First of all I would like to welcome the Minister to the House to discuss this Bill. As the Minister has outlined, this Bill will put elements of the Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children (2011) on a statutory footing. This report, published in 2011 under then-Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald, underscores this Government’s commitment to the rights of children.
As Minister Fitzgerald originally said in the report – “no childhood should be shattered by abuse. No young life should be lived in the shadow of fear. While it is not possible to prevent all violence, nor possible to guarantee that no child will ever be harmed by neglect or aggression or exploitation or predation, it is our duty to do everything in our power as a Government and as a society to prevent such harm. This begins by ensuring that children are safe and protected in all aspects of their lives – where they live, learn, pray and play”. I wholeheartedly endorse this, and I believe that this Bill provides a statutory footing which is both necessary and overdue.
This introduction of the legislation is in line with a key Programme for Government commitment. As Minister Fitzgerald mentioned at the time, The document, Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children and the accompanying Child Protection and Welfare Practice Handbook set out clearly how child protection must be placed at the core of any organisation working with children. The documents detail what is to be done to protect children, how it is to be done and who are the key people in each organisation to do it.
The Bill contains four key components – namely, the facilitating of reports of child protection concerns by mandated persons to Child and Family Agency, a requirement on mandated persons to assist the Agency, on request, in relation to children who have been the subject of reports to the Agency under the Bill, requirements on organisations to produce a Child Safeguarding Statement and finally, placing the Children First Interdepartmental Implementation Group on a statutory footing.
On the first point, that of mandated reporting and mandated assisting, certain persons, who are mandated persons under the Bill, will be required under the legislation to report child welfare and protection concerns over a specified threshold to the Child and Family Agency. Mandated persons will also be required to report to the Agency any disclosures of harm made to the mandated person by a child. Mandated reporters will also be required to assist Agency, on request, in relation to children who have been the subject of reports to the Agency under the Bill. The list of mandated persons is set out in Schedule 2 of the Bill.
The second element, the requirements on organisations, provides that organisations providing services to children will have to consider the potential for risk to children availing of their services and prepare and publish a Child Safeguarding Statement which addresses that risk. I think this audit, so to speak, is certainly something that should’ve been done as a matter of course up until now, and formalising and standardising this can only be a good thing.
Similarly, the Statement must be made available to staff, and is available on request to parents, the Agency and the public generally. This level of transparency and accountability, similar, can only be a good thing, and the list of relevant service providers is set out in Schedule 1 of the Bill.
As we know, Committee Stage amendments in the Dail made provision for a register of non-compliance, to be administered by the Child and Family Agency. Service providers who fail, following a number of steps, to provide to the Agency a copy of their Child Safeguarding Statement, will be named on a register of non-compliance.
Again, I think this is a useful component in ensuring full accountability and transparency – and I don’t think there is anything wrong with publishing a register of non-compliance. Parents should have the right to know.
In addition to that, a Children First Implementation Inter-Departmental Group, chaired by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, is currently in place, involving all of the key Government Departments together with the Child and Family Agency, the HSE and An Garda Síochána.
The Children First Bill 2014 includes a provision to place this Group on a statutory basis, and to expand its membership to include all Government Departments. The purpose of the Group is to promote the importance of Children First compliance across Government and to ensure that a consistent approach is adopted.
From here, Departments will then be obliged to produce a Children First sectoral implementation plan, to address compliance with the legislation and with the Children First guidance within their own Department. Again, I believe this is a worthwhile step and it is important to ensure our Departments are held to account in this respect.
The Bill will operate side-by-side with the Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children which will continue as the basis for all citizens to report concerns. It is intended that the Guidance will be revised and updated to take account of new legislative obligations so as to provide in one place a comprehensive reference resource for individuals and organisations. This will provide clarity and ensure consistency between the proposed legislation and the existing non-statutory obligations which will continue to operate administratively for all sectors of society.
All told, this Bill will enact legislation so that all people who are working with children will have a statutory duty to comply with the Children First: National Guidance. This is a significant step to enshrine the rights of protection of children and is the fulfilment of a promise within the Programme for Government. At all times, this Government has worked to ensure and protect the right of children, and this has been exemplified by both the Children’s Referendum in 2012, and now this Bill, which I commend to the House.