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Opening Statement of Ms. Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children

16th February 2012

Introduction
I would like to thank the Joint Committee for the invitation to attend before it today. I take this opportunity to wish all members of the joint committee and Chairman, Deputy Jerry Buttimer well in their work.

I had the opportunity on 6th July last year to set out in detail for the Committee the role and function of my Department and the vision for Ireland’s children which we are working towards.  The debate which followed was very helpful and the constructive engagement which we had that day contributed to shaping the agenda for the new Department over our first six month’s operation.  I look forward to the benefit of similar engagement today.  I would like to thank the members of this Committee for their ongoing contribution to the discussion of children’s issues, both in this Committee and on the floor of the upper and lower houses.

Today’s meeting provides me with an opportunity to update the Committee on work completed since last July and to set out some key priorities for the coming year.  I am aware that we will have a separate meeting on the 2012 Estimates in the Spring, together with discussion and input from the Committee in relation to the formulation of expenditure plans for next year.

Achievements during 2012
The Department has a complex mandate, comprised of a number of separate but interrelated strands:

The objective of improving outcomes for children and young people is of very wide significance since more than one-third of Ireland’s population is less than 26 years of age.  I have sought to make concrete progress towards the achievement of this objective since coming into office through the successful implementation of a range of measures and initiatives including:

Establishment of Department - The Department of Children and Youth Affairs was formally established on 2nd June.  The successful and timely legal and organisational creation of a dedicated Department drawn from four existing Departments (Health, Education and Skills, Justice and Law Reform and Community, Equality Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs) was a significant achievement during 2011. The formation of the new Department has been undertaken in the most efficient way possible at a time of constrained staff and financial resources. All staff of the Department are now working from the Department’s offices at Mespil Road, Dublin.
Development of Strategy Statement - The new Department undertook a public consultation on the development of its first Strategy Statement.  The Strategy Statement has been developed in line with the Public Service Management Act, 1997. The Statement is currently being prepared for publication. 
Implementation of Revised Children First Guidance - The revised Children First Guidance was launched by me in July 2011. The Guidance deals with the recognition, reporting and management of child safety concerns.  The previous Guidance was in place over the last decade. The revised Guidance sets out specific protocols for HSE social workers, Gardaí and other front line staff in dealing with suspected abuse.  In particular the Guidance focuses on the impact of neglect, and the negative effect of domestic violence and addiction on children. The scope of Children First extends beyond the reporting of suspected abuse.  It emphasises the importance of multi-disciplinary, inter-agency working in the management of such concerns. Key to this is the sharing of information between agencies and disciplines in the best interests of children and the need for full co-operation to ensure better outcomes. The Guidance also emphasises society’s role in protecting children.  The HSE also published a supporting Child Welfare and Protection Practice Handbook for all its staff in order to support the drive for greater consistency and the application of Children First across the system.  My Department is chairing an Inter Departmental Group of key Government departments together with the HSE and the Gardai in order to ensure the consistent implementation of Children First in all sectors.  In addition, Government has approved the development of legislation to place the Children First Guidance on a statutory basis and drafting of the Heads of Bill and General Scheme for this purpose is underway. 


Response to Cloyne Report publication – the Department played a key role in responding on behalf of the Government to the Cloyne Report.  A successful outcome of my engagement and that of the HSE was the subsequent publication of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church audits.
Task Force on the Child and Family Support Agency - I established the Task Force on the Child and Family Support Agency in September 2011 in response to the Programme for Government commitment to “fundamentally reform the delivery of child protection services by removing child welfare and protection from the HSE and creating a dedicated Child Welfare and Protection Agency, reforming the model of service delivery and improving accountability to the Dáil”.  We are fortunate in having some of the foremost experts nationally in this area on the Task Force, which is chaired by Ms Maureen Lynott.  Child welfare and protection services are operating within the HSE during 2012 on a transitional basis pending the establishment of a dedicated, stand alone agency next year.  The Task Force will advise my Department in regard to the necessary transition programme to establish a Child and Family Support Agency, and will base its work on best practice in child welfare, family support and public administration; consistent with the Government’s public sector reform agenda.
Comprehensive Review of Expenditure - We do not have the resources to fund all the services we want to provide.  In this regard, in the context of the Comprehensive Review of Expenditure, my Department has carried out an in-depth analysis and assessment of all programmes of expenditure to identify priorities for scarce resources in the years ahead.  The enhanced priority and mandate for children’s services which underpinned the Government’s decision to establish a dedicated Department, has informed this process.  The Review has been used as an opportunity to critically examine and inform the Department’s new structures and priorities, based on streamlined and effective use of limited resources.  The challenge for all of those who work in the public service today or are funded from the public purse is to maximise policy outcomes and service delivery.  Under the Comprehensive Review of Expenditure savings of some €16.5 million were agreed by Government in relation to my Department.  I particularly welcome the fact that additional funding was provided in respect of a number of key priorities.   

Securing the Universal Pre School Year – a very significant achievement was maintaining the universal, free Pre-School Year in Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE).  The Programme for Government commits to maintaining the ECCE programme and indeed developing early childhood care and education as resources allow.  The universal nature of this programme is critical for childhood development and providing every child with early learning and preparation for school.  I am delighted to say that, in spite of the unprecedented challenges for the public finances, the programme has been maintained on a universal and free basis.  I believe this is an investment in our country’s future prosperity.  We will recover from our economic difficulties.  In time, too, the generation of children now benefiting from this programme will repay our investment by proving the long term value of investment in early education.  Demographic factors mean there is an increase of some 3,000 in the number of children participating in the programme next year and this requires additional funding.  As a result the programme will cost €175.8 million in 2012 – an increase of €9.8 million.  The  Government is convinced of the importance of this free pre school year and this is evidenced in the fact that this additional funding is being made available at a time of general curtailment in expenditure.

Development of Facilities for Children and Young people – I was also successful in achieving an allocation of €8 million towards the development and maintenance of pre school and youth facilities.  As public representatives we are, perhaps, more familiar with the pressure on school facilities from increased numbers of children and young people.  However, this same factor is placing pressures on other social infrastructure required by the youngest members of our society.  The capital provision made available has allowed me to announce a small grant scheme for community run pre schools and a separate grant scheme for youth facilities, including youth cafes.

Additional Funding of Child Welfare and Protection Services – An additional €21 million revenue funding has been provided for the HSE’s child welfare and protection services in 2012.  This is a 4% increase in budget and, at a time of economic difficulty, it recognises the financial and service pressures being experienced within this area of Government priority.  This funding is reflected in the HSE National Service Plan for 2012 and will assist the National Director, Gordon Jeyes, in managing the delivery of these services.  In addition, the budget for children and families services in the HSE is, for the first time, contained in a dedicated subhead within the HSE Vote.  This assists in providing budgetary transparency and accountability for the management of these resources and will facilitate the transfer of resources to the new Child and Family Support Agency on its establishment.

Child Deaths and Serious Incidents - Publication of the HSE Review panel audits has brought greater transparency for families and the general public.  Copies of these audits have been supplied to the Committee.

Inter-country Adoption – a programme of work to clarify the position regarding adoption from certain countries has been initiated.  Work with the Vietnamese authorities culminated in a successful visit in January and a commitment to collaboration on administrative arrangements to recommence adoptions.  The Department and the Adoption Authority of Ireland visited Russia in December to seek to progress a bilateral agreement. In relation to Ethiopia I have given approval to the Adoption Authority undertaking an examination of the feasibility of a bilateral agreement.

Youth Services – An additional €200,000 was provided for youth cafes in 2011 and, as mentioned, capital funding for youth projects was increased in the 2012 Estimates to €1.5m per annum.  There have been no cutbacks in funding to local voluntary youth clubs in 2012.

Hotline for missing children – An Inter-departmental Project Team, chaired by my Department, was established and COMREG has recently allocated the missing children telephone number to the ISPCC

Tackling Childhood Obesity, Promoting Play & Recreation – A comprehensive report on childhood obesity was published by my Department based on the ‘Growing up in Ireland’ study.  My Department is participating in Special Action Group on Obesity. I established a Play & Recreation Network to bring together and support the work of local authority play & recreation officers.

Sexualisation of Youth
– I have invited the fashion retail sector to prepare Guidelines on Childrenswear Retailing similar to those in place in the UK.

Children’s Research – The National Strategy for Research & Data on Children’s Lives was published, as was a series of research publications drawing on the Growing Up in Ireland longitudinal study.

Voice of the Child – I published the findings of a consultation with children in care last summer and the bi-annual Dáil na nOg was held in November.

Priorities for 2012
I expect the current year to be an historic one in the improvement of children’s lives and the key services on which they depend.  There are very significant Programme for Government commitments which I hope to see implemented in the current year.
Children’s Referendum – It is my intention to propose to the Oireachtas that we put a referendum to the electorate on the incorporation in the Constitution of new provisions which copper fasten the interests of children. The referendum will be held this year.  Discussions are ongoing with the Attorney General on the detailed wording taking account of the proposals of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee.  I will consult widely with the political parties, this Committee and other interested parties.  I am anxious to put proposals to the people as soon as possible but, given the historic opportunity to address an important ambition for children held by many within this House and beyond, I am above all interested in achieving an approach that meets these ambitions and secures the support of our fellow citizens.

Development of a new Children and Young People’s Policy Framework – My Department is currently developing a new national children’s strategy as a successor to the last ten year strategy.  This is a formidable opportunity to get the right policy framework in place for children across Government and to mobilise stakeholders around an ambitious vision and plan of action for children.  It is also my intention to complete a more detailed Early Years Strategy in conjunction with the overall Children and Young People’s Policy Framework.

Children First Bill – Work is underway within my Department in the development of a detailed Heads of Bill and General Scheme for legislation that will put Children First on a statutory basis.  There are important policy and operational considerations in introducing statutory mechanisms to safeguard children but doing this in a fashion which is not unnecessarily administratively burdensome on the many professionals and volunteers who we want to encourage to continue to give their time and expertise for the benefit of children and young people.  As soon as these Heads have been agreed by Government in the coming weeks I intend to refer them to this Committee for discussion.

Preparation for the Establishment of the Child and Family Support Agency – a detailed programme of work is underway to progress the policy, legislative and organisational arrangements that will provide for the “go live” of the new Child and Family Support Agency in next year.  The new Agency will encompass the child welfare and protection services currently operated by the HSE and the Family Support Agency.  I also intend looking at other operational responsibilities which might be most effectively located within the Child and Family Support Agency.  This will be one of the on of the largest public service reforms introduced by Government.  Over 3,000 staff will be employed by the new Agency and it is essential that the change process delivers not just for structural reform but a high performing environment within which more effective services are delivered to children.

Report of the Independent Child Death Review Group – My department has received this report and it is currently being considered in conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General with a view to its publication.  The matters covered are intensely sad and tragic.  It is essential that the learning from the detailed case examinations undertaken by the Independent Review Group inform the development of the practices and services of the new Child and Family Support Agency and others.  The Group’s recommendations will also contribute to the development of new national policy on the review of child deaths.

Detention of 16 and 17 Year Old Boys in St.Patrick’s Institution - I took over responsibility for the children’s detention schools at Oberstown, Co. Dublin last month.  I am committed to implementing a set of short and medium term actions that will address the unacceptable practice of continuing to have 16 and 17 year old boys detained in St.Patrick’s Institution.  I am due to receive the recommendations of a group chaired by the Secretary General of my Department very shortly and I expect to be in a position to make early progress in addressing alternative approaches to the detention of boys in this age group. 

Conclusion
There are many other priorities and activities that I will be addressing during the course of this year.  I am happy to expand on these in response to member’s questions and to take into consideration the views of the Committee.  My ambition, which I know is shared by the Committee, is to contribute to a situation where growing up in Ireland means you have the best start in life available anywhere in the world.


 

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