Thursday, 13 December 2018
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh – Priority Questions
Child Detention Centres
11. To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps taken by the board of a campus (details supplied) to facilitate a return visit by the authors of the operational review of the centre in order to offer feedback to staff and stakeholders. [52313/18]
14. To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she has given consideration to publishing the report by persons (details supplied) into Oberstown Children Detention Campus; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [52426/18]
A huge injustice has been done to Goldson and Hardwick, who concluded the operational review into Oberstown, to the staff in that organisation and to the children being managed there by the non-publication of the report despite the promises given, and by the lack of facilitation of those individuals with regard to giving feedback to the staff. What is being done to correct the situation?
I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 and 14 together.
In September 2016, the Oberstown board of management commissioned an external independent review of operations and best practice at the campus. The review was undertaken by two international experts in this field, Professor Barry Goldson and Professor Nicholas Hardwick. The board carefully reviewed each recommendation made in the report and published its recommendations, together with the board’s response, in July 2017. The publication of the report's recommendations ensured that the supportive and developmental aims of the review were met.
I established a review implementation group in March 2017 to oversee the implementation of all the various recommendations arising from a number of reviews carried out around the same time, including the recommendations of the operational review. The group produced a coherent plan to implement all the recommendations, and its action plan, completed in May 2018, was published on my Department's website.
Since this group was established I am pleased to say that there is real evidence of positive change in the day to day operations of Oberstown, and this change is most recently reflected in HIQA's report of its inspections into the campus. The board of management of Oberstown had a number of concerns about the publication of the report of the operational review and decided, after a careful and lengthy process of deliberation, including the commissioning of independent legal advice, that it was not safe to publish the full report of the review. I sought legal advice from the Attorney General on the matter, who gave me similar advice that there would be significant legal risk in publishing the report in full. Accordingly, after careful consideration, I concluded that it was not appropriate to publish the full report.
I emphasise that my Department’s focus, and that of Oberstown Children Detention Campus, is on the implementation of the recommendations so as to ensure there is a safe and stable environment in Oberstown for children detained there by the Children’s Courts and for the staff who work there. The terms of reference for the operational review included a provision for a feedback visit from the reviewers to present concluding observations and recommendations to staff, management and young people.
Oberstown envisaged that the visit would take place before the reviewers had finalised their report so that any comments could be taken into account in the final version of the report. However, the reviewers maintained that it would not be possible to provide feedback until the final report had been completed. As a result, the visit did not take place.
I have no difficulty, in principle, if the reviewers wish to visit Oberstown again at this stage. Any such visit would be a matter for the board of Oberstown and the reviewers. However, I will ask the board to consider any request from the reviewers to return to visit the campus.
The Minister's response has actually made the situation worse in light of the sequence of events which we know of thanks to the work of RTÉ in unearthing some of the emails. We know that the legal advice of the Attorney General did not state that the report could not be published in full. It is very clear from the email of 13 November that the Attorney General said publication of the report would be possible if certain steps were followed. It is equally obvious from the correspondence that the mechanisms suggested by the Department to achieve this goal were actually ignored by the management of Oberstown. The only person who commented, or was asked to comment, on the report was the director, who had had extensive meetings with the two reviewers about it already. If there were concerns about fair procedures, to whom were they supposed to apply? It looks like the board and the chair of the board threatened resignations if the Minister proceeded with the course of action she recommended.
As an Opposition spokesperson for children and youth affairs, it is my role to hold the Minister and her Department to account. In this instance, a report commissioned in 2016 has not been published. I hear what the Minister is saying about legal advice and that she has spoken to the Attorney General but it is hard for me to be critical or to do my job without knowing the base line. The base line is what is within the report, not what is in the recommendations. It is the findings that matter. We have to start somewhere but we are starting in the dark. The Minister knows it and I am glad she does but we all need to know it. We need to know where we are starting with in respect of Oberstown. I cannot park the issue based on a recommendation - I need to know what is in the report.
I do not accept the suggestion that my response makes this worse. I appreciate what Deputy Rabbitte is saying but I have been describing a process. There have been a number of reports and reviews, including by HIQA which had sight of the full operational review, accepted the recommendations and accepted that an action plan had been put in place to implement those recommendations.
I was asked questions about the board's concerns and the reasons for deciding that it was legally risky to publish. The board's concerns were that the reviewers went outside the terms of reference and that, while some issues were addressed, one issue was not addressed at all, namely, the requirement to identify obstacles or barriers to achieving greater implementation of international standards and best practice. They also dealt with issues of national law and policy and other matters over which Oberstown has no control. Fair procedures were not adhered to and Oberstown has advised that, for example, persons mentioned were not given an opportunity to respond to the reviewers' findings. Factual accuracy checks did not take place and although some changes were made to the report at the time, the findings did not change. These are some of the reasons underneath the fact that there are legal risks in the context of publication.
The reason I stated that the Minister's response made the situation worse is because it was not accurate. We have a new departure now in that, for the first time on the record of this House, the reviewers' work is being questioned. It is being hinted that they went outside the terms of reference, as if it was their fault. That is a new thing, which was not mentioned previously. We have seen the sequence of events, which were the subject of rigorous scrutiny by the two internationally renowned professionals who tried to get the report corrected and tested for accuracy. It is patently untrue that they did not check the factual accuracy and they gave the board and director multiple opportunities to comment on the situation. They asked repeatedly to return to staff and, at a day-long meeting on 20 December 2016, they met with the chair and the director in Liverpool where they agreed a plan for the next steps and for revisions, as well as giving further opportunities for the chair and the director to come back. They did not come back, however, and despite the fact that further contact was initiated by the reviewers in January, February and March, there was no indication in any of those that steps were taken by Oberstown to facilitate their requests to debrief staff as had been agreed.
We have a huge problem here. I have said it before and I will say it again. If these two gentlemen were based in Ireland they would not be treated like this, not to mention the children who got lengthy jail sentences as a result of an offence that occurred in that institution and which, if we had the full facts, might have had a different outcome.
The Minister mentioned HIQA and stated that there had been improvements. However, a HIQA report from earlier this year outlined concerns about the inappropriate use of handcuffs at Oberstown, as well as concerns about the facility's approach to child protection complaints. The Minister may say I am taking this out of context but I repeat that I do not have the base line to see where the improvements have come and where the recommendations are being implemented. This is because I am working in the dark and do not have the reports. I take it that there is a combination of things and I acknowledge that the chair and the manager came before the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs but we have asked for this report numerous times. We want to be fair to the board and to the staff. We want to acknowledge that the recommendations are being implemented but we do not have the base line to see that.
This is a question to which I also want an answer. I cannot understand how withholding this report is in the best interests of the children currently in Oberstown. These children deserve to have their human rights upheld and part of that means independent, external oversight. This is another example of the closed loop that exists here, where reports are requested but go from the Government to the Department to agencies, yet we never get to see them. The media, rights groups and politicians in this House are looking for this report. It needs to be available for public scrutiny. If the Minister has real concerns, can she not redact the relevant parts and then publish?
I share deeply the Deputies' concerns for the safety of the children, and support for them in Oberstown. I have been there many times and I am going there this afternoon. I have met staff on their own, management on their own and the children on their own. I want the children and young people to move beyond Oberstown and be free. I have a passion about this, as do my colleagues. Deputy Rabbitte stated that she is working in the dark but we have a number of reports and recommendations. There is a HIQA report which has been published and, on the basis of that, the implementation of changes is happening and there are improvements on the campus. I see these every time I go there.
I appreciate the points raised by the Deputy and I am aware of much of the discussion to which she refers. We need to separate the issues. The production of a report to engage with young people and staff and so on as hoped would have been welcome, but one must consider that fair procedures were not followed in the completion of the report, leading to a legal risk relating to its publication. That is the advice I have received.