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Reappointment of the Ombudsman for Children: Motion (Continued)

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1003 No. 7

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Roderic O'Gorman: Information on Roderic O'Gorman Zoom on Roderic O'Gorman] The reappointment is proposed in accordance with section 4 of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002. The legislation provides that the reappointment shall be made by the President upon resolutions passed by Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann.

The Ombudsman for Children may be reappointed only once. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children was established to promote and safeguard the rights and welfare of children. The ombudsman is independent of Government and is accountable to the Oireachtas. My Department has general governance oversight responsibilities in respect of the office, primarily with regard to financial, staffing and other matters. The office will receive Exchequer funding of €2.955 million in 2021. The key functions of the office include promoting and safeguarding the rights and welfare of children, examining and investigating complaints about services provided to children, providing advice regarding children's rights and conducting research on relevant issues.

I acknowledge and record my appreciation for the work that Dr. Muldoon has done over the past six years. He has worked effectively to ensure that children within the direct provision system could access the services of his office following 17 years during which this was not the case. He was also a key protagonist in the development and setting up of the Barnahus Onehouse Galway pilot which offers a one-stop shop for children affected by sexual abuse. He has shown a dedication to raising the voices of seldom heard children in Ireland and bringing their issues to the Oireachtas through reports such as, Take My Hand, which focuses on children's inpatient adolescent psychiatric units, No Place Like Home, which focuses on homeless children living in family hubs, and Direct Division, which focuses on children in the direct provision system.

Investigations by the office, such as Molly's case and Jack's case, both of which focused on care for disabled children, have brought about important systemic change in areas such as health, education and child welfare. Over the period of the Covid crisis, Dr. Muldoon has kept a vigilant watch on the work of the Government to ensure that the rights of children are upheld when important decisions are being made, whether that relates to schools, examinations, child welfare or disadvantaged groups.

I recommend the adoption of this resolution by the House in support of Dr. Muldoon's reappointment as Ombudsman for Children by the President. I hope Members will agree that Dr. Muldoon has very capably performed these functions during his first term of office.

Deputy Sean Sherlock: Information on Sean Sherlock Zoom on Sean Sherlock I too welcome the reappointment of Dr. Niall Muldoon. He has done a stellar job on behalf of children throughout the State and I am glad he is being reappointed. I acknowledge Dr. Muldoon's report in respect of unmet needs in the assessment of needs for children. We note that the figures have not improved significantly since the issuance of that report. I further acknowledge that Ministers are doing their best to create the right environment for assessment of needs to be conducted in a timely fashion, but they will be conscious that there has been much commentary about the number of children who still require an assessment of needs and that the desktop exercises, or 90-minute assessments, are open to legitimate critique. Dr. Niall Muldoon has stated that there needs to be a dramatic increase in resources such that proper assessments can be carried out and the requisite services would follow every child.

We welcome the reappointment of the Ombudsman for Children. We believe that he has been a stout advocate on behalf of children and calm in his delivery of key messages. It is a source of great comfort to parents and families that there is in this office somebody like Dr. Niall Muldoon who speaks truth to power. He has called out the fact that the statutory timeframe for completion of assessment of needs is not being met. I am aware that this a matter the Government is seeking to address. If we are to have ombudspersons in this State, it is only fair that when they issue reports, we respond in a timely fashion to what they are saying in their reports.

Dr. Muldoon has said that there is need for a tenfold increase in resources. We are not seeing any evidence of that yet. Notwithstanding that additional moneys were made available by the former Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, in respect of assessment of needs, there is still a job of work to be done within individual HSE community healthcare organisation, CHO, areas, where there are still massive variations in terms of meeting the needs of children. Ultimately, this is about children. We cannot skimp when it comes to children.

We all welcome the reappointment of Dr. Muldoon. All of us throughout the political system have great faith in him. I join in wishing him well in the next part of his tenure and I look forward to him working with the Houses of the Oireachtas and, in particular, the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration, in respect of his ongoing work and advocacy on behalf of the children of this State.

Deputy Jennifer Whitmore: Information on Jennifer  Whitmore Zoom on Jennifer  Whitmore I commend Dr. Niall Muldoon on the work he has carried out in his capacity as Ombudsman for Children and in advocating for the rights of the child in this country, particularly those who are the most vulnerable in our society whose voice remains largely silent. I am delighted to note he will continue in his role and I look forward to seeing the work that he and his team will focus on for the next few years.

As the Social Democrats spokesperson for children, I congratulate him on speaking out for all the children facing inequality at the hands of our State institutions, including the 6,000 children currently waiting for an assessment of their needs, the 20,000 with special needs currently without schooling during Covid, and the 365 children with disabilities in hospital because they cannot get the appropriate supports to go home safely. I also congratulate him on representing children living in direct provision, those in receipt of State services under Tusla, and those from minority backgrounds, including the Traveller and Roma communities.

Dr. Muldoon has continually highlighted deficiencies in Ireland's legal framework concerning children, including in key areas such as housing, mental health and disability. In all of the work he has carried out he has ensured that children have been consulted and asked for the views. This is incredibly important because often we forget to talk to children about what they want to see happen. Ombudsman reports have often directly quoted from children so that we can hear directly from them about how they feel ashamed, embarrassed and humiliated by the inequalities they have faced. There has been no sugar-coating it. The Ombudsman for Children gives power to children's words so that we, as policymakers, can no longer ignore them. It is apt that Dr. Muldoon quotes Brian Friel, "words are the weapons of the dispossessed". This is exactly what Dr. Muldoon has been able to do in his work to date.

One aspect that stands out from the ombudsman's work is that education continues to be the most complained about issue for children. According to the 2019 annual report, his office received 1,503 complaints, 49% of which related to education, which was an increase on the 42% in respect of 2018. Of the 49%, 75% related to schools, 17% to the Department of Education and 4% were associated with other educational agencies such as the National Council for Special Education and the State Examinations Commission.

Now that we are in a global pandemic, education has again reared its head as one of the most contentious issues facing children during Covid-19. Last March, when schools were facing lockdown, many children's rights activists called for contingency measures to be put in place to avoid the disproportionately negative impact school closures would have on children, especially those with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Ombudsman was part of that call. Dr. Muldoon repeatedly called out concerns about children with additional needs regressing when schools were closed and the impact that closure would have for those children living in poverty or at a socioeconomic disadvantage such as Traveller and Roma children, those living in direct provision or those who are homeless.

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