Wednesday 19 September 2012
This is an historic day in our Republic. For the first time, a Government has published a Bill to go before the people in a referendum on enshrining in the Constitution the protection and rights of children. Of equal importance, it will support families and treat all children equally. I commend the Government, particularly the Ministers, Deputies Shatter and Fitzgerald, on taking such a referendum to the people, who will be asked to vote in the interests of families and children. I hope the people will engage.
I agree with Deputy O’Donovan regarding the way in which we engage in referendums. It seems that there is a disproportionality in media coverage. The McKenna judgment requires a ratio of 50:50 irrespective of the quantum of pro versus anti. That was Deputy O’Donovan’s point. I agree with Deputy Colreavy that we can never silence people, but we need a balanced approach in the coverage of a proposition.
This Bill is one of a suite of legislative proposals from the Government that have at their core an increase in the protection afforded to children and vulnerable adults. It has been 20 years since Mrs. Justice McGuinness called for such a referendum and we have had 17 reports since the Kilkenny case. The impact on children caused by inaction and an abdication of responsibility has been evident.
I welcome the cross-party and Independent support. We need a robust system of protection. The Government has put one in place through the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012, the heads of the Children First Bill, this Bill and the children’s rights referendum.
It is important that we consider the social purpose of vetting and the consequences of the system. The paramount purpose of vetting is to protect the most vulnerable in society. This concern is at the heart of the Bill, just as it has been at the core of the Government’s work in the past 18 months via the Minister for Justice and Equality as well as the first-time establishment of a Department with responsibility for children and youth affairs and a Minister with full Cabinet voting rights.
In 20 years our view of children has changed significantly. We recognise the fact that there must be joined-up thinking, an interagency approach, discussions, collaboration and a sharing of resources in the best interests of children and the most vulnerable.
The impact of past failures on society, families and children have been considerable. These failures have been on the part of all of society’s strata, including the State and the church. No one can abdicate responsibility. As a legislative assembly and a nation, we must restore confidence in child protection services. I pay tribute to the many excellent people working in those services. This legislation must work with them hand-in-hand. The proposed legislative framework will ensure that the duties and responsibilities of those working with children and vulnerable adults are clear. There can be no more grey areas. The framework requires a collective responsibility to ensure that the highest standards are achieved and maintained. This and other Bills being introduced by the Minister for Justice and Equality are significant steps in achieving those goals.
I welcome the fact that this Bill will place the national vetting bureau on a statutory footing and place clear and cogent demands. It will remove ambiguities in terms of duties and responsibilities. I also welcome the fact that it will achieve a balance between the need for disclosure, the public interest and protecting the interests of children and vulnerable adults. Deputy Colreavy referred to the sharing of soft information. It is important that it be disclosed, given the fact that it is not only a criminal conviction that can indicate a risk of harm. A pattern of behaviour can indicate a risk of harm. When we discuss the protection of the most vulnerable members of society, we must remember that we are referring to children and vulnerable adults. We should not rely on the same standards as obtain in criminal trials. We should not require that something be proven beyond reasonable doubt. Those who are at risk deserve the greatest protection possible from the State. This will be ensured by the disclosure of soft information.
Let us consider the current vetting system. We know why it is necessary but is it prompt? In some cases, people experience delays in obtaining reports from the Garda.
I welcome that in the first three months of this year, the average length of waiting time has been reduced to two weeks from 12 weeks in 2010. I commend those responsible for this achievement, particularly the Minister and those working in the national vetting offices. It is important to ensure we have sufficient resources, and in a time of budgetary regression, we must allocate resources properly. If we expect a service and continuing care, those resources must be put in place.
Although we may not be overly concerned about the average waiting time, the longest waiting time is of concern. Delays have a consequence on people and organisations when it comes to earning a living or allowing an organisation gain a volunteer or be provided with a valuable service. Delays can prevent delivery of an essential service to those people most at risk. It is important that the resources of the vetting bureau are adequate and give a proper, deliverable turnaround time that his achievable and practical.
Deputies Colreavy and Healy know that in the committee dealing with health and children matters, we have examined the heads of the Children First Bill, and we have listened to a significant body of people who work with children. The State has a duty of care and it is important for us to put our house in order with regard to relevant legislation. We are doing so and the Government has come to the fore in creating an awareness of child abuse, facilitating recognition and reporting of it and managing child safety, which is very important. This is about creating a joined-up approach involving different agencies and Departments and meeting responsibilities. I commend the Bill to the House.