Children First Bill 2014, Second Stage

Seanad Eireann, Children First Bill 2014, Second Stage, 21 July 2015

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Welcome Minister.

I warmly welcome the arrival of the Bill to the Seanad (15 months since first introduced to the Dáil in April 2014).

I actively took part in the Pre-Legislative Scrutiny by the Health and Children Committee who produced its report in July 2012.  I would like to express my thanks to all the organisations and individuals who provided their expert insight.

I would particularly like to thank the Children’s Rights Alliance, ISPCC, Barnardos and EPIC for giving me their updated views on the legislation which has significantly changed, indeed improved, as it has progressed.  I am hoping that the Seanad can make some additional changes to further ensure it will achieve its stated aim.

This legislation is urgently needed and long overdue to put child welfare and protection on a statutory footing-solidify good intentions.

It is essential that we get this right.

Overarching concerns

Before I consider the legislation before us I would briefly like to stress the importance of resourcing of the Child and Family Agency. The Agency continues to be overstretched due to insufficient budget allocation and the roll out of this Bill will most certainly result in additional workload. It is essential that resources, both financial and personnel, are made available to ensure the implementation of the national policies on the ground. (National Review of Cases Awaiting Allocation 15 July 2014).

There is a fear Minister that the ‘system will be overwhelmed’ when this Bill is brought into law. I think the more pressing fear is that there are overwhelming numbers of children at risk of harm and abuse throughout the country. We need this legislation to shine a bright spotlight and ensure that there is no hiding place for vile abusers. It is our job to ensure the system works come hell or high water.

I am also concerned about the preparedness of other State agencies imperative to the success of Children First. For example, the Department of Education or the HSE.

There is much to welcome in this Bill but given the time contraints I will outline area I believe need to be further addressed as the Bill progresses through the Seanad.

Corporal Punishment

Minister, I agree with the Council of Europe and echo its call for a “culture of zero tolerance of violence towards children”.

It is for this reason that I have advised successive Ministers for Children and Youth Affairs of my intention to table an amendment to this Bill to repeal the defence of reasonable chastisement.

I look forward to tabling the amendment I have put forward when we take Committee Stage of this Bill.

Gender Recognition for Transgender Children under the age of 16

Minister, I know you are aware of my disappointment that children are not included in the Gender Recognition Act.

Last Wednesday Minister Humphries stood where you stand now Minister Reilly, and in response to my speech stated that this was now an issue for your department. He said, and I quote, “I would be quite happy for the Minister, Deputy Reilly, to lead on this, because he is the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and that Department has a wider remit than the Department of Social Protection on this issue.”

Therefore Minister Reilly, I ask you to include within the Children First legislation a provision to amend the Gender Recognition Act so that the exemption process for 16-18 is depathologised in a manner similar to the application process for adults and to include the creation of a process for interim gender recognition for the under 16s so that the rights of children are fully realised in that process.

Emotional Abuse

At the Committee hearings the majority of organisations and experts said “Emotional abuse” needs to be included in the definition of welfare. Emotional abuse is a form of neglect and should be explicitly stated as such.  We need to amend the Bill to include it as part of the definitions of its laws.

Schedule 3:  Offences for purposes of Paragraph (A) of Definition of “Sexual Abuse” in Section 2

I will be seeking to amend the current term “child pornography” and replace it the more apt and reflective descriptor “child sexual abuse material (CSAM)”.

According to Interpol:

“A sexual image of a child is “abuse” or “exploitation” and should never be described as “pornography”. Pornography is a term used for adults engaging in consensual sexual acts distributed (mostly) legally to the general public for their sexual pleasure. Child abuse images are not…”

Minister I have been saying this since first tabling a motion on Blocking Child Abuse Material on the Internet back in February 2012 and later in my Report on Effective Strategies to Tackle Online Child Abuse Material in September 2013, a child sexual abuse image is a crime scene, a digital record of sexual abuse being perpetrated against a real child in the real world and I will be seeking to have “child pornography” in this Bill and across our statute books amended to “child sexual abuse material” to better reflect the seriousness of the offence.

Child safeguarding statements

In Section 11, subsection 5 suggests that the Agency can request a copy of the relevant service provider’s child safeguarding statement. This enables the Agency to monitor compliance which is welcome.  However Section 12(1)(b) doesn’t specify how quickly the Agency can be furnished (“within such period as may be specified in the notice). This is rather weak- the Agency could be waiting for weeks, perhaps longer for a statement to be sent.  This should be tightened up.

I am aware that the Minister may issue regulations and Guidelines for the purpose of providing practical guidance on how to adhere to the Bill. But in the absence of a firm commitment that this will be done how will organisations and mandated people be fully aware of their new duties such as drafting the child safeguarding statement?

Also on Section 11(5), it specifies that the child safeguarding statement should be made available to the public on request.  I am aware that subsection 6 calls for it to be displayed prominently.  I ask why only on request? Surely we want all organisations to be open and transparent about the protection of children?  I believe we should be asking for statements to be publicly available (online) as a matter of course?

Non-compliance Register

13(5) why is the register of non-compliance only available to the public for inspection at reasonable times?  One of the best incentives for compliance would be a public list on the Agency website of organisations who are on the register of non-compliance.  This bill needs to change the culture of services for children in Ireland to one of openness and transparency.

Right of Appeal

12(8) A right of appeal is critical, but should the avenue of appeal not be proportionate and remain within the Agency?  If it goes to the District Court, it’ll could be tied up for months/years, and I don’t believe anyone wishes safeguarding children to be caught in court delays.

Childminders

Childminders are still exempt from the provisions of the Bill. Only those providing an early years service under the meaning of the Child Care Act 1991 are included (i.e. those looking after 4 or more children (excluding their own)). This is a serious omission given the number of children placed in the care of childminders.  We omitted them from the National Vetting Bureau Act and I question why they are not included in the scope of the Bill.

Conclusion

I will be bringing forward amendments on the points I have raised today at Committee Stage.  I will of course given further consideration to the Children First Bill during the recess and look forward to working with you Minister to ensure the Bill achieves it stated aim.

 

The Lancet

In July 2021, Jillian co-authored an article in the world-renowned medical journal “The Lancet”