Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 20 November 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: Discussion
I welcome members and any members of the public who may be watching on Oireachtas TV. The purpose of today's meeting is to discuss the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child on World Children's Day. I welcome Dr. Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children, and Dr. Karen McAuley, head of policy in the Office of the Ombudsman for children.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I ask members and witnesses to please turn off their mobile phones or switch them to flight mode as they will interfere with the sound system and make it difficult for parliamentary reporters to report on the meeting and adversely the broadcast on television and web streaming. Any opening statement witnesses submit to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting. After the witnesses have made their presentation, there will be questions from the members of the committee.
Dr. Niall Muldoon:
I thank the committee for the invitation to speak on the occasion of the World Children's Day and the 30th anniversary of the United Nations' adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNCRC. To make this important occasion the Ombudsman for Children's office is currently hosting an event called Child Talks. At this event, young people between the ages of 12 and 17 years are giving talks about a range of issues, includingmental health services for children and young people; the significance of family and having a home; disability services and public transport; climate change; and the importance of young people raising their voices and being heard.
While the issues young people are highlighting at Child Talks are diverse, they also share certain characteristics. All of the young people taking part are speaking about issues that are important to them. In doing so, all of those young people are exercising their rights to freedom of expression and to be heard. All of the issues they are addressing connect to children’s rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNCRC.
Each of those young people speaking at Child Talks this morning needed to think carefully about what issues they wanted their talk to focus on. Similarly, I have thought about what my opening statement to the committee might usefully focus on within the time available to me to make it. As Ombudsman for Children, I lead a national institution that has a statutory remit under the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 to promote the rights and welfare of children up to the age of 18. With my role and the Ombudsman for Children’s Office's core statutory functions in mind, I will offer some brief observations, having regard to the UNCRC and to the concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child issued in early 2016 following its examination of the State’s progress towards fulfilling its obligations to children.
As the UN committee’s concluding observations illustrate, there are different ways in which we can think about children’s rights. We can approach them in terms of different dimensions to children’s lives such as family, health, housing, education, protection, justice, and so on. We can also consider children’s rights from the vantage point of different groups of children such as children in care, children with disabilities, and children belonging to ethnic minorities. Equally, we can approach children’s rights having regard to the State’s status as the primary duty-bearer when it comes to ensuring that children’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled, and in terms of measures that the State needs to take to make children’s rights real for children in what Eleanor Roosevelt famously identified as the places that give rights meaning, the “small places, close to home”.
In 2003, a year after Ireland ratified the UNCRC, the UN committee published its fifth general comment. Such comments focus on providing guidance to states, including Ireland, on general measures to implement children’s rights under the UNCRC. This general comment remains an important reference point because it sets out cross-cutting actions that the State needs to pursue for the purposes of realising all children’s rights in all children’s lives. Among these actions are legislating, developing and implementing national strategies, co-ordinating, monitoring, providing access to remedies and redress, collecting and analysing data, budgeting, training, and raising awareness.
I suggest that thinking about children’s rights under the UNCRC in terms of the general measures required to implement children’s rights is a particularly useful approach for all of us who have roles and responsibilities in respect of one or more of these general measures. Among other things, this approach enables us to identify what types of action we are well placed to pursue to progress the implementation of children’s rights with, and for, children living in Ireland.
Section 3 of the 2016 concluding observations sets out the UN committee’s key concerns and recommendations as regards Ireland’s mobilisation of general measures to implement the UNCRC. I will comment briefly on two of these measures. The first relates to legislating. Legislating for children’s rights is a vital task. As we all know, legislation can drive behaviour. As a catalyst for change, legislation can require people to do things that they might not otherwise be minded to do, and it can enable people to do things that they might not otherwise be permitted to do. Since the UN committee issued its recommendations in 2016, we have seen some progress in legislating for children and their rights, including in a number of areas referenced by the UN committee. Examples in the area of education in this regard are the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 and the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019, which is currently making its way through the Oireachtas. However, the task of fully incorporating the UNCRC into domestic law, which the UN committee has urged the State to implement “as a matter of priority”, is an unfinished project. Many gaps and deficits remain in Irish law, including in areas with which the Ombudsman for Children's Office is engaging such as mental health, housing and online safety.
As Members of the Oireachtas, the Chair and each of his colleagues have a unique role that enables them to introduce, repeal and amend legislation. Therefore, they are especially well placed to mobilise a key general measure to progress the realisation of children’s rights. When conducting pre-legislative scrutiny of proposed legislation and when examining and proposing amendments to Bills, for example, the Chair and his colleagues have a crucial role to play in making sure that legislation that will impact on children and their rights is child-centred and rights-based. As such, they are in a position to influence positive changes for children and children’s rights in a manner that no one else can.
As Ombudsman for Children, I am firmly of the view that any law that concerns children must put children and their rights first. In a very real way, children are depending on members, as legislators, to make sure this happens. Therefore, I urge committee members and their Oireachtas colleagues to persist in their efforts to ensure that relevant legislation is child rights compliant so that it provides a robust foundation for the development and implementation of corresponding policies, procedures and practices that give meaning to children’s rights in children’s lives.
On co-ordination, while our system of government and public administration is organised along sectoral lines, children and their lives do not fit neatly into those sectoral silos. The challenges that this misalignment creates and the damaging impact that it can have on children is something that the Ombudsman for Children's Office sees all too often through our examination and investigation of complaints. One example is our investigation of Molly’s case, which I discussed with the committee in 2018. As members will recall, one of our core findings in this case was that the difficulties experienced by Molly and her foster family were largely attributable to a lack of co-ordination between Tusla and the HSE. Because neither agency saw Molly as a child in care and as a child with a disability, the services and supports provided by both organisations were insufficient. What Molly’s case highlights so clearly is why effective inter-agency co-ordination, co-operation and communication at all levels of Government and public administration are vital to implementing children’s rights. Accordingly, this case informed one of the recommendations that we made in our submission to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in the context of its review of the Child Care Act 1991. We recommended that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs give serious consideration to placing a statutory duty on agencies with responsibilities for children and families to co-operate with Tusla in the exercise of its functions under the 1991 Act.
Recognition of the importance of effective co-ordination for implementing children’s rights is evident in the opening of the Barnahus, Onehouse project in Galway. The outcome of work in which I was involved with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the former special rapporteur on child protection, the Barnahus represents a multi-agency approach to dealing with victims of child sexual abuse. It sees State agencies, including the Garda, the HSE and Tusla, engaging openly with each other, with the best interests of children always taking priority. I hope that the Barnahus in Galway marks the beginning of a nationwide roll-out of such services to benefit children in all parts of the country.
The need for co-ordination also informs my continued engagement with relevant Departments to encourage implementation of the youth mental health pathfinder project. This project is one of three pathfinder projects included in the 2014 Civil Service renewal programme. While the need for a co-ordinated, whole-of-government approach to youth mental health and other issues affecting children is evident, the challenges that can be involved in joining the dots are striking. Administrative systems and structures should work for, rather than against, those seeking to progress the realisation of children’s rights to the highest attainable standard of health. I urge this committee to push the Ministers for Children and Youth Affairs, Health, and Education and Skills to make sure this pathfinder project is in situbefore the end of this Government’s term. If it is not, thousands of children who are in enormous mental turmoil will, at best, continue to languish on waiting lists without access to the best possible health care, which is their right. At worst, they may not see their lives as worth living.
As members of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, the members appreciate fully the importance of co-ordination and co-operation among Members of the Oireachtas to progress the implementation of children’s rights under the UNCRC. In this regard, I acknowledge the committee's report on the impact of homelessness on children, which was published on 14 November, as well as a complementary report on family and child homelessness published by the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government on the same day.
Viewed individually and together, these reports suggest that a political consensus is emerging about the changes in law, policy, procedure and practice needed to address child and family homelessness and to mitigate the injurious effects of homelessness on children. From my perspective as Ombudsman for Children, this consensus and the clarity it provides are encouraging. Agreement on what actions are needed is a key prerequisite to implementing short, medium and long-term measures to address child and family homelessness effectively.
Although divergence and robust debate are pivotal to the democratic process, these reports illustrate how important and constructive working together can be. Looking ahead, I encourage committee members and their Oireachtas colleagues to finalise a programme of work to address child homelessness and to work together to drive its implementation. As with so many issues affecting children and their rights, taking a co-ordinated, collaborative approach to progressing actions can mitigate against the corrosive impact that the ebb and flow of politics and electoral cycles can have on the best-laid plans.
The task of implementing children’s rights under the UNCRC is a marathon, not a sprint. While quick wins and fixes for children are possible in some instances, making children’s rights real in children’s lives requires consistent focus and concerted effort from us all. We all need to redouble our efforts so that Ireland can stand before the committee in 2021 and honestly say that, as a State, we have finally put our children first. I thank the committee for its time. I am happy to take questions.
I thank Dr. Muldoon. There is a lot to consider in his statement. I thank him for going through it. As Chair, I believe it is appropriate to acknowledge his acknowledgment of our report.
Although the ink on it is still drying, the consensus and the collaborative work on which members engaged were worthwhile. The complementary report of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government benefited the entire process that both committees went through at the same time, unbeknownst to each other. Given that we came to the same conclusions, it was right and proper that Dr. Muldoon acknowledged there is emerging consensus. As my colleagues and members of the Opposition have always said, no Member of the Oireachtas has a monopoly on good ideas when it comes to housing and we have to work together, which is reflected in my opening remarks in the report.
I acknowledge a group of students present in the Public Gallery today on International Children's Day, namely, Andrea Radu, Scoil Mhuire, Buncrana, County Donegal; Anna Crowley, Scoil Phobail, County Cork; Courtney O'Connor, the King's Hospital School;. Daniel Fitzgerald Bell, Belvedere College; and Patrick McGrath, Coláiste an Chroí Naofa, County Cork. They are very welcome. Another group will attend a later part of the meeting.
Dr. Muldoon highlighted mental health housing and online safety as unfinished work for which the Oireachtas must come to solutions in short order. Mental health, in particular, is an area of deep concern to all of us, in light of the regularity with which it is raised in both Dáil and Seanad Éireann. It is difficult to envisage a programme in any Department failing, year on year, to spend its own money but that seems to be a recurring issue in the recruitment of specialist individuals to support children and adults. It is an ongoing issue. Will Dr. Muldoon comment on it?
We have discussed the housing issue and there will now be a period of reflection at the Department while it covers it.
On online safety, the committee has previously done significant work on making recommendations to the Government in respect of an online safety commissioner. Irrespective of what it will be called, we know what the role will be. I am pleased that, while the beginnings of the process and the realisation took a year, it finally struck the Department. My view, which is probably shared by members and on which I would like to hear Dr. Muldoon's view, is that because of the co-ordination of the role and its importance, it cannot simply be within one Department and there has to be co-ordination. Dr. Muldoon's office plays an important role in that oversight and he might comment in that regard.
Dr. Niall Muldoon:
On mental health, I flagged the concept of the pathfinder project, which arose as an idea in the Civil Service renewal plan of 2014 because it was known it was important to co-ordinate Departments and to do things better. The Civil Service wanted to prove that could be done. It chose mental health as the most important area to pilot in 2014. It was reiterated in the national youth task force recommendations in December 2017 as a top priority for the Government at that stage. I wrote to four Ministers, namely, the Ministers for Public Expenditure and Reform, Health, Education and Skills, and Children and Youth Affairs, about the project. They all agreed it was a Government policy, that they wanted to make it happen and that it was important to do, but the co-ordination has not yet happened. My understanding is there is a proposal before the Office of the Attorney General to examine how it will happen.
Nevertheless, I urge the committee, as Members of the Oireachtas, to try to push the matter forward, even on an administrative basis, while the legislation is being sorted out. People in the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs, Education and Skills, and Health will sit in the same room and try to smooth the way for the poor child and parents trying to find mental health access. If a child is referred by a teacher as a result of a mental health issue, there should not be three or ten different doors to knock on. The pathfinder project is the start of a possible solution to inter-agency co-operation, to take responsibility, spread it across the Departments and recognise that the child is the focus of all our actions, not a sidebar to who is in charge of what. If the committee could exert pressure or authority on making that happen before the next election, in order that the pathfinder project will be established and secure, irrespective of who is in government in the future, it would go some way towards helping children. While it will not be the answer to everything, if there are people from three Departments in a room saying they have control or responsibility, we will see something.
I earlier researched a simple example of Government units not co-ordinating. Tusla regionally manages 17 sections, the HSE has nine community healthcare organisations, while the Garda restructured approximately three weeks ago from 28 to 19 divisions. If I ask someone to co-ordinate among the Garda, the HSE and Tusla, there could be three managers together but they may say they need two from one county, one from another or there may be disagreement over who is in charge of which division because they are based in different areas. Children fall between such cracks. We could easily get the divisions of the Garda, the HSE and Tusla to be the same, which would mean the manager in charge of each section would have the same geography. Such simple steps could be examined by the Government as a whole to see whether they could be taken. It would mean there would not be four or five managers, some of whom may not show up to a meeting because they consider it to be a different area from their own. Such simple matters could be examined at the highest level. If there is to be restructuring in any event, why have people not considered them? The pathfinder project is the same. We can bring people with a level of authority into the same room and say we will need to spread the workload. From a mental health point of view, that is one of the highest level areas on which we can work.
On the failure to recruit, there are areas to examine. It is the worst possible recruitment area at this stage and we need to take a different approach to it. I suggest-----
Dr. Niall Muldoon:
Okay. If there is a crisis, I suggest there is an entitlement to act differently. The committee clearly highlighted the 18 strands in need of recruitment and the steps that will have to be taken. In a crisis, we can adjust the rules and say we need to do something differently. We may need to train somebody or give him or her something different, such as better continuing professional development or various forms of encouragement, on the basis of it being a crisis area. I have highlighted County Wexford on numerous occasions, as have members. Many other areas are not doing well. We can certainly take a different approach in that regard. Due to the crisis, one cannot continue with the same approach all the time.
I have highlighted the issue of funding on numerous occasions. We have increased the funding for mental health to 6% of our total health budget, or €1 billion. We still do not know how much of that €1 billion goes towards children, given that, despite numerous requests I have made, the figure has not been broken down. My best guesstimate, for which I am being optimistic, is that €200 million, or approximately 0.5% of the overall health budget, goes towards children. In the rest of Europe, 10% of the health budget is spent on mental health, a great deal more of which goes towards children. They are simple steps at a macro level. If we could determine how much is spent on children, we could start to work towards increasing it, as I have previously highlighted.
My colleague will discuss online safety.
Dr. Karen McAuley:
We are familiar with and welcomed the report on cybersecurity the committee published some time ago. We have noticed and appreciate that the whole question of online safety, not least in respect of children, although it does not exclusively concern them, is a matter of concern to many people, including at our office. The issue is being addressed in different ways by various Oireachtas committees because it has multiple strands. Co-ordination is very important. We made a submission to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment as part of its public consultation, which, as members will know, focused on the question of establishing an online safety commissioner, among other matters. It also examined the roles such a commissioner might have.
Our submission noted that several roles were being contemplated. They related to certification, oversight, audit, issue of notices, imposition of fines, reporting, appeals and mediation.
A plethora of things are being considered in terms of what an online safety commissioner would do. One thing we can encourage the Department to do when it works on the legislation to establish an online safety commissioner, whatever it is called, on a statutory footing, is to really look at whether the proposed statutory functions will complement each other and whether they will complement the work that the commissioner would do vis-à-vis other bodies, for example, the role of the commissioner vis-à-vis the Department of Education and Skills or the role of the commissioner vis-à-vis the Department of Justice and Equality and the agencies under its aegis in terms of the criminal law element of this. It is very important that the legislation, once published, provides clarity. It is likely to be the case that the commissioner cannot do everything, nor would it be appropriate, but it is about identifying its appropriate role. We would expect a regulatory mechanism as opposed to a judicial mechanism or one of law enforcement. The appropriate roles must be identified and we must ensure that they complement each other.
We understand that the Department is working on an online safety and media regulation Bill. We hope to hear more about this early in the new year, and when it is published, we will examine it carefully to see, among other things, that the envisaged roles are appropriate for a regulatory body that which is established on a statutory footing.
Dr. Karen McAuley:
The Chair will be very familiar with our two core statutory functions. One is to promote the rights and welfare of children, which is where the policy and participation work of the office comes in. It is for enabling our duties under section 7. On complaints and investigations, we need to look at what role can we play. The complaints we deal with are about public bodies. Many of the bodies that will be covered by this are not public sector bodies. We might, for example, have a role relating to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and in relation to the online safety commissioner itself, but it is unclear in terms of our complaints remit whether we would have a role and what it might be in terms of the actual company.
Okay, so it depends on the publication of the Bill. Dr. Muldoon mentioned inter-agency difficulties. This is something he has also addressed in the past, and several times while I have been Chair of the committee. He set out some practical examples where Tusla and Garda districts can mirror one another, and I am sure that also happens with the HSE and other institutions. Returning to how the online safety commissioner will operate, I know that since 2012 and the referendum on children's rights, and since the Children First Act was passed and enacted and Tusla was established and so on, the issues of children and youth affairs have exercised themselves in their importance in society. Looking back to problems of the past, is this perhaps a symptom of what is not quite a callous disregard but an element of unwillingness to consider it a priority? Is that still there within Government agencies?
Dr. Niall Muldoon:
The establishment of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs was a very important step forward for children. It is a crucial part, but we also have Better Outcomes - Brighter Futures, which is signed up to by all 17 Departments. That is where we need to drive it through, that each Department, Secretary General and Minister has signed up to those and we need to see that co-ordination happen. The Civil Service itself and the Secretaries General recognise that when they say they will create a pathfinder project that will be the template for other pathfinder projects, but we need to make that happen so that we can begin to co-ordinate more and more rather than say things are jobs for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or not their own job. This is everyone's job. Children must be central to Government and it can no longer be done through silos. There are ways of doing this and better co-operation and collaboration is done all over the world. That is why I find the pathfinder project in mental health to be a starting point for other collaborations, whether physical health, environment or whatever. There might be six different Departments involved in a scenario such as the digital commissioner and online safety, such as Justice and Equality, Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Taoiseach, Health, and Children and Youth Affairs. A pathfinder project that provides a template that allows that co-ordination can be very beneficial throughout the whole of a child's life.
I apologise to Dr. Muldoon and Dr. McAuley for being late and that I have to leave shortly to vote. I was in the Chamber complaining about services for mental health, in Wexford in particular. I am sure they will be well aware of what I was raising. I am getting text messages not only from parents but also from staff in the area.
Dr. Muldoon mentioned that the Government does not have much longer. It will be six months if we are lucky. Is he concerned that at every election, mental health becomes one of the topics of conversation, yet when each new Government comes into office, nothing is done. As Dr. Muldoon said, he has been trying to do things for years. Wexford is a perfect example. Two and a half years ago, it was promised a new premises. Now the premises is there and they are still not in it, there is no consultant and no registrar. What is Dr. Muldoon going to do as the Ombudsman to the Government, or the next Government? There will be a different Minister for Health, or for mental health. How will Dr. Muldoon cope with that? Can he do anything now to safeguard whatever work has gone through? We spoke of online safety, for example. I had a Bill passed through the Seanad about taking down harmful content, websites in particular, that would teach children how to deprive themselves of food, how to self harm or how to take their lives. That has gone through. That will die a death unless someone in the Dáil runs with it before the Government leaves office. We were promised a mental health committee. The previous committee was helping to scrutinise the HSE and so on, but that does not exist any more. How will the Ombudsman for Children keep going? How will he safeguard this so that whatever work has been done will be minded?
Dr. Niall Muldoon:
It has to be a two-way street. The politicians have to mind it. It is the politicians who have to make commitments and follow through on them. It is people like ourselves who need to ensure that the promises are in the manifestos so that mental health is on the agenda and that they are followed through. Often mental health was not even on the agenda, so the previous Government programme was very positive in that regard. I have to ensure that it happens and I must keep pushing for that. I would row in behind any politicians who would do that and I urge Oireachtas Members to continue to keep it on the agenda for their parties while they are thinking about what their manifestos will be. I will also follow through with Ministers, and I am due to meet a number of Ministers before the end of the year on mental health and the concept of the pathfinder. It is an ongoing process. I cannot engage in politics but I will engage with all politicians to ensure that this stays on the agenda and that no stone is left unturned. I cannot force the Oireachtas to do things but I can continually hold a mirror up to its actions and show the reactions. The Senator's work has been exemplary in highlighting that, and many members of this committee have done that to show the true-life effects.
I have been down to Wexford to meet the children, not just the parents, who have been effected. It is heartbreaking to see it. We are spending a lot of money bringing someone in every week to spend two days in the area.
I suggest that we could probably hire and train somebody for less money. We could make sure he or she stays in place. We could create a separate set of rules for the recruitment and training of people in crisis areas. If the will existed to do so, we could bring in younger people and tell them "this is your future and we will support you". I will continue to pursue this sort of initiative.
I would not be as downbeat about a change of Government because that would offer opportunities. When new people and new politicians come into different positions, it presents the possibility of new wisdom and new energy. It is part of my job to continue to keep this going. I will not drop my energy levels. I will not drop the enforcement. I will not stop following through on any of the actions I have taken. I urge all members of the committee to keep pushing this on the agendas of all their parties. We must make sure it stays at the highest level of priority. From my point of view, mental health is the key part of this. We have been looking at issues like disability and homelessness. Every one of them is connected to mental health. If one has the resilience that comes with good mental health, one is capable of dealing with a great deal of other stuff. I will continue to push this.
On recruitment, we have discovered that between 18 and 40 steps have to be taken before someone is even called for interview. That originates from the economic crisis. The HSE has not removed the difficult process that it deliberately put in place during the economic crisis to stop recruitment. In addition, those who are applying for jobs have absolutely no idea where they will be located.
Dr. Niall Muldoon:
No other Government and no other business in the world recruits through a panel where people are contacted by phone on Friday afternoon to be told they have 24 hours to say whether they want to go to Kerry or Donegal, or whether they want to work with children or older adults. People should be able to apply for the jobs they want and move on from there. I understand the concept underpinning this approach, which is that it allows for a geographical fit. There is a balance to be struck, however. If people on a panel are contacted to say that there is an opening in Clare, it is possible that someone on the panel will want it. Similarly, someone might want to do the actual job. I think there is a way of doing it. The improvements that are needed must come from within the Civil Service. The political parties must push for such improvements. I suggest that the pathfinder approach represents the Civil Service forming its own new way of doing things.
I think it has to come from the public. The Government will not do it because it is not urgent enough. Nothing is urgent enough for mental health. We no longer have a committee on mental health. Sometimes I think there is a movement coming from the public that will create a tsunami of protest. I believe that is the only way to get the Government to change its attitude to mental health.
Before I bring in Deputy Rabbitte, I welcome a second group of students who have joined us in the Gallery. I thank the students in question - Rory Lawlor, Jack O'Connell, Rebecca Feely and Saraid Hartnett - for attending today's meeting of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. Deputy Rabbitte will be followed by Deputy Neville.
I thank Dr. Muldoon and Dr. McAuley. I welcome the young adults in the Gallery. It is great to have them here as we mark the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I thank the witnesses for finding the time to attend this meeting. I know they have left an event that they were hosting in Dublin Castle. I would like them to share with us and with the viewers who are looking in what exactly is going on in Dublin Castle. There is a little disconnect. I would love to be in Dublin Castle, to be honest. It would be important for the viewers looking in to get a flavour of what is going on over there today.
Dr. Niall Muldoon:
We will invite all members of the committee to next year's event. Last year, we started an event called Child Talks, which is essentially a TED Talks event for children. This year, we invited children and young people to send in a short video in which they talk about a children's rights issue for which they have a real passion. We received a large number of applications and we have ended up with 12 young people speaking in Dublin Castle today about these issues. We have spent the last four months working with them, giving them speech and language classes, giving them speechwriting classes and helping them with their performances. Young people from all over the country will be able to stand up and speak for seven minutes on a range of topics that are important to them and close to their hearts, including climate change, period poverty, personalised budgets for disability, mental health and school transport. They are being given an opportunity to be heard in the same way that 157 children got to be heard on climate issues last week. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is opening the Child Talks event and will stay to listen to these young people as well. From our point of view, this is an example of children's rights in action. Approximately 450 people from all over the country are coming to watch. The event will be live-streamed on RTÉ News Now to enable children and teachers in schools all around the country who cannot get to it to hear what is said. The essence of this event is to bring children's voices to as many people as possible. They are being allowed to talk about the issues they want to talk about and not just the issues we might think they want to talk about. For me, it will become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. As young people start to talk about these matters, we will start to bring them up in here and the Oireachtas will have a greater opportunity to make changes in these areas. That is what Child Talks is about.
It is enlightening to hear it. I think it is a game-changer or a step-changer. We saw the event that was held in the Dáil last week on the initiative of the Ceann Comhairle. Dr. Muldoon's office is doing similar work. Young people need to feel that their voices are being heard. It is fantastic that the event is being live-streamed into schools around the country. I compliment Dr. Muldoon and his colleagues on giving children a voice, acting as a conduit or safe space and commissioning their reports. I love when the reports come out every year. I could not believe the report on school bus transport. I am going back to this report because it was a big issue at the time. The work of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children is hugely appreciated.
I would like to pick up on a positive aspect of Dr. Muldoon's report. He mentioned the young people who have spent a great deal of time preparing reports in advance of today's event. I compliment Dr. Muldoon on his preparation of his positive and focused report. The theme this morning is one of collaboration between all the various agencies. I ask Dr. Muldoon to explain the positives of the Barnahus, Onehouse Galway pilot project. Where does he envisage that this could go? What are its benefits for young people, entire families and the wider community? Where does Dr. Muldoon see this going? I know it is a pilot. What are the problems with it?
Dr. Niall Muldoon:
The Barnahus, Onehouse Galway pilot project is based on a Scandinavian model that started in Iceland. Under this model, a child who has suffered sexual abuse and has alleged sexual abuse is brought to one venue where he or she is offered a forensic medical examination and gets to meet a member of the police. In Iceland, Barnahus goes a step further by having a judge in situ. When the child is interviewed by the police member, the judge will be listening and watching from a different room with the alleged offender and his or her barrister, who can ask the child questions through the police member. That is the end of the process. The child is finished with any legal set-up within 24 or 48 hours, at which point the judge makes a decision on whether the case will go forward. We have adapted the model for Ireland because we have a slightly different legal system. The Barnahus, Onehouse Galway pilot project has a medical forensic system. A child who makes an allegation is brought to the Galway set-up for a forensic medical assessment. He or she meets the garda and the social worker at the same time, which means he or she does not have to repeat the conversation and does not have to engage in different places. The public servants who serve them come to them in that setting. It has taken us a long time to bring about this fantastic set-up. I have been working on it for at least ten years. We now have the gardaí, the social workers and the medical forensic personnel co-locating. We also have support from CARI, which provides a volunteer to assist the child.
There is one thing missing from our point of view.I keep pushing for it. There is no therapeutic support in that service at this moment in time. The child goes back on a waiting list for ordinary psychology or something else. That is the missing link as far as I am concerned. We need to push on. We have seen what can be done if all the people I have mentioned are co-located. We went to New York, Oxford and Belfast, where this has been done and is happening. When all the agencies are co-located, they work much more effectively through personal relationships and interactions. People learn about one another's work. It creates an opportunity to have a much safer and more collaborative piece of work for the child. Children do not feel that they are being pushed from Billy to Jack at different times. They do not have to go to different people to repeat their stories. Similarly, their parents and other family members know they have to go to one place only. When they do so, they are introduced to one person who introduces them to the next person. The story is passed on. They do not have to take charge of repeating it. We hope to put in place a therapeutic strand to enable children to move on to therapy fairly quickly. That creates a holistic support for the child or young person in question.
That means that system allows the child to recover from a mental health situation and move forward. It also means the forensic and criminal justice system looks after itself much more quickly. The child does not have to worry as much. It is not a case that after being interviewed by the Garda, a person could be interviewed by social workers in three months and then he or she might get the chance to go to therapy. All these things happen one after another. It all happens fairly rapidly and they co-ordinate together. That is a huge step forward.
One of the best examples I always give was when we went to Oxford. They gave an example of a phone call coming into a social worker at 4.45 on a Friday evening. In this scenario, somebody is concerned about a child because the father has threatened to take the child out of hospital and run away with him. The policeman is sitting beside the lady taking the phone call, and as soon as she writes down the address and before she has hung up the phone, the police have a policeman at that house checking things out, simply because they are sitting in the same room and working together. We all know that at 4.45 on a Friday evening in any social work office, nothing will be done subsequently until Monday afternoon. Those are the simple things and just by co-locating we will change the system, change the thinking and change the opportunities that come for our children. We will provide proper children's rights systems.
I met Tusla representatives on Monday when they were on its regional roadshow in Galway, and they talked about this particular project. That is a pilot that is taking place. If Dr. Muldoon had the magic ball in front of him, how many of these service centres would we need in Ireland? Ireland is not that big. It has taken ten years to bring that to pilot stage, so are we planning forward on where the next step is?
Dr. Niall Muldoon:
If we want to talk about forward planning, there is a report in place by Mott MacDonald from 2011 outlining what should happen in this situation with Barnahus, Onehouse Galway. It was called the child advocacy centre at that stage. They essentially think that four or five service centres would be sufficient and then the spokes would go out from those. That would not be too far away. Even Galway and the top of Donegal are a long way away for forensic assessment. Maybe we would have one in Sligo, one in Limerick or Cork and one in Dublin. That is the rough sense of it. Those would be the specialised areas and then the therapeutic engagement would be out closer to the home. It is already set up, there are already thoughts and plans in place on how it could be done when it rolls out, and it is hoped it will follow that same pattern. Again, for me, it is about making sure the therapy is there as well. If that piece is tidied up, it will be a big help, but the therapy has to follow. Not all children will need it, but at least they know it is there and it is part of the same system.
I thank the delegation for coming in. I am sorry for being late but I picked it up as Dr. Muldoon was talking about the pathfinder project. That is something I am trying to push through in the Dáil. It is with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and that is where we need to move it on from. I do not know if any correspondence has come back or if Dr. Muldoon knows anything from his side. I need to table another parliamentary question on it.
I heard the discussion on online bullying and cyberbullying. If this has been stated already, please let me know and I can check the transcript. I refer to social media and the Office of the Ombudsman's findings on the culture of social media. I am starting to see more evidence that children are being influenced by what adults are doing on social media because it is open to everybody and everyone can see it. I know we have had hearings in this committee where we have discussed peer-to-peer communication between children across social media platforms, but I am more worried about what children are seeing adults do on social media and how we will grasp that nettle via free speech versus censorship and all the other parts that go around this debate. From where I have seen social media go in the past six months to two years and the culture of how people are conducting themselves on social media, that may have a huge subliminal effect on children and on what they are reading and seeing. It is incumbent on all of us that we look at this from a different viewpoint, that we do not just look at it singularly from a children's point of view but that we look at the culture of this across the board-----
-----because this is starting to move and shift. It is difficult for us to do this because the technology is moving so fast, and because the technology is driving the culture, everything is moving extremely fast and it is only in retrospect that we start to pick this up. I would be interested in the witnesses' thoughts on that or if any studies have been done. On the mental health side, the subliminal effects and how we conduct ourselves are things I am starting to research more and more because nine times out of ten we would not have these conversations face to face with people that we have online. This can be read online and there is a digital footprint there that can be read as well. What kind of effect is that having?
I also have a fear outside of the area of reading negative messages on social media in terms of how interpersonal skills are developing for children in the education system, that is, how they speak to each other and how people approach each other. All too often we see the medium of communication is through technology and is very technology focused. What kind of effect is that having on interpersonal skills or on communication? That goes back to the mental health sphere again in that the interpersonal communication is not there. It is across a medium of younger people feeling more comfortable texting than speaking face to face. Are we losing the art of conversation where grey areas and nuances can be viewed or seen as opposed to a conversation being labelled or put in a box because it fits the technology or the algorithm it faces? I would be interested in the witnesses' views on that.
Dr. Niall Muldoon:
On the issue of the pathfinder project, my understanding is the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has told the Department of Health it needs to take control of the pathfinder legislation. My understanding is there is some proposal in with the Attorney General for decision, and I will be pushing to get that out as quickly as possible, even if it needs to be adjusted. I said earlier on that we can still create a pathfinder project office without the legislation in place. We could do it on an administrative basis for a period of time and allow ourselves a bit of leeway while we get that legislation sorted out. I am seriously disappointed with the fact the idea was established in 2014 and we are still only looking at the legislation options now. That should have been done a long time ago. It could have even happened within the national youth task force in 2017 where we have had two years to put that together. That is unfortunate from my point of view and I would love if we could get it established before the fall of this Government.
On social media and online communication, I will pass on to my colleague, Dr. McAuley. There is that sense that we have children and young people here. There are still many young people and children who are very good at the communications side of things, but the Deputy is saying there is that possibility that cultural change will happen. From my point of view, the real answer will be in education. How we establish our culture will come from the four year olds upwards.
What are the ideas around helping the teachers do that? Straight away we are asking teachers who do not have the skills to be reskilled and retrained. I am not saying I have the skills or that anybody else does because this is moving so fast.
Dr. Niall Muldoon:
I will let Dr. McAuley speak on this but there is something we have to think about as a nation. We are very scared by our social media and all the stuff that goes wrong, but we are also trying to sell ourselves as digital citizens. Our children will be the best ever employees because of it and we are trying to create digital schools. We have to figure out what we are going to go for. My point of view is we need to start-----
My point is there is nothing wrong. I am trying to get to the nuance of this and it probably needs a lot more debate. It is not the technology. It is how it is being used and how we are communicating. We can still market ourselves as technological leaders but it is how we use and interpret that as a culture.
I am talking about the cultural communication and what is accepted in our society as rational communication style and content as opposed to the actual device. I am talking about the mannerisms and how we interact.
Everyone on the committee will agree that most social media platforms are used for one of two things. They are used either for hatred and bile or for proper communication of whatever it is that is being pushed. Unfortunately, as the Deputy alluded to, over the past year or so, I have seen a horrible emerging trend that the majority of social media is attacking this, that or the other.
There is no respect. There are anonymous accounts-----
There is also the idea that if we banned mobile phones in schools it would somehow solve the problem. We have to go back to the basics and decide how we will interact as a community and a culture. I am always talking about this. It is a huge philosophical debate and it is difficult know where to start.
Dr. Karen McAuley:
We spoke at the very beginning about the two reports on the impact of homelessness on children and the idea of an emerging consensus about the measures needed to try to address child homelessness in the short, medium and long term.
I do not have any wisdom to offer regarding the online issue. I am not sure whether there is a monopoly on wisdom on it. We all know it is very complex. We all know that people individually and collectively have a role to play, starting with personal responsibility for our actions and our decisions about what we do and do not do and what we say and do not say to people, whether online or off-line. This does not just need a multi-agency approach or whole-of-Government approach, it requires a whole-of-society approach. It is about looking at what measures can be mobilised appropriately in the right way. We must ask where law is necessary, where criminal law as opposed to civil law is necessary, where regulation is necessary and what can it do and what can education do. We have spoken about this issue previously and I know committee members are aware of it. We said, and we are not alone in this, that the whole question of educating children and young people from a very young age, from the very beginning of their formal education, so they are equipped with the knowledge and skills in an age-appropriate way to navigate this environment, is very important. There is a range of measures and people who have a role to play in different ways. There is not one simple answer and we all know this.
We work with our colleagues in the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children and our focus this year was on the issue of children's rights in the context of digital media and the digital environment. As part of this, we worked with young people from various countries throughout Europe. One of the things they were very keen to emphasise, and we heard this from children and committee members will be familiar with it, is that it is very important to frame this conversation with regard to the positives and negatives. We are all concerned for children's well-being, welfare and safety and, understandably, we can focus on the protection side of things and on the negatives with regard to the damage that can be done. We also need to take on board the fact that social media is very important to children and young people.
Dr. Karen McAuley:
It plays an important role in their lives in the context of their engagement with each other and their learning and interactions. Looking through the lens of children's rights, any number of children's rights are engaged in this domain and it is important to take a balanced approach to it.
Given the day that is in it, it would be appropriate to mention that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is working on the development of a new general comment on the whole question of children's rights in a digital environment. It is expected this will be ready towards the end of next year or early 2021. It is some time away. The committee is engaging directly with children and young people from throughout the world to hear their views. It is an area on which our office will continue to work. We must figure out not only what is an appropriate role but also what is an effective role that our office can play in this area. It is not enough for us to express concern. We have to figure out what we can do. Something we all need to think about is how we engage directly with children and young people on this issue to make sure we get their perspectives and ideas. They are very good at coming up with very practical solutions to certain issues.
I have stated previously that social media have some very positive aspects, such as community groups, community development and how children interact with each other through youth clubs, etc. There are even online advisory fora where they can discuss issues. We need to have a balanced debate.
Senator Freeman spoke about political motivation in the context of mental health and asked where we will go with the next Government. I do not have to preach to the converted and the witnesses and I are on the same page. Mental health has come from such a low base. In the 1990s, few people voted on mental health issues. They may have spoken about it but they did not go to the polling stations to vote on mental health. Now more and more people are doing so and it is up to the likes of us across the party divide to keep pushing this. In the next election when people go to doors the voters will decide. Voters will state they will vote on mental health and ask about the policies. I remember going to doors with my father in the 1990s with a policy on mental health and people were looking at me asking why we had a policy on mental health and asking what it was all about. That was in 1997. We have come all the way from there. We have come from such a low base. To be honest, the witnesses are right and the people will drive it by how they vote on it, if they vote. It is incumbent on us, as politicians, to get this. That is my tuppence worth.
I support Deputy Neville in his remarks. This is something about which I feel very strongly. There is the notion of monkey see, monkey do. I do not know how we can expect children to behave any differently from adults. I do not know when the digital safety commissioner will come into place. I am very frustrated that it has not happened already. Will it be possible for a digital safety commissioner to place an onus on digital companies to have an awareness campaign? It sounds ridiculous that we have to be thinking about making adults aware that they should interact with one another in a respectful way. Short of going back and rearing people it is hard to see how a state, country or government can tell adults what constitutes appropriate behaviour. A great deal of what we, as politicians, put up with online is in the realm of harassment and bullying. Most of us do not go on about it too much because we are so used to it but the fact we have become used to it is a problem in itself. It is a cultural problem. Do the witnesses believe the digital safety commissioner can play a pivotal and important role in shifting the direction we are going in? I do not know where this will all end. That may sound negative. We have to think of practical ways in which we can improve the situation. Could an awareness campaign and investment by technology companies make an impact?
I compliment Senator Noone on what she said. Unless we, as adults, do not call this what it is, namely, bullying, harassment and inappropriate, how do we expect children to call it what it is? It is incumbent on us to step forward. It might be seen as weakness or not being able for it. We are able but we need to call it for what it is. Until such time as adults identify that this behaviour is inappropriate, we cannot expect children to see it.
With the Chairman's indulgence, there are two separate strands. There is online bullying and harassment. We see it and we call it what it is. There are also the grey areas, which we find it very difficult to define because everything is boxed into an algorithm. Somebody may be writing something with the best intentions but it can be interpreted in a different way because it is devoid of emotion. There is no emotion behind it. The tone of voice is not there and neither is the body language. It is not in context. It is incumbent on us to educate ourselves. I do not know how we will do this. That is my point and I am throwing it out there. How do we put on the filter so that we think about how content will be interpreted? I try to do it when I am writing. I ask how it will be interpreted when people, particularly children, read it cold. This is not to blame anybody. It is about knowledge and understanding. It is about educating ourselves on how we do it. We are behind the eight ball because the technology is moving so fast and human capability is not able to catch up.
Dr. Niall Muldoon:
With regard to the concept of how pieces are written, as a psychologist, I understand what Deputy Neville is saying.
There is a new generation who only see the words and do not understand the subtleties of context, tone and the fact that a word may have two meanings. The things that we thought ten years ago were very funny as sarcastic comments, for example, are much more important and words are very much seen as meaning what they mean. The subtleties and grey areas that were mentioned are being lost for a new generation. Every generation faces a challenge. This is probably our challenge and it has to come from us, as adults. There is a new generation of parents who will understand that and will create a new style for parenting their children in a digital world. New parents are aged between 25 and 30 years and, therefore, are digital citizens. They will have grown up in a digital world and will need to teach their children the subtleties and protective manoeuvres or skills. We will not be totally alone doing this.
In the context of a digital safety commissioner, as my colleague, Dr. McAuley stated, it has to be part of a whole product. It has to be part of education, justice and communications or the whole realm. We have to decide, as a society, are we willing to create a new chapter for these young people and what inputs will make them safe.
Can we bring the multinationals to bear on this issue? I have no doubt that we can. We will also have to a European wide thing as well. Our colleagues in Europe are doing so. In Brussels, they are looking at this as well. I mean the data protection commissioner and all of those sorts of people. The members will know the breadth of people that are involved. If we have a template and can create a conversation, as the members have started here today, over the next 12 to 18 months one can create a consensus that, in turn, can create opportunities for us to change things.
This issue is beyond us. The aviation industry has a set of rules that are across the board and global. That blueprint can be copied. At present, we board planes without going through security when it comes to social media. I mean without baggage control or anything else.
I thank the witnesses and members for a fascinating end to an interesting discussion. I also thank the secretariat for reminding me about the following: in the course of our discussion specific to pathfinder, it is appropriate that the committee write to the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, seeking information and an update on the matter.
We will write to the three Departments and I thank Deputy Neville for his suggestion. We have agreed that action. I thank the Dr. Muldoon and Dr. McAuley for their presentations and the members for their engagement.
We will adjourn until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 4 December, when we will meet representatives of Scouting Ireland. It is intended that the select committee will meet on Tuesday, 3 December, to deal with Supplementary Estimates.