Time to admit ‘implementation difficulties’ in children’s services are actually failings

Politics enters the equation when we come to discuss the requirement to allocate resources, expand provision and fund changes and improvements to children’s services. At its heart, politics relates to the allocation of public resources and the setting of priorities. As stated on previous occasions, I have never perceived debates of this nature as occasions on which to engage in party political contests. I certainly did not perceive the two to two and a half years the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children spent discussing this matter as an opportunity to engage in such a contest. However, that is not to state that politics does not enter the equation. As already indicated, it enters the equation in the most general sense when we discuss the level of priority we ascribe to this subject and the level of priority we are prepared to attach in respect of the requirement relating to the provision of additional resources.

We have debated matters of this nature with the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, on several occasions. I have no doubt that he is obliged to watch his p’s and q’s. I am not stating that he might misrepresent the position but he is obliged to defend the Government. He is not going to inform us that he is pressing for additional resources but that his requests have so far been refused. Nor is he going to state that attempts to employ the additional 265 social workers that are required will be accelerated or that these people should be recruited forthwith. I would be surprised if I was wrong in thinking that if it were left to the Minister of State, the recruitment of these social workers would be completed very quickly. However, action in this regard has been no more forthcoming than that required, in the context of additional funding and resources, in the area of child protection. Politics, therefore, enters the equation in that sense.

Opposition politicians are not only entitled to criticise the Government but are under a duty to do so, particularly where it makes commitments on which it fails to deliver. We would not be doing our job if we failed to engage in such a critique of the Government. However, I am not, as already stated, seeking to obtain a party political advantage in respect of this issue. I disagree with those who attempted to take such an approach to this matter in the past.

The debate on the report of the Ombudsman for Children provides us with a good opportunity to reflect on what we are doing. I accept we would not have time to do so but I believe we would be better served if we were to examine the report on a line-by-line basis.

When discussing reports of this nature, Members tend to make Second Stage speeches and engage in something of a rhetorical analysis. In circumstances where terrible tragedies have taken place and where undoubted gaps in provision have been exposed as a result of some of the awful events that have occurred, I am continually prompted to inquire as to what Opposition politicians can do. The Ombudsman for Children has an independent and statutory role and I am glad this was not – despite Government attempts to the contrary last year – merged with the roles of any of the other ombudsmen. The Ombudsman for Children retains a strong, independent and autonomous position in our system.

In the context of my question with regard to what Opposition politicians can do, I am of the view that we can examine the report line by line and ask the Minister of State to identify the conclusions and findings with which he agrees and those with which he does not agree. We can also ask him about the action he intends to take. That is the only reason for engaging in a debate of this nature.

The Minister of State referred to the Ombudsman for Children’s report identifying many of the implementation difficulties highlighted in previous reviews of the Children First guidelines. They are not just implementation difficulties, they are failures. Language is an important and essential tool in any debate. I would love everyone – the Minister of State, the Government and Members – to use the English language in the way it is intended to be used. What the Minister of State refers to as implementation difficulties are actually failings. We cannot hope to change the system unless we are honest about the areas in respect of which it has fallen down.

Perhaps the Minister of State will comment on some of the findings of the Ombudsman for Children. The third of these contained in her report states:

“Up until the establishment of a HSE Taskforce in February 2009, this Office concludes that insufficient efforts were made to drive forward implementation of Children First by the HSE internally, such as failure to ensure that Local Health Offices had local procedures, and that this involved unsound administration by the HSE in the period since its creation.”

The phrase “unsound administration” is slightly awkward. However, it emanates from the statute under which the Office of the Ombudsman for Children was established and by means of which she is obliged to deliver her criticisms. What efforts are being made by the Minister of State’s office to “drive forward the implementation of Children First”? During his contribution, he provided a commitment to the effect that certain things will be done and used language which referred to the necessity for progressing matters etc. Members on this side of the House could usefully insist that the Government establish timelines in respect of the making of progress with regard to issues of this nature.

The Minister of State indicated he will be bringing proposals to Government shortly in respect of the implementation of the guidelines. He also stated that rather than concentrating on reviews, he wants to consider how a process of sustained implementation might be put in place. When will the proposals to which the Minister of State refers be brought to Government?

The Minister of State indicated he intends to take action. In such circumstances, it is not unreasonable for us to request that an objective timeline be put in place. Everyone would be interested in there being a greater degree of clarity.

The question of recruiting 265 additional social workers has been invoked on many occasions. The Minister of State indicated the HSE has been given approval to recruit an additional 265 child welfare and protection staff, including 200 social workers, in 2010. He also stated that the recruitment process is currently under way and will continue until the additional posts are filled. How many of these posts have been advertised?

Approximately one year ago, I heard that an additional 270 social workers were to be recruited. How many advertisements have been placed in the newspapers in respect of this matter? Will all of the posts be net new posts? There was a suggestion at one stage that people within the system would be redeployed. I expect the Minister of State will be able to provide information in this regard.

The Minister of State acknowledged the contribution social workers and those involved in child care make. Those who work for NGOs and others state it is difficult to find people who work in this area who are either burnt out or seriously overworked. That is a fact. The people to whom I refer are at the heart of the system and they are under enormous pressure.

The Minister of State accepts that additional staff are required. It is not unreasonable, therefore, for us to inquire as to how many new staff have been introduced to the system.

I simply do not understand the delay in bringing forth the so-called soft information in vetting, something which has been promised for a good 18 months. In my presence the Minister of State indicated to the committee 18 months ago that this legislation was imminent. I shall check the record. It was to be produced by the end of January 2009. That is what we were told in the committee. Perhaps it was not the Minister of State. It might have been his colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, who said it. Even if the committee was not given that information with such clarity at the time, certainly there was an indication that this matter would be dealt with quickly and efficiently through legislation. We have not had anything in this respect and it is unacceptable that this is the case a year and a half later. The commitment we are getting now looks less clear than it was originally. It is getting more vague all the time.

The job we can do on this side of the House involves actual specifics and actual commitments and it is a question of debating these with the Minister of State. I do not, unfortunately, see anything new in what the Minister of State had to say about specific commitments to action.