental health teams as suffering from severe behavioural disorders, such as ADHD or ODD, and most come from disadvantaged backgrounds where they have been exposed to drugs, drink, abuse and neglect at home. These children are unable to attend mainstream education. The representatives of this school contacted Fine Gael because they are so concerned at the failure of the HSE to adequately respond to the needs of the children identified as being at risk. I want to draw three cases to the attention of the Minister of State, and I shall conclude on this if the Ceann Comhairle will allow me to do so, having been interrupted twice.
Child X is a student at the school, has been known to the HSE for at least four years and suffers from physical and emotional abuse and neglect at home. The school has made several referrals to the HSE, as required under the child protection guidelines. However, the response of the HSE has been so inadequate that the school has taken to telephoning the Garda every time the child presents with bruising. Recently the child presented with severe physical injuries, a broken arm, but has still not been taken into care.
Child Y is a ten year old student currently attending the school. It has been known by the teachers for some time that this child suffers from serious physical and emotional neglect at home, so much so that the school has to buy shoes for the child because there were so many holes in the last pair. The child’s mother is understood to suffer from mental health problems and drug abuse. The father is understood to have subjected both the mother and children to domestic violence. Last December the child was diagnosed as having suicidal tendencies. Despite this, the child’s mother refuses to interact with the school, even when the child was found standing on a tiny ledge on the roof of the school, where he put himself in severe danger. This child is crying out for help. He is known to both the mental health and social services. He desperately needs psychological help and intervention from the social services but the HSE is not providing it.
The final child is a 14 year old former student of the school. The parents of this child died from drug abuse in 2006 and 2007 and he has been in the State’s care for the past three years. During his time in school, the child displayed severe behavioural difficulties, including violent outbursts in front of staff. The school has repeatedly tried to access help and has had regular meetings with social workers but no therapeutic intervention has taken place. Two years ago the child had to be suspended indefinitely pending such intervention being put in place by the HSE but this has not been done. For the past two years this child has drifted from one care home to another and is currently understood to be homeless. He is known to have suffered medical seizures from consumption of head shop products, further highlighting the inadequacies of the child care services.
I appreciate the Ceann Comhairle giving me leeway, and I will tell the Minister of State the name of the school involved. I am telling him, as I have had to do on other occasions in this House, that these are three children who are today being failed by our child care services, which are grossly dysfunctional, unco-ordinated, have no modern communication systems and possess a managerial structure that is grossly inadequate. The appointment of some additional supremo will not resolve the problem.
I am asking the Minister of State to intervene in the interests of these children and I believe he is wrong in his conclusion. We will only have a properly functioning child care and protection service when this function is taken away from the HSE and given to a body with the expertise and commitment to properly exercise it.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan: The report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, known as the Ryan report, revealed some dreadful, harrowing and unforgivable mistreatment of children in the care of the State many years ago. Unfortunately, Members can do nothing to bring back the childhood of those young people, who now are adults. All that can be done for them is to provide a certain level of compensation, as well as an apology, to allow them to tell their stories and to provide a level of counselling, advice and so on. However, having spoken to many of the individuals concerned over the years, the most overriding request they have made of Members as parliamentarians is to ensure that this kind of thing can never happen to children again and to ensure that children are properly cared for in the present.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Obviously, what happens to children today is nothing like what happened to the children who were locked up in institutions in the past. However, as the cases of children such as Tracey Fay and Daniel McAnaspie reveal, many children have been failed by the State. It now is known that over the past ten years, 188 children have died, who had been in contact in some way with the child protection services of the State. It also has become evident in the last few days, on foot of a report, that currently many children have not been allocated a social worker and their care has not been inspected. Many children have been moved around from place to place and do not have anything like the normal securities of a childhood that all children need.
This must be an absolute priority. Governments make decisions and allocate funding on the basis of priorities and this must be contrasted with the speed with which the system moved to address the problems of the banking system when the latter suddenly was in trouble in the autumn of 2008. I refer to the overnight meetings, instant legislation and the availability of billions of euro from the public purse. Saving the life of Anglo Irish Bank was sufficiently important to throw billions into it and I note further billions were added to it recent weeks. However, saving the life of Daniel McAnaspie obviously was not anywhere near as important as saving Anglo Irish Bank. Fundamentally, that is what Members should be discussing today.  They should be putting right the priorities on how public money is spent and how public business is conducted. Clearly, the child care service is not at that level of priority.
However, the problem is with the amount of money that is going into child care. I acknowledge that a certain amount is being invested and that a certain amount of progress has been made, but when one contrasts that with the urgency with which the problems in the banking sector were addressed by the Government at large, there is no comparison. My colleague, Deputy Higgins, frequently makes the point in the Chamber that a floor of rights is required. Safety nets are needed under which no citizen of this State can fall. Unfortunately, such safety nets do not exist for children in care.
The figures that were revealed last week, as well as the other statistics that have emerged subsequently, particularly in respect of two areas in north Dublin and the report drawn up by HIQA, indicate there is clearly still a huge level of dysfunction within the child care services. I simply do not believe that the sense of urgency to address this exists. This must be treated not simply as business as usual but as a crisis and as something that requires special intervention and a special plan. I share the concerns expressed by Deputy Shatter that the HSE lacks the capacity to do this. I welcome the announcement that there is to be a new supremo who will be in charge of child care services, which certainly is needed. However, can this be done within the manner in which the HSE organises its budgets? I read that as essentially that the person nominated will manage the same budget that is provided for child care at present.
This is not good enough and the same approach must be taken in this regard as was taken in the case of Professor Keane and cancer control, whereby he was told that were additional resources required in respect of shortfalls in the service, they would be provided. With respect to the delivery of cancer care, the child care system is a great deal more complicated. While it may not cause as many deaths as cancer, it is considerably more complicated to organise and I am unsure whether the HSE has the capacity to address its complexities and in particular, to operate a coherent and properly-resourced system.
As for the number of social workers who are being appointed, I understand that out of the total of 270, some 25 already have been appointed. I believe the Minister of State has indicated that 200 additional social workers are promised by the end of this year. However, the appointment of only 25 additional posts right across the system really will not make the kind of difference that is required. Consequently, there must be a prioritisation of this issue at Government level and with respect to the Minister of State, a senior Minister will be required in this regard for some time. While it could be the Minister of State or someone else, someone at Cabinet level will be needed to address this issue. It needs this level of crisis management when one considers what happened to the aforementioned young people. When one looks at photographs of Tracey Fay and Daniel McAnaspie and reads about them when they were younger, it is clear those children had a sense of hope and of having a stake in society. There was a sense they had a future, were engaged with education and so on. Somewhere along the line, the system entirely failed those children and many others like them. At present, many other children are being similarly failed because of the manner in which the system is organised.
A number of actions have been promised in the implementation plan report. Some relate to survivors of child abuse in the past but many of them relate to reorganising and restructuring the system for the future. I wish to read into the record an e-mail. All Members have received a large number of e-mails headed “Please support the Saving Childhood Ryan campaign” and the reason I wish to read it out is because it sets out clearly the points that must be addressed. It starts by stating “[e]nsure that a referendum to strengthen children’s rights in the Constitution is held”. Clearly this has been promised but there appears to be no indication that such a referendum will be held sooner rather than later. It must be held as soon as possible because once children’s rights are written into the Constitution, from that will flow other rights and will flow the necessity to implement measures that will protect children. The children who need the protection of the Constitution are the highly vulnerable children who are being failed at present.
The second suggested action is to “speed up the legislation to place Children First on a statutory basis and widen its remit to include all organisations and individuals, including faith organisations, sports bodies and volunteer groups”. The next suggested action is to “ensure children’s voices are heard in all matters affecting them”. I note this suggestion has been included in the implementation plan and believe it to be highly important. The next suggested action is to “develop the necessary legislative and policy framework to make statutory provision for the right of children’s voices to be heard in judicial proceedings affecting them. . . introduce and progress the National Vetting Bureau Bill, ensuring that the Bill provides adequately for the sharing of information between relevant agencies”. Although that Bill has been promised for many years, it still has not been brought to the floor of this House. I believe it is highly important because it pertains to sharing information that is not shared at present and to the protection of children.
The next suggestion is to “ensure all children in care have an allocated social worker and care plan”. This is an issue that all Members have addressed already and clearly this is not in place. Hundreds of children who are in care do not have an allocated social worker. Many issues arise in respect of social workers. I feel sorry for social workers who are trying to work within the system because many of them are inexperienced and face extraordinary challenges. Many of the young people concerned have a behaviour that is extremely difficult. While I understand all that, this does not mean that one can somehow suggest this is too difficult and cannot be done. However, social workers must be supported and must be provided with sound structures to support them to enable them to do their difficult work.
Amend the Child Care Act 1991 via the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2009 to place a statutory obligation on the State to provide aftercare for all children who need it and develop a comprehensive national aftercare policy.
The next suggestions are as follows: Ensure that separated children moving into care placements are provided with adequate supports to meet their specific needs; ensure these children have access to aftercare services; publish the promised national review of current practice in relation to Section 5 of the Child Care Act 1991 to establish current practices and gaps in the system for children experiencing homelessness; commence the Health Act 2007 to allow independent inspection of foster carers and all children’s residential centres as a matter of urgency — it is amazing that we currently do not have that level of inspection for all children in care — grant the Health Information and Quality Authority more independence and robust powers to enforce compliance with child care regulations, through a range of mechanisms, including penalties, sanctions and fines.
Those are the various points that are made. They are all points that urgently need to be addressed. Deputy Shatter referred to Carl O’Brien’s report on the situation in north Dublin. In his article Carl O’Brien stated: “The hypocrisy of our society is revealed by the fact that we continue to tolerate the neglect and abuse of children on a daily basis, while we profess shock and horror at the revelations of abuse and neglect of children decades ago.”
Today’s debate is about learning from the past and implementing the protection that is required for children now and in the future. I wish to ask the Minister of State about a number of elements, one of which relates to the comparative figures that were used by representatives of the Health Service Executive, HSE, during the week. I heard two representatives of the HSE say that the 188 children who died in the past ten years who had contact with the child protection services was commensurate with other comparable countries. I do not know where the representatives got that information or whether it is true, but I would like to know that this was not something that was said in order to make the figures look less shocking than they are. Will the Minister of State indicate what comparative figures were examined?
If we are to learn from the sad cases of all the individual children, each of whom is somebody’s child, we need a breakdown of information relating to the years in which the children died, and the areas in which they lived. We found out that two areas in Dublin had particular problems and difficulties and that has remained the case until recently. We must find out exactly what happened to those children and where and when. An overall figure such as we have received does not tell us what the individual circumstances were and what we can learn. We must find out whether there were clusters, if children were let down or whether there was a breakdown of the service in particular areas.
I do not say that because I wish to apportion blame to anyone, but we have to learn from what has gone wrong in the system in the past and what is going wrong currently. I know a number of people who work with children in the care of the State. It is extremely difficult work. To what extent will there be a thorough examination of the entire system? The vast majority of children in care are in foster care and they should have the required inspections by social workers. However, a small number of vulnerable children are in other situations, for example, those in high security centres for children with difficult behaviour such as Coovagh House in my constituency, and the kind of children such as Daniel McAnaspie who are in hostels and other such situations. I urge the Minister of State to carry out a full and thorough evaluation of the circumstances in which all of those children are currently in the care of the State. I refer also to children who have come from other countries. There are a number of categories of vulnerable children. I sincerely doubt whether those children are getting the best possible care we could give them. We can learn a lot from other countries where there are better systems.
The catalogue of what we have heard in recent days is a true indictment of the kinds of priorities we have in society, given that we can focus such high-power attention on banks and lavish such a large amount of public money on them yet we cannot provide the resources for these vulnerable children.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: We return to address the recommendations of the Ryan report as the crisis in child protection in this State is being highlighted as never before. That is only right and it is long overdue that we are addressing the implementation of those recommendations. As I stated at the time of the publication of the Ryan report last year, as well as dealing with the abuses of the past we need most urgently to address the protection of children today or else we will have further Ryan reports, only this time they will deal with tragic failures to protect children of our own time.
Yesterday, the family and friends of Daniel McAnaspie laid him to rest. Go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a anam. Three days earlier the Health Service Executive published its latest figures for the deaths of children known to the HSE child protection service. That brings to 188 the number of children who died in the past decade, either in State care or who were known to the social services. That is a truly shocking figure. Each and every one of those deaths was a tragedy. Some died of natural causes, some were due to suicide, drug overdoses, accidents or, as in the case of Daniel McAnaspie, unlawful killings. We know about Daniel’s case because the information has come into the public domain. His family has been brave in speaking out. Not all families wish to do so and their right to confidentiality must be respected, but we need to know the circumstances and we need to know exactly if and how the State failed these children. How else will we learn the lessons of these failure?. This much is certain; the death rate among children in State care and among children known to the social services is far higher than among the general population. These are the vulnerable children, the marginalised children, the children in poverty or at risk of poverty, the children who have not benefited from education, the children who have suffered abuse, the children who become prey to drug pushers and other vicious social predators.
Speaking at Daniel’s funeral yesterday, Fr. Peter McVerry said that the boy had been neglected by the State and in that neglect we saw the failure of a dysfunctional and under-resourced child care service. The Government should heed his words, especially his identification of the need not for 200 additional social workers but for 1,200. The Minister of State was quick to dismiss the call by Fr. Peter McVerry, but he should seriously rethink his response because I have no doubt that Fr. McVerry was hitting the requirement absolutely spot-on. The latest figures make it all the more urgent that the HSE releases the files on all these children to the special investigation team established by the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews. If legal obstacles really exist they should be removed as a matter of urgency. The Government cannot even tell us when it will publish legislation in this regard. It should publish in full its advice from the Attorney General.
These figures come at a time when the Government is cutting back social welfare, education and health services in a way that hits marginalised families and vulnerable children worst. These are the essential supports which help address child poverty and neglect. Undermining these services through cuts will condemn more children. A few days before the figures were published the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills announced the axing of librarian posts for school libraries in schools serving disadvantaged communities. That is extremely callous and also very short-sighted. It brings only shame on this entire Administration.
The Government must take heed of the view expressed by the Ombudsman for Children, Ms Emily Logan, that the in camera rule, whereby child care proceedings are not held publicly, is often being disproportionately applied and hampering investigations, and that any proposed legislative change should take account of this. It is clear that there has long been a crisis of leadership and management at the highest level in child protection in the State given that an investigation established by a Minister could be frustrated in this way by a State body supposedly under the authority of the Minister, the HSE.
Let me consider the specific recommendations of the Ryan report. The very last one states, “‘Children First: The National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children’ should be uniformly and consistently implemented throughout the State in dealing with allegations of abuse.” The recent report of the Ombudsman for Children concluded that the HSE, from its establishment in 2005 until 2009, made insufficient efforts to drive forward implementation of Children First, the child protection guidelines. Poor administration was uncovered right across the HSE. Clearly, this affects not only the process of identifying and protecting children at risk but also the system of care provision, which has been exposed repeatedly as totally inadequate.
The implementation plan for the recommendations of the Ryan report, published by the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, in July 2009, made a series of commitments regarding Children First. These include the drafting of legislation by December 2010 to provide that all staff employed by the State and staff employed in agencies in receipt of funding from the Exchequer will have a duty to comply with the Children First national guidelines; the development by HIQA of outcome-based standards for child protection services, also by December 2010; and the linking of compliance with the Children First national guidelines will be linked to all relevant inspection processes across the education, health and justice sectors by December 2011.
Specifically regarding the uniform and consistent implementation of Children First throughout the State, the implementation plan stated this was “ongoing”. It is difficult to square that with the report of the Ombudsman for Children, which I have cited twice, or with the fact that key commitments in this regard are not due for delivery until December 2010 and December 2011.
The big question concerns why the Government and the HSE are constantly playing catch-up. Why does it take a seemingly endless series of exposés, investigations and reports for them to begin to get things right? The latest example is the audit of more than 1,000 foster-care files by HIQA in the Dublin north-west and Dublin north-central areas that has found well over 200 children had placements with unapproved foster parents for significant periods or were without care plans.
The audit found that some children in State care have not had a visit from a social worker for up to ten years or more. It found record-keeping so poor that inspectors have had difficulties establishing an accurate number for children in foster care, and many files were either incomplete, incorrectly recorded or missing. In some cases, items belonging to children had fallen out of files with no identification to attach to the file or child. Children as young as five were placed in supported lodgings, a more independent form of care designed for people in their mid to late teens.
The report on the Monageer tragedy highlighted the vital need for an out-of-hours social work crisis intervention service. The implementation plan said the HSE will put in place such a service, built into the existing HSE out-of-hours service, and that this would be piloted initially in two areas of the country. That is far too lax an approach and the provision of this vital service must be speeded up.
The Ryan report made key recommendations on policy. It stated child care policy should be child-centred, the needs of the child should be paramount and national child care policy should be clearly articulated. The report stated:
The implementation plan is out of date now with regard to this recommendation because we have since had the report of the all-party committee and its unanimous recommendation on wording for a constitutional amendment on children. In the view of Deputies of all parties in this House, the amendment would form a sound basis for all child care policy. I again urge the Government to make a firm commitment to hold this year the referendum to strengthen the rights of children in the Constitution.
I want to reiterate an issue that I raised in the House on previous occasions and I ask the Minister of State to respond thereto specifically. In 1990, the Comptroller and Auditor General carried out a review of the Department of Education’s special schools and it found that the children in those schools were not being accommodated in the institutions appropriate to their needs, that the facilities were not being managed properly and that the Department was not carrying out its oversight role in a satisfactory manner.
In 1992 the Committee of Public Accounts, having considered the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, recommended that the Departments of Justice, Health, and Education, and the then health boards, jointly address the problem of these special schools and of all children in residential care.
These recommendations were not acted upon. The point is that the schools in question represented the end of the line for troubled children who ended up in court because behavioural, social and family problems were not properly addressed early on. That is still happening, despite the fact that the first report was issued 20 years ago. The scandal is that it is happening along the pathway of so-called care supposedly provided by the State.
The reports to which I have referred date from 1990 and 1992. It is bad that two decades have elapsed since the first without action. Surely we should be setting target dates for the implementation of the recommendations such that we will not end up in a similar position two decades after the publication of the second, to everyone’s shame in this House.
Without question, these reports represented early alarm bells. Alarm bells have rung periodically since their publication but precious little was done, with the results we see so sadly today and which have been exposed recently in the litany of tragedies that has shocked our nation.
Deputy James McDaid: There has been unfair criticism levelled at the Minister of State in recent months but he has devoted his entire time to this area. We are trying to do a comprehensive job in a sensitive area. The Ryan report is comprehensive and we must ensure that what has been the subject of the report will never happen to our children again. The Minister of State during his contribution stated he has consulted widely with survivor groups in Ireland and Britain. The survivor groups, however, are my concern.
A number of articles have been written, one by Maeve Sheehan in the Sunday Independent, and two by Jennifer Hopp in the Irish Examiner, one on 21 December 2009 and one on 29 May 2010. As a result of those articles I did some further research. They all relate to money. Following my research, I feel it is time for all of those organisations that are currently dealing with victims of abuse to account publicly for all of the funds each has received, how much and how they have been disbursed over the past ten years. They must detail how much they have received from the State and the Roman Catholic Church. There might be a problem getting such information from the Roman Catholic Church but as they are all registered charities, they must have accounts and, consequently, such information should be available.
I am concerned about Ms Sheehan’s article, which stated that more funds were being paid to lawyers than going to compensate the victims of child sexual abuse and that Cardinal Brady had been criticised by a solicitor acting for a victim for spending more money defending himself than was currently spent on the victim. The article went on to say that a solicitor acting for a victim of Fr. Brendan Smyth said he was incredulous at the cardinal’s public expressions of remorse, given his defence of himself in legal proceedings. What was the man to do? Is he not entitled to defined himself?
I looked further into this. With all of the groups involved, there was a multiple of legal representation. How much has been paid in legal fees in this area over the past ten years? Who are ACAL? I looked this up on the survivors’ webpage and under the heading of the lawyers, Abney Garrett and McDonald, solicitors, together with a group of other English solicitors, who intend, subject to the approval of the redress board, to co-ordinate all the English claims under ACAL, the association of child abuse lawyers. When I see a league of lawyers I shudder for the outcome for the survivors.
Ms Hoff’s articles in the Irish Examiner addressed information on funding she had elicited in the last year. ACAL represents Right of Place and One in Four. The article states that Right of Place receives hundreds of thousands of euro in funding from the Government annually. In 2009, the HSE alone allocated €337,500 and the Department of Education and Science €75,331. She continued that since 2002, it has collected more than €2.2 million from the HSE and the health board before that, and more than €1 million from the Department of Education and Science. A further €88,000 was secured in national lottery funding. Right of Place has also received unknown amounts from religious orders. The documents seen by the Irish Examiner show the charity took in at least €100,000 from bishops and religious orders around the country in a three year period. Millions of euros have been given to these organisations and lawyers are queuing up to avail of the funding.
It is about time we had an audit of all of the various organisations that have mushroomed as a result of child sexual abuse over the past number of years. A certain degree of in-fighting has erupted among the groups and the only winners will be the lawyers while the losers, inevitably, will be the victims in the Ryan report.
Deputy James Reilly: I must comment on Deputy McDaid’s contribution to this debate. This is about children, and while there is concern about where money was spent, if there was proper care for children here and if when they went into care they were truly cared for there would not be any need for these umbrella organisations to spring up. They have their problems, and I have grave concerns about the amount that is spent on legal fees, but that is for another day.
The recommendations of the report include provision for a referendum to strengthen children’s rights under the Constitution. The Minister of State has promised in the past that this will happen some time. Some time this year? Some time in the autumn? Some time in the winter? Hopefully, we will place the legislation for Children First on a statutory footing and widen its remit to include all organisations and individuals, including faith, sports and volunteer groups. The importance of placing something on a statutory footing, as the Minister of State is aware, is that it allows for accountability, or it should. The guidelines are in place but they are not being implemented. Not alone are the guidelines in Children First not being implemented, the statutory guidelines are not being implemented and no one has been brought to book.
Some foster children have not been visited in ten years while foster parents are not being vetted. This is a serious situation and placing things on a statutory footing is meaningless unless there is someone to oversee them. Ultimately, oversight is a political imperative.
Deputy James Reilly: Where is the senior Minister, the Minister for Health and Children? Today, when we find another scandal seeping out, this time about pregnant women and their in utero babies, there is no sign of the Minister doing anything except talking about legislation for sunbeds. We sought sunbed legislation for years but it is placed at No. 70 on the legislative list.
This is a classic case of the Minister manipulating the news to suit herself. There is no comment on the fact that there have now been three cases, with more emerging, of patients being told the devastating news that their unborn child is dead when the opposite was the case. If they had not the courage of their convictions, something that is unfair to expect of someone who has just been shattered by such devastating news, and the composure to demand a second opinion, those children would have been lost to them. That is completely unacceptable.
The HSE is out of control. How many months is it since Deputy Shatter first sought reports on the numbers of children who have died in care or who have come to the attention of the State? He asked for that information in February and we are only now getting this information.
The HSE is not fit for purpose and it should not be trusted with the care of our children. It has failed abysmally. The numbers are truly shocking. I can identify with the parents who have made the dreadfully hard decision to place their children in care in the belief the system will give the better care the parents cannot provide. They then find that the children did not get that care but ended up with the worst possible outcome, tragic death.
Deputy Charles Flanagan: It is a year since this House last debated the Ryan report but it feels much more recent. Why is that? It is because over the period of a year one could reasonably have expected significant improvements in our child protection measures. Instead, we are once again mired in reports of gross negligence on the part of the State and the grotesque situation where the State is not entirely sure how many children died while the State was in loco parentis.
The State seems unwilling to learn lessons from the past. For example, a report from the Committee of Public Accounts in 1990 made a series of recommendations on the co-ordination of child care services among Departments and State agencies to form an operational strategy to address issues concerning children in care. Some 20 years later, we still do not have such a strategy in place.
My colleagues have already discussed this issue in its national context so I will confine myself to two issues. First, the ongoing exclusion of those who were sexually abused in primary schools from any redress scheme is a national disgrace. It is immoral of the State to abdicate its responsibilities for school children. In the strict legal sense, boards of management were responsible for school management but these boards were made up of voluntary local people who rarely had the knowledge or wherewithal necessary to cope with sexually deviant clergy. I am not excusing boards that stood idly by, merely contrasting the situation of a voluntary committee often dominated by an authoritarian parish priest with a powerful Department with access to all the best practice manuals and legal advice it desired. Where complaints were made directly to the Department, the Department should have taken control of the situation. It failed and, decades later, the Department continues to wash its hands of the unpleasant side of school management. It decides on teaching standards and the curriculum and issues circulars laying down the law on almost every aspect of school life. However, when a child is abused in a school, the Department runs a mile, claiming the matter is none of its business.
The victims of Offaly teacher, Mr. Brander, are included in the Ryan report yet they are excluded from the redress scheme. The litany of abuse detailed in chapter 14 leads to the conclusion that the State cannot persist in washing its hands of responsibility for the abuse perpetrated by teachers on its payroll. The approach to victims of abuse in primary schools must be changed. We need legislative change in this area to close the legal loophole that is allowing the Department of Education and Skills to shirk its responsibilities.
Chapter 14 of the Ryan report also highlights major anomalies in the way files were maintained by the Department. Has the Minister of State contacted the Tánaiste to provide a report on the extent to which filing protocols and record-keeping deficiencies have been addressed? I recently requested information by way of parliamentary question on how many teachers have been convicted of sexual offences in respect of children in their care but the information could not be provided. The Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Justice and Law Reform, the Courts Service and the CSO do not keep such records. Keeping complete and accurate files in regard to its teachers is the very least that can be expected of the Department of Education and Skills.
The second issue I wish to highlight relates to the numerous problems faced by foster parents in the Laois-Offaly constituency. Services previously provided for parents have been withdrawn, meaning foster parents are incurring additional costs without compensation from the State. Social worker services are inadequate and social workers are stretched to the limits. Consequently, not all foster children have care plans within an acceptable timeframe. Social workers are unable to give foster children the care they need. The Minister of State said he was frontloading the appointments but I wonder how many will be allocated to the former midland health board area.
Foster parents are unsung heroes in our community. Their contribution should be recognised and valued. Obviously, foster care must also be carefully regulated to ensure children are protected. We must legislate to provide that foster parents can straightforwardly adopt foster children in appropriate circumstances. We must ensure the foster care service is nourished and resourced and that people are made aware of the opportunity to act as foster parents. Placing children with a foster family is far more satisfactory than dumping them in a hostel or other facility and the litany of tales of children dying while in State care supports that approach.
Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Deputy Mary Alexandra White): I am delighted to take part in this debate. A significant amount of further information has emerged since we debated the matter in June of last year. There have also been further appalling revelations of abuse perpetrated on the most innocent in our society over the course of many years. There have also been cases documented over the past months of neglect of our children as well as much debate on safeguards needed to protect the welfare of children and the rights of our children as should be outlined in the Constitution. The nature of such a debate and discourse suggests there has been a major change in attitude to issues of welfare and protection of children. I welcome this.
I want the Ryan report recommendations implemented as quickly as possible. In my new portfolio, with links to the Department of Education and Skills, child safety and protection in the school system will be rigorously pursued. Procedures will be put in place to ensure a high degree of awareness on the part of teachers and boards of management in schools to highlight cases in our classrooms. When I spoke in the House last year I highlighted the 1936 Cussen report, which recommended the integration of those in industrial schools into the community. It was not completed until the 1960s. I look forward to a speedier implementation of the Ryan report recommendations. As someone who taught for a brief spell, we must ensure our children are safe in school and have the freedom to speak about their concerns. Section 7.14 of the Ryan recommendations reads: “Children in care should be able to communicate concerns without fear.” If the home life of children is distressing and they are in care, children should have the opportunity to speak to people they trust.
Counselling and education services must be freely available in childhood years and subsequently. I met many victims who have come to me in Leinster House and in my constituency who made the point that the counselling and education services must continue for many years. How can people get over those dark periods of their lives when the State let them down?
Section 7.10 of the recommendations refers to the need for rules and regulations to be enforced, breaches to be reported and sanctions applied where necessary. We have had much debate about adoption and the heartbreak of grown adults seeking their birth mothers and fathers. Section 7.20 of the report refers to full personal records of children in care being maintained. Can anyone imagine seeking these records and finding they were not available? This would cause heartbreak if the parents had died and one was just about to find the file and examine the records. It is essential the State maintains these records to validate a child’s self-esteem and identity and social, family and educational history. We must ensure the recommendation in section 7.20 is implemented in full so children who have suffered at the hands of the State can be given a guideline to their past and a passport to a brighter future.
Deputy Denis Naughten: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this. I suggest the Minister of State, Deputy Mary White, examines the issue of separated migrant children who have disappeared from State care. I raised this issue last June and pointed out that the scandal of those children disappearing from State care is the child abuse scandal of tomorrow.
Deputy Denis Naughten: Since 2000, at least 508 migrant children placed in HSE accommodation have disappeared after being placed in care by the Department of Justice and Law Reform. Of even greater concern is that only 67, or one in seven, of these vulnerable children have ever been traced. It is clear some of these young children are being coerced or enticed from State care into lives of depravity and prostitution. There is strong evidence that HSE hostels are little more than grooming grounds for those seeking to prey on vulnerable children. This is the child abuse scandal of tomorrow and clearly shows that nothing has been learned form the scandals of the past or from the litany of abuse outlined in the Ryan report.
Moreover, the cover-up continues. Because of the so-called industrial action by staff, the HSE is denying this House data regarding the number of separated children placed in care this year and the number who have vanished. The figures I have been able to obtain indicate that one in five children in care has disappeared this year. The Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, indicated last year that it is the State’s objective to treat all unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the same way as Irish children in State care are treated. He is to be commended on that objective.
However, in February this year we had the first public acknowledgment by the HSE that its standard of care for migrant children placed under its responsibility by the Garda was substandard when compared with that provided to Irish children. The Irish Times published comments by a senior director in the HSE, Mr. Philip Garland, who accepted that the organisation has failed migrant children and that they are being treated differently from Irish children. The HSE was aware right through the boom years that children disappearing from their hostels were being exploited. In some cases they had been previously taken out of dire situations, such as brothels. At the beginning of this year there were reports of two children found in brothels in the State, one of whom was just 15 years old. There is no doubt that the HSE’s failure to act has facilitated the labour and sexual exploitation of vulnerable children.
The reason for the double standard of care is the lack of a voice to speak up for these children. They have no parents or relatives to ask the hard questions. Will the Minister of State elaborate on the 167 children who died subsequent to disappearing from HSE accommodation, according to the figures released by the HSE last week? How many of those were unaccompanied minors? I put this question to the HSE yesterday but, as I am not a journalist, I do not expect a response for months. It is totally unacceptable that the media can access information far quicker than can Members of this House, which is the democratic parliamentary institution of the State. We are told the system is changing, that we will have answers and that there will be transparency. What is happening at the moment, however, is appalling.
It is vital that these children have an independent advocate with the sole purpose of ensuring their best interests are protected. Not only is there no such advocate but many of these children do not even make it on to the missing children’s website. Last year the Ombudsman for Children pointed out that one of the separated children with whom she was dealing disappeared during study leave and was not highlighted on the missing children’s website. In the case of at least one in six children who disappear, there is no indication of that disappearance on the website.
The Ryan report frightens us to the core and we must ensure such abuse never recurs. What is needed now is not words but action. The Government must immediately end the practice of placing separated children in hostels without proper care, supervision or standards. The dereliction of care on behalf of the State has allowed those who exploited and abused children in the past to go undetected. We cannot and must not let that continue, simply on the basis of the colour of the child’s skin.
Deputy Olwyn Enright: It is important that we have the opportunity to discuss the implementation of the Ryan report in this House, although we seem frequently to end up discussing the issue of child protection via statements and on days when Dáil business is not operating normally. It is ironic that we are discussing the implementation of a report into the abuse and neglect of children on a day when we have heard horror stories, albeit stories with happy endings, about the negligence of the Health Service Executive towards unborn children and their mothers. It is unbelievable that the House does not have the opportunity to discuss this matter today. It is even worse that the Minister for Health and Children has not made any statement, nor tried to ease the concerns of countless women, and their partners, who have suffered the tragedy of miscarriage and are wondering whether they should have sought a second opinion, been more forceful or asked more questions. We can only hope the cases we heard about today are isolated instances. The silence of those with political and professional responsibility for the health service is deafening. How many more question marks must emerge over the HSE before we finally have an effective and safe health service? How many more crises will come to light? At the very least, the Minister should make time today to give a statement to the House and to the public on this matter.
We have discussed the past so often, particularly in terms of child protection, that I sometimes wonder whether we have learned anything at all. However, we have an opportunity now to debate what will change and when we will see that change. At least there is finally a plan, although I share my colleagues’ concerns about the HSE’s ability to implement it. The Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, claims the system is not broken beyond repair. However, we are a long way from being the envy of every country in the world, as the Minister of State adverted to in his statement.
Like many others, I have seen at first hand the hard work done by individual social workers, public health nurses and others involved in the care of young people. Yet despite the enormous and under-estimated pressures that social workers are under, the Government has filled only 25 of the 270 places promised this year. Why not front-load all 270 places, especially given that there are more than 400 applicants? When does the Government intend to put in place a 24-hour social work service? Many families feel isolated and alone on Friday evenings, facing into the weekend knowing there is little or no help available to them if there is a difficulty. Now is the time, before the 270 vacancies are filled, to implement the changes that will ensure we have a service that is genuinely available around the clock.
Social workers need far more support from senior management in the HSE and from other State agencies. I am repeatedly made aware of the lack of cohesion among the various Departments with responsibility for children. The Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, has a responsibility to ensure those Departments engage with each other. During the last debate on this issue I gave the example of a child who was forced out of foster care because of the lack of support from a particular school and from the National Educational Psychological Service. Such issues will not be addressed effectively while that lack of cohesion persists.
The comments by Fr. Peter McVerry at the funeral yesterday of Daniel McAnaspie should not be ignored. Fr. McVerry is at the coalface in these matters, dealing every day with the realities of life for these children. He sees how chaotic the system is, and it is vital that we take his views on board. The Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, has a huge challenge ahead of him. I wish him well in what is one of the most important jobs in Government. While it is a political challenge for him and for the Government, it is a life and death challenge for the thousands of children in care. That is the responsibility that rests upon him. He needs the support of legislative change to ensure he can do his job properly. That is why it is so important that what has been recommended in this plan is implemented without delay. We must hold a referendum and expedite the legislation implementing the Children First guidelines and broaden its remit, as recommended. We must also progress the Bill on Garda vetting which has gone up and down the legislative programme but has not yet seen the light of day.
The will is there among the public to implement change. What is needed now is action. Otherwise, we will be back here in the future to discuss another tragedy and to lament the failure to implement the necessary changes. The guidelines and the framework are in place; the question is whether there is the political will to implement them. The toing and froing on the decision to hold a referendum has not helped to convince the public that the Government is serious about acting. I ask the Government to commit to holding the referendum so that progress can be made and so we can be confident that it recognises the problems that exist and is willing to tackle them.
Deputy Finian McGrath: I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Ryan report and on the urgent need to support abused children and children at risk generally. Before going into the details of the report, it is important to focus on our overall objective, namely, the protection of children. They are the priority. We have heard much talk and waffle in recent days on this issues, but what is needed is action. We need people within the system who genuinely care and who will deliver on their civic duties. The blame game might look and sound good on television and radio, but what is needed is people who will deliver supports and services to survivors of child abuse. If everybody did his or her job professionally with a caring attitude, many of these problems would not have arisen in the first place. That is the reality on the ground for these children.
Early intervention is crucial for protecting children at risk. I know from first-hand experience as my parents were foster parents and made a positive and successful intervention to save and assist children. Let me commend and thank the foster parents of the 5,130 children who are accommodated in a family setting. They are providing a great service to the State and to the children of the State. I also commend and thank the teachers, the home-school liaison officers, the SNAs and child care workers who go considerably beyond the call of duty in assisting children at risk. That is what I call patriotism of the highest order.
The Minister of State referred to key phrases like Children First, standards and future management of the child protection services. I fully support that position and I urge all Members of the House not to play politics and support the implementation of these recommendations. After all, this debate needs to be about action plans and delivering services to children on the ground — they are the focus.
Another important point not covered so far in this debate is the consequence of doing nothing or failing children. If we do not intervene early, we have damaged and hurt children on their way to Mountjoy in the future. Let us not expect the child to be normal if he or she is in an abusive family or care situation where violence, abuse and drugs are the norm. Troubled children become troubled teenagers and later adults on the way to prison or early death. That is all part of the reality in today’s debate.
Early intervention is the way forward and for the economists it saves money in the future, in the educational services, health services and prisons. At this point I pay tribute to the great John Lonergan, the now retired governor of Mountjoy Prison, for his efforts over the years trying to save people and create a caring environment — against public opinion many a time. I well remember one of his talks to me and a group of teachers in disadvantaged schools. He inspired us to work hard and care for our pupils so that they would not end up in Mountjoy Prison. That is the kind of inspired leadership we need as part of today’s debate. The Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, should listen to such people, the people on the ground and the common sense foster parents so that we can have a quality caring service for all children at risk in this society.
Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan: Last June, when I had the opportunity to speak on the occasion of the publication of the Ryan report on child abuse, I referred to the failure of the many institutions to care for our young people. I also referred to the child abuse in this country as one of the darkest moments in our history. It was our reign of terror, our holocaust, our killing fields. Abuse is a term that should never be associated with childhood nor should terms such as suicide, drug addiction or unlawful killings. Childhood is about fun and laughter, and growing, learning and developing. It is a time when the adults in a child’s life are there to protect and support, and not to degrade, humiliate or ignore.
It is ironic that we discuss the implementation of the Ryan report on a day when thousands of young people are beginning their junior and leaving certificate examinations. They are looking forward to their summer holidays and college or careers as the case may be. I am very conscious of those young people, such as the late Daniel McAnaspie, who did not and now will never get that chance. I am conscious of many young people who at this moment are living in appalling living conditions and are deprived of their rights. I also refer to those foreign national young people who have disappeared from our system and the trafficking of those people also. We have a system of moving foreign national young people at the age 18 from their current address and from their current state of education.
Another irony is that in a time of plenty, our so-called Celtic tiger, so much could have gone into services for vulnerable young people, but it was obviously not a priority at that stage. Accountability is the in word at this stage and I welcome it. It is right that all institutions be accountable. Children in care has become a paradox, a contradiction in terms because so many people who ended up in the care system were not being cared for. However, I acknowledge the work of social workers, youth leaders and teachers who went the extra mile in looking after vulnerable children. I believe the Minister of State is committed to the care of children and I urge him to do what is best for those vulnerable and marginalised young people. We have had enough reports and implementation is now paramount. Actions speak louder than words.
Deputy Joe Behan: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I reiterate my support for and solidarity with the victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse catalogued in the Ryan report. I believe the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, is sincerely committed and deeply conscious of his duty to ensure that the Ryan report recommendations are enacted comprehensively and speedily. I am sure we all wish him every success in this extremely important work.
It might be tempting to believe the Ryan report refers exclusively to the past, which would be a fatal mistake. The catalogue of children’s broken lives contained in the report should serve as a stark reminder that unless we are vigilant now in 2010 to the dangers children face today, the same mistakes will again be made by those of us who have the responsibility to ensure the safety of the nation’s children. That is why we must as a matter of urgency debate in the most detailed and comprehensive way the question of whether the Health Service Executive is a fit body to oversee our child protection and welfare system. I note the Minister of State stated that he remains convinced it is and I call on him and the Government to think again on this matter. Many respected people involved in child welfare would appear at a minimum to have serious doubts about the ability of the HSE as an organisation to ensure the safety and welfare of children and young people in the State. It is time we discussed the matter in the House. We should have an honest, open and constructive debate about possible alternative ways to deliver on our responsibilities to the children and young people of the nation.
I fully appreciate and acknowledge the commitment, dedication and professionalism of the thousands of individual HSE staff members who day after day work tirelessly to ensure the safety and welfare of the children and young people in their care. We should obviously hear their views also. It is time to reassess the capacity of the Health Service Executive to fulfil the task it has been given by the people.
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy Barry Andrews): I thank all the Deputies for their contributions and I will reply to the best extent I can to them.  Naturally, as there was some repetition, if I miss out on anybody, I might have dealt with it in a previous context.
Deputy Shatter was highly political in his contribution, not untypically, in claiming that nothing had changed over the course of the past 13 years. He tried to attribute that exclusively to the Government. Of course so much has changed. It has almost entirely changed and is unrecognisable from 13 years ago, but there remain core difficulties that continue to need to be addressed. What has changed is remarkable. We could take the issue of institutional abuse and the manner in which redress and the commission of inquiry has managed to tackle that, the manner in which the Murphy commission has tackled diocesan abuse and other issues that are ongoing. For example, the Deputy insinuates himself into initiating the inquiries into child deaths. If he reads the implementation plan — I suspect he probably did not do so before this debate — he will see that I recommended that HIQA set up the guidance that now underpins all future inquiries into child deaths and provide us with a national standard and a systematic way of inquiring into child deaths and reporting on them. I asked HIQA to do that and it has done so. That is completed and is one of the important things we do. The only occasion when members of the public get to look at these kinds of issues is in the context of a crisis.
In fairness, I believe Deputy Finian McGrath really hit the nail on the head. He was the only Deputy to speak about early intervention. We can talk all we like about the deaths, the high-level issues and the stuff in the newspapers, but one will never get widespread front-page headline news about the success of early intervention. He spoke about foster parents who are intervening. They are described by Geoffrey Shannon as “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”
We should start thinking and applying the mind of the Oireachtas to how we are to support early intervention. We should have the Whips calling for debates about how this will work and how all those in the education sector, whether the National Education Welfare Board, the National Educational Psychological Service, youth justice, all those working in youth diversion programmes and in youth work, can direct themselves at working on early intervention so that we do not have these problems. We should ensure that people like Daniel McAnaspie can be identified at a much earlier stage and be tackled earnestly by people who have the professional expertise, the will and the desire to make a change in these lives. We never have that debate in the Oireachtas and it is unfortunate we do not turn our minds to those things because when the Oireachtas turns its mind to something, it can effect change.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan had specific queries about money and whether the analogy with Professor Keane was worth making. Professor Keane was allocated new money for cancer care, not the existing budget, and the same is envisaged in this case, although I will need to develop this in more detail. The €15 million in the December 2010 budget is the kind of money. The new person will provide leadership at national director level to put through the various road maps that have been designed for business process, knowledge management strategy and with regard to the PA Consulting report on management. Any new money in that regard will be assigned to this person.
The Deputy is correct in saying that child protection is more complicated. Perhaps because it is more nuanced, it requires human interaction and judgments that are extremely difficult. Unlike surgery, one is trying to make a decision as to whether a child should be taken into care on a Friday evening. The social worker has to balance the risk of leaving the child with the family or take him or her into care. This is a very difficult choice and our social workers do this on a daily basis. They need to know that if they take the risk of leaving a child with a slightly dysfunctional family, that there will not be a strident and shrill media reaction that will condemn social workers for making decisions that are very difficult in difficult circumstances. However, the Oireachtas does not have that discussion either, about how society shares the risk and empowers social workers to make these tough decisions and to try to put the resources into these families, by early intervention, by providing supports in the community to families who are struggling.
With regard to Deputy O’Sullivan’s points about the Saving Childhood Ryan campaign, we are on target to achieve almost everything she read out. The one area where I concede we have not made sufficient progress is with regard to the review of section 5 of the Child Care Act 1991 dealing with homeless children. I acknowledge that, but on every other count, we are making progress on those issues. In answer to her question as to whether the figures are commensurate with other countries, I am unable to conclude whether that is true. The independent review group, whose members are Geoffrey Shannon and Norah Gibbons, will turn its mind to whether we are in unusual territory in this area. We cannot come to any conclusions on this point and this will be part of the report to be furnished and laid before this House before the end of the year.
The Deputy also said there should be a full Cabinet Minister responsible for this area. I will address this issue once and for all by saying that I am at Cabinet. I do not have a vote but there has never been a vote so I do not see what other steps can be taken in that regard. I have sufficient position to ensure that the priority afforded to this area is acted upon.
Deputy Ó Caoláin raised a number of issues. He and other speakers referred to a figure of 1,200 social workers. I do not believe this will solve our problems. I have academic papers which suggest it can cause problems. I can share this paper with Deputy Ó Caoláin. It relates to another jurisdiction where the number of social workers was doubled but this simply doubled the number of suspected cases, none of them substantiated to a greater extent than had been the case previously. The system is simply flooded with reporting. For example, there are failures in Dublin north-central and in Dublin north-west but there are no failures in Dublin north which has neither extra social workers nor extra resources. It is probably a case of better management there. This is the question we have to ask. We should forget about 1,200 social workers because it will not happen. The 200 social workers recruited this year and a further 70 next year will allow us to achieve the basic targets we need to ensure we have allocated social workers. We have care plans that are regularly reviewed and assessments of foster carers.
The Child Care (Amendment) Act 2007, allowed that the in camera rule would be relaxed. Any barrister, solicitor or a person appointed by me, can do a Carol Coulter-style inquiry into District Court judgments and decisions in the area of child care to provide us with a better assessment. I am giving active consideration to this provision. This was also a recommendation of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, which reported last February, that a proper study should be undertaken of the type of information coming from the District Court in order to inform public policy.
The Government established HIQA and empowered it to collect files and this is what is happening for the first time. This is a substantial change and now we know where the failures are. HIQA is investigating the files and finding the deficits. I do not wish to make a political point but this Government empowered HIQA. If the Government is to have to take a pasting on some other issues, at least we can take credit for the fact that we put the organisation in the position that it could lift the rug and find out what was going on. I acknowledge there have been failures in record-keeping and this is not acceptable but we did not know this before. Mr. Justice Ryan brought it to our attention with regard to institutions and it is very regrettable that it continues to be the case.
I am unable to go into detail on all the other issues raised. Deputy Naughten has raised the question of separated children seeking asylum. As he will know from the implementation plan, our core target is to close the remaining hostels towards the end of December this year. Three hostels have already been closed and the others are being inspected.
The Government is doing its best on the implementation plan which contains an extremely ambitious set of targets. Together with reforms in the HSE to which I referred in my opening comments, they provide hope. The Oireachtas needs to turn its attention to how there can be intervention at an earlier level in people’s lives, whether through justice, through the health area, through speech and language therapy. Studies of the lives of those involved in the criminal justice system have shown evidence of speech and language delay. This causes such people to disassociate from schooling and there is a compounding effect throughout their lives. More work and discussion about this area will mean better outcomes for our children.
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