Thursday, 14 January 2016
Order of Business
On the question raised by Senators Daly and Cahill, since taking office the Government has sought to provide appropriate redress for those who experienced abuse and mistreatment across the State. In 2012, the Government established a residential institutions statutory fund to provide housing, health and educational support for those who survived physical, emotional and sexual abuse in residential education institutions. We also commissioned a report to examine what had happened in the Magdalen laundries and in 2013, we put in place a compensation scheme and medical support for the women whose lives were irreparably damaged. A redress scheme was also established for survivors of the barbaric symphysiotomy procedures.
It is right that this Government that has acted to make right some of the wrongs of our past. It is even more important that we continue to act to prevent future generations of children from experiencing such abuse. That is why the Government called for a referendum to enshrine the rights of children in our Constitution, which was passed comfortably by the people. It is why the Government has placed the Children First guidelines on a statutory footing, with mandatory reporting for all child protection concerns. It is also the reason legislation is currently passing through the other House to improve our approach to the vetting of those who have contact with children.
The Senator is right in saying that in 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of Louise O'Keeffe and found that there had been a violation of Articles 3 and 13 of the convention. The court awarded Ms O'Keeffe €30,000 in respect of damages and €85,000 in respect of court and expenses. The Government did not quibble with this judgment in any way but moved immediately to make the payment to Ms O'Keeffe and to publish and disseminate the findings of the court. Both the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, immediately apologised to Ms O'Keeffe and to the survivors of sexual abuse in schools for our collective failure to protect a generation of children from such appalling and degrading treatment.
The Government also began an immediate examination of the general measures that might be required to meet the terms of the judgment and ensure the safety and protection of all children in the State. The commencement of the Children First Act has been part of the Government's general response. The commencement of the vetting Act will, as I said, be another important step. The Children First interdepartmental implementation group has been tasked specifically with carrying out a detailed review of current and planned child protection mechanisms in the school system to assess the extent to which issues identified in the judgment have been addressed in the period since 1973.
The judgment in the O'Keeffe case relates to cases in which there was prior complaint about sexual abuse to the school authority and in which no effective action was taken and children suffered subsequent to this. There is, however, no strict interpretation as to what constitutes a prior complaint. Claimants are not required to come up with a specific type of proof. While the State must be satisfied that, on the balance of probabilities, there was prior complaint, it does not insist on a strict evidential standard in assessing the material put forward by an applicant. A holistic approach and analysis has been taken and that is the basis on which the Government is offering an ex gratiapayment to people who suffered historic sexual abuse. Under the approach agreed by the Government, we have already reached settlements with six other individuals who experienced sexual abuse in school. Payments have been made to each of them.
I know Ms O'Keeffe disagrees with this approach to a compensation scheme and that her views are heartfelt and expressed only with the wish to advance the case of those who have suffered in our schools. As a State, however, we have a broader obligation. While we have to take the view that seeks to make right some of the wrongs of our past, we also have to take the view that protects our future and protects the resources of the State for investment in the safety of the next generation of children. I believe the Government is taking the proper approach and striking the right balance. I, therefore, do not propose to accept the amendment to the Order of Business as proposed by Senator Daly, although I have given a very comprehensive view on the Government's stance on, and approach to, the matter. Rather than proposing an amendment to the Order of Business, the Senator might put forward the issue as a Commencement debate matter if he seeks further information. I am sure the Minister will come in for that debate.
Senator Bacik welcomed the commencement of the Fines Act, which we discussed previously. There can now be an attachment of earnings order and other arrangements rather than having people going to prison, which should be welcomed by all. The Senator also called for a debate on penal reform and rightly pointed out that we have had very positive improvements under this Government in that whole area. I do not think we will have time in the next number of weeks but we will try to see whether we can have a debate on that issue.
The cost of child care was raised by a number of Senators. Senator Mooney discussed the high cost for the squeezed middle and he is quite right. Although I agree with him that there has been significant State investment in facilities, I have no intention of having a debate in this House on any of the political parties and their promises or proposals prior to an election. I can assure Senator Mooney of that.