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Children First Bill 2014: Report and Final Stages (Continued)

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 887 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Robert Troy: Information on Robert Troy Zoom on Robert Troy] This provision should apply to everybody, whether he or she is in a position of authority or an ordinary citizen on the street. Knowing what we now know about what happened in the Church, swimming clubs, schools, youth clubs and various organisations across the State, we have a responsibility to those who have been abused to ensure we will take all necessary precautions in order that no minor will have to suffer at the hands of an evil predator or suffer neglect or abuse. Someone should never be able to say he or she had concerns, but that Paddy or Johnny was an upstanding member of the community and that that alleviated him or her of responsibility. There must be a requirement that if someone has concerns, they be reported to the appropriate authorities to ensure they will be checked to see whether they are justified. Learning from past experience and past mistakes, it is not something that should or can be left to chance. There should be tough sanctions and consequences for those who knowingly and willfully flaunt regulations and ignore their moral duty to ensure a child is protected. Anyone who knowingly and willfully ignores the welfare and protection of a child is just as bad as the person who abuses or neglects a child. Such a person should also face consequences and sanctions.

I genuinely appeal to the Minister to reconsider accepting the amendment because it is in the best interests of all children that it be accepted. It would improve the Bill which I acknowledge is good, but there are small areas where we can improve it. We are working together on a cross-party basis in the interests of promoting child welfare and protection and this is an area in which improvements could be made to the Bill. I, therefore, ask the Minister to accept the amendment.

Deputy James Reilly: Information on Dr. James Reilly Zoom on Dr. James Reilly Section 14 provides that certain professionals and other persons in specified occupations, as listed in Schedule 2, are mandated persons for the purposes of the Bill. The section sets out the circumstances where a mandated person is required to make a report to the Child and Family Agency.

Amendment No. 2 proposes to impose a criminal sanction on a mandated person who fails to report concerns or allegations of abuse to the Child and Family Agency. Taking legal advice into account and the need for a reasonable and proportionate approach, it was decided that it was unnecessary to impose a criminal sanction on a mandated person in the overall context of meeting the policy objectives of the proposed legislation. There were very serious concerns that unfounded and misplaced fears of attracting a criminal sanction would result in over-reporting and thereby place the child welfare and protection system under even more pressure. Some low level or inappropriate reporting could have the unintended consequence of delaying the prioritisation of higher risk reports if the ability to process reports was compromised. International comparisons indicate that this, in fact, has been the case in other jurisdictions. For example, in New South Wales the introduction of mandatory reporting precipitated a large increase in reporting rates but with little or no improvement in child protection overall.

There are a number of administrative sanctions or consequences available if it transpires that a mandated person has failed to comply with his or her statutory obligations. The option to report a mandated person to his or her employer or the fitness to practise committee of his or her professional regulatory body remains open to the Child and Family Agency in a case where it transpires that a mandated person has failed to make a report. The Bill includes a link to the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012. The Child and Family Agency will be a scheduled organisation under that Act and in cases where a mandated person has failed to make a report, the agency, following an inquiry, will pass this information to the National Vetting Bureau.

The Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 makes provision for the reporting of relevant information to the Garda. This legislation will operate in tandem with this Bill, when enacted. A person who fails to report to the Garda under the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 could be subject to criminal sanction. I envisage opportunities for administrative arrangements to support the implementation of the legislative requirements; for example, mandated reporting should be incorporated into codes of conduct and contracts of employment for relevant persons. As things stands, many providers of children's services consider a failure to report to be a disciplinary matter.

For these reasons, I am not accepting amendment No. 2. However, as stated previously, I will be keeping the operation of the Act under review and if it transpires that mandated persons are failing to comply with their legal obligations to report, I will be prepared to revisit the issue.

Deputy Robert Troy: Information on Robert Troy Zoom on Robert Troy I am disappointed with the Minister's reply. I thought he would accept the amendment in the spirit in which it was submitted, that is, to improve the Bill. He talks about the members of many professions being subject to disciplinary action, but that is not something one can say for definite with authority across all professions. He also talks about the withholding of information, but he will be aware that that legislaton only deals with very serious criminal offences. He talks about the National Vetting Bureau. Despite the fact that that legislation was enacted over 18 months ago, it has yet to be commenced. Therefore, I am not confident that these two pieces of legislation will deal with all of the issues with which we want to deal.

The amendment seeks to ensure that in all matters to do with child welfare and protection, if there is serious concern that a child is being abused or neglected, a person would make the necessary report to the Child and Family Agency. Perhaps it might place additional requirements on the services of the Child and Family Agency, but I would much rather see additional requirements being placed on the agency than a scenario, as happened in counties Laois and Offaly, where files would be left to one side. In that instance reports were made but not acted on for a number of years. That is why the Minister had to provide additional support from outside the area. When it comes to child welfare and protection, we cannot be complacent. We must bring forward extremely robust legislation. It was the Minister's Department which proposed to bring forward these sanctions in 2012. I am only following through on what it wished to do three years ago.

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