Seanad debates

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Appointment of Ombudsman for Children: Motion

 

12:00 pm

Photo of Imelda HenryImelda Henry (Fine Gael)
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I move:



That Seanad Éireann recommends Dr. Niall Muldoon for appointment by the President to be Ombudsman for Children.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I ask the House to recommend Dr. Niall Muldoon for appointment by the President to be the new Ombudsman for Children. Senators will be aware that the position of Ombudsman for Children fell vacant on the resignation of Ms Emily Logan in September 2014, following her appointment as chief commissioner of the newly established Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Dr. Muldoon was selected following a comprehensive independent recruitment and selection process which was conducted at my request by the Public Appointments Service. The Government at its meeting of 3 February 2015 approved the nomination of Dr. Niall Muldoon for appointment by the President as Ombudsman for Children in accordance with the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002.

The relevant legislative provisions with regard to appointment to the Office of Ombudsman for Children are contained in section 4 of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002, section 4(2) of which provides that, "The appointment of a person to be the Ombudsman for Children shall be made by the President upon resolution passed by Dáil Éireann and by Seanad Éireann recommending the appointment of the person". This is the reason I am bringing the motion before the House. Section 4(4) of the Act states that a person appointed to be the Ombudsman for Children shall hold the office of Ombudsman for Children for a term of six years and may be reappointed once only to that office for a second term.

The first Ombudsman for Children. Ms. Emily Logan, was appointed on 18 December 2003 for a six-year term of office and was reappointed with effect from 18 December 2009 for a further six-year term. There was unanimous support in both Houses for these appointments. I would like to acknowledge Ms. Logan and record my appreciation for the work she has done as the first Ombudsman for Children and her achievements over ten years in building that office and working tirelessly for the rights and welfare of children. I wish her every success in her new career.

The Office of the Ombudsman for Children was established under the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 to promote and safeguard the rights and welfare of children. The Ombudsman for Children is independent of the Government and is accountable to the Oireachtas. The office is in place to provide an additional protection for children and, in this context, it is crucial that the Ombudsman for Children has the ability to advocate independently for children. The key functions of the role are to promote and safeguard the rights and welfare of children, to examine and investigate complaints about services provided to children, to provide advice regarding children's rights and conduct research on relevant issues.

The remit of the Ombudsman for Children has been significantly expanded and largely aligned with the remit of the Ombudsman with effect from May 2013 as a result of the changes enacted in the Ombudsman (Amendment) Act 2012. The responsibility for the Office of the Ombudsman for Children transferred to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs from the Minister for Health with effect from 3 June 2011. The role of the Minister is limited primarily to governance matters, particularly staffing and finance, given the Ombudsman for Children's statutory independence.

The process which resulted in Dr. Muldoon's selection began in August 2014 with meetings between officials in my Department and colleagues in the Public Appointments Service, PAS. In September 2014, I announced that the PAS would engage in an independent process to find a suitable replacement to fill this important role. The PAS is recognised as a centre of excellence for public service recruitment and selection across a range of posts from entry level to professional, technical and senior executive positions. The recruitment process was conducted in accordance with the codes of practice of the Commission for Public Service Appointments and the PAS ensured that the process adhered to the principles of fairness, quality and recruitment on merit.

The PAS advertised the position on 31 October 2014 on its website, www.publicjobs.ie. The job was promoted through international channels, in order to give the widest scope for potential applicants in comparable jurisdictions. Applications for the post were received from a wide range of candidates inside and outside the State with a diverse range of backgrounds. I was pleased and encouraged at the interest in this important role. Some 97 eligible applicants were considered by a selection board for shortlisting. Some 12 candidates were shortlisted for preliminary interview on the 16 and 17 of December. Five of these candidates were then selected for final interview and assessment, which took place on 28 January 2015. Dr. Niall Muldoon was the successful candidate to emerge from this rigorous process.

A unique element of this recruitment process was the involvement of children at all stages. There were two consultation workshops with children and young people on 20 and 21 October 2014 to provide input into the final personal specification and the advertisement for the post. I attended both of these consultations, the first with a younger group aged eight to 12 years and the second with an older group aged 13 to 17. At these consultations, a panel of children was selected to become involved in a role play assessment as part of the final selection process.

The final assessment included a role play session for each candidate with 11 children based on topics developed by the children themselves. The final interview included a presentation. Two children were involved with the interview board in assessing the presentation but the children were not involved in assessing the other competencies examined by the adult members of the final interview board.

Dr. Muldoon is currently director of investigations at the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. He has been in this role for two and a half years and oversees the handling of almost 1,600 complaints per year made by, or on behalf of, children and young people about public bodies such as the HSE, schools and voluntary hospitals. He ensures that a culture of independence, impartiality and child centredness underpins the work at all times. Prior to joining the Office of the Ombudsman for Children Dr. Muldoon spent five years as national clinical director of CARI, a children's charity, based in Dublin, Limerick and Cork, providing therapy and support to children and families affected by sexual abuse.

He is a registered clinical and counselling psychologist who has worked in the area of child protection for almost 20 years. He spent ten years working in the Granada Institute providing therapy, risk assessments and support to adults who had sexually offended against children and those who had been abused as children. He was regularly called upon to provide expert testimony in the courts. He also has extensive experience of lecturing up to doctoral level in both TCD and UCD. His experience shows he has the range of professional and academic experience that makes him suitable for the position. The rigorous assessment and selection process conducted by the PAS concluded he was the best candidate for the job. I wish him every success in this important and vital role. I am happy to recommend the adoption of this resolution by the House. I thank the children who participated in the process.

12:05 pm

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. Contrary to the expectations, hopes and aspirations when the Minister was transferred from the Department of Health to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the waiting lists and the number of people on trolleys have increased. I do not think the Minister can be held responsible for the inadequacies in the Department of Health but I wish him well in his new Department. I wish him every success in that regard.

On behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party, I unanimously recommend Dr. Niall Muldoon for appointment by the President as Ombudsman for Children. This has been a careful and well-scrutinised appointment. His appointment will give rise to a vacancy in the Office of the Ombudsman for Children and I ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if the appointment of his replacement will involve the same level of scrutiny. It is an important appointment.

It is a novel idea that children were involved in the conducting of these interviews. We could all have enjoyed having scrutiny of our teachers in the same way when we attended national school. We could have had an opportunity to assess their suitability for teaching children. My recollection of the period is that it was a hard time for children. I have always praised the Sisters of Mercy, my first teachers, who were wonderful. I adored Sister Anthony, who was my first teacher. I will never forget her, God be good to her. She never raised her hand in anger or slapped in anger but she was from Tralee, County Kerry-----

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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What does the Senator expect?

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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-----and gave me a great start in life. I then went on to the Christian Brothers, who were extremely good but they used physical violence. A famous leather was made especially for the Christian Brothers and we got ten of the best. It was not easy. My granddaughter is now attending school and she adores it. She goes in to learn with joy and the attitude has changed. We have come a long way but we needed to come a long way. I will never forgive those in Letterfrack and other institutions who abused the children of this country and treated them with such contempt. We are only now catching up. In the 1950s and 1960s, this was a cold Ireland for children. We have come a long way and it is good that we have an Ombudsman for Children. The appointment was made by a Fianna Fáil Administration. Sometimes I get the impression that Fianna Fáil has been written out of the work it did. It was a very progressive Fianna Fáil Party that brought forward the Children Act. My party introduced the Act and recommended the appointment of an Ombudsman for Children. That should be noted.

With regard to the recent statement by Pope Francis, he has long been regarded as the most lovable pontiff but his statement was not made under the aegis of infallibility.

He made the statement as a human being. It was an off the cuff comment to which the former President of Ireland, Dr. Mary McAleese, responded strongly. I believe she responded in a positive way. In regard to the pontiff, I would not like to take the comment out of context, because he is a kind, gentle person. However, he is quite an age and probably slapping was regarded as acceptable in his youth.

This is not acceptable conduct, but I am not sure the Minister can bring about a situation where it is eliminated. It is very difficult to bring forward legislation on the slapping of children within a family. However, I believe slapping in public could be controlled. It should be made illegal for any parent to slap their children in public and this should be something that is reportable to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. There is no excuse for this, but there are different situations to be considered, such as the fact that children can wear people out, that people have other commitments, the number of children in a family, etc. Perhaps the Minister will take account of this point of view. Members who are parents know the situation. This is a difficult issue. If we bring in legislation that makes it illegal to slap a child in the home, where do we go from there? Where do we stand in regard to bringing the law into that situation?

The first step should be to make it illegal for parents to reprimand their children physically in public. This behaviour is not acceptable. Many people would intervene in such situations, but they are often told to get lost. What is the Minister's view on this? It is a sensitive area. When corporal punishment in schools was banned - John Boland was Minister for Education at the time - it was a step in the right direction and one I very much applaud. We wish Dr. Niall Muldoon every success in his new role. The position of Ombudsman for Children is an important role and carries significant responsibility, namely, the protection of children. Some fantastic candidates put themselves forward for the position, each of whom might have been suitable. Dr. Muldoon has been selected and now has the unanimous support of the Oireachtas before being officially appointed by the President.

12:15 pm

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I propose that the Irish Collective Asset-management Vehicles Bill 2014 be now taken at 2.30 p.m. rather than 2 p.m.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Imelda HenryImelda Henry (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I am pleased to speak on the motion that Seanad Éireann recommends Dr. Niall Muldoon for appointment by the President as Ombudsman for Children.

Since the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 paved the way for the establishment of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, which was established in 2004, the first Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, and the staff of the office established a pivotal role for the office in the lives of the children of this country. Ms Logan must be commended for her achievements during her term of office, on establishing and expanding the role and on working tirelessly for the welfare and rights of children. The office was established at a time when it had emerged that our children were in many ways not given the priority, nurturing, love and cherishing they needed. They had no voice and there was nobody to ensure their welfare came first, their voices could be heard and their rights could be enforced.

The ombudsman's annual report makes very interesting reading. The information obtained through the receipt, examination and investigation of complaints by the office provides a valuable insight into the experiences of children and families in dealing with public services. The scrutiny of the administrative actions of public bodies can provide an opportunity for organisations to review the service they are providing and, hopefully, improve them in areas where it is shown they are not providing the best service. In its first year, the office handled 94 complaints. In 2013, it handled 1,677 cases. This level of complaint and subsequent investigations by the office must mean that many wrongs have being righted, entitlements that were not being received are being received, that loopholes are being closed and that the next child or parent who comes across a barrier to an entitlement will find it easier to lift that barrier.

I understand that Dr. Niall Muldoon has been through a rigorous interview process and am pleased to know that children were involved at some stage of that process. He was the director of investigations in the Office of the Ombudsman for Children and as such has a unique and deep understanding of the workings of the office. I believe he has worked in the area of child protection for almost 20 years. I am confident that those involved in the interview process set out to find the best candidate for the position and believe Dr. Muldoon is that person. I am therefore happy to speak in his favour and wish him every success in his new position.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I support the motion and welcome the appointment of Dr. Niall Muldoon as Ombudsman for Children. I congratulate him and wish him every success. Like others, I take this opportunity to thank and commend Emily Logan, who over her ten-year tenure had to fight to build and protect the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. She built it up and ensured it had a strong role.

This is a critical year for the Ombudsman for Children and for children's rights in Ireland, as we go before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Ombudsman for Children will appear before the committee in June and the State in January 2016. It is important we have somebody of the calibre of Dr. Niall Muldoon to ensure we have a strong voice representing us in Geneva on behalf of children and children's rights.

There are some issues in regard to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children and a role for the Government to provide support. The first issue I would like to raise is the issue of direct provision. I urge the Minister to consider using the Office of the Ombudsman for Children as an independent oversight and complaints mechanism in this regard. It is doing that role for the Child and Family Agency and I believe it could do it also for direct provision. This is an issue we have often raised in this House. Another issue arises on reading the annual reports. We see from the report on last year that 43% of complaints came from the education sector. Many administrative decisions are made across government, particularly those made through Department of Education and Skills circulars, which directly affect children and their families, but these decisions do not have to go through any scrutiny in the Houses or by government. We need to address and examine this issue.

Another issue concerns the voice of the child. Children's voices have been absent in many investigations in cases brought to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. Therefore, the office must strive harder to ensure these voices are heard. Besides producing reports that are aimed at the Oireachtas or the Minister, the office should also direct its reports towards children so that they know what the ombudsman is saying on their behalf.

Senator Leyden mentioned corporal punishment. As the Minister knows, several months ago, I alerted him to an amendment I proposed to submit on the Children First Bill because I believe there is a way we can deal with this issue. It is shameful we have not yet dealt with this issue. Just 100 years ago, people could beat their wives, their dogs and their children. We still allow the beating of children. This says a lot about our society.

I would like to wish Dr. Niall Muldoon every success in the office. He can be assured of my full staff. The office has an outstanding staff who do incredible work. The office is very small, but has tremendous impact. The scope it has to affect the lives of children here is critical. I endorse and support fully the appointment of Dr. Muldoon.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. On my own behalf and on behalf of Labour Party Senators, I would like to add my voice to recommending Dr. Niall Muldoon for the position of Ombudsman for Children. This is one of the most important positions in the country, as the role of the ombudsman is to safeguard the rights and welfare of children, at all times giving an objective ruling on complaints made by children or an adult on their behalf. Dr. Muldoon, as Ombudsman for Children, must also accept and investigate complaints made with regard to the State and how decisions made by it affect children. On that note, with Senator Leyden I acknowledge the role played by Fianna Fáil in appointing the first Ombudsman for Children, a good move that has reaped benefits.

Dr. Niall Muldoon, with his vast wealth of expertise and knowledge will make an excellent ombudsman. His role as director of services at the Children at Risk in Ireland Foundation, CARI, and subsequent provision of counselling and therapy to children and families who are victims of sexual abuse will benefit him in his new role. He has over 20 years experience in child protection and played a key role in moving child protection forward. I wish him the very best and know he will be up to the many challenges that lie ahead.

I listened with interest to Senator Leyden's submission about the slapping of children and how we can manage without slapping them. I quite agree with him and was thinking as he was speaking about whether I ever slapped my children. I know of course I would probably have given a tap on the back of the hand or maybe on the backside. My daughter always says that when she saw me going for the wooden spoon she would run, although I never used it on her. I recall that when I would have an occasion to maybe chastise my son or reprimand him for something I would send him to his bedroom. I found out that he used to absolutely love it because he loved nothing better than a good read in the quiet of his bedroom. It was never a punishment for him - he used to enjoy being sent up to his room.

12:25 pm

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator made a good doctor out of him.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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Please God, he has years ahead of him. Could I also take the opportunity to wish the former and first Ombudsman for Children, Ms Emily Logan, the very best in her new role. I acknowledge the work she has done for the rights of children during her tenure. I also congratulate our colleague, Senator Jillian van Turnhout, on being shortlisted for this position. The Senator has always been a very strong advocate of children's rights.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister and thank him for giving us such an explanation of Dr. Muldoon's CV, if I may say that. It seems to me that we have exactly the right man in Dr. Muldoon. The role is important given that we have such a young population that is also increasing at the fastest rate in the EU. We need someone who can listen to children, and based on what we have heard today from various speakers, I think we have somebody. In regard to Senator Leyden's memory of school, I think we all have memories good and bad, but to the best of my knowledge, my memory is certainly very good. The Senator mentioned his first teacher. My first teacher was Sr. Paula and I have nothing but great memories of her in the Holy Faith convent back so many years ago.

I have a vested interest here, because I have 16 grandchildren and am therefore looking forward to making sure that others who have children in Ireland will be assured of safety and security. That is why I am interested in the reference from Senator van Turnhout to direct provision. I would like to know if there have been any discussions recently by the ombudsman's office about widening its remit to investigate direct provision for asylum issues. It seems to me that is one of the areas that has been left behind in the past.

One of my other experiences has been to do with early childhood education. In my supermarkets we had playhouses that looked after young children up to a certain age and what was interesting was that when they went to school, the teachers were able to identify the children that had been to the playhouse in Superquinn because they had learned. Children were there from the age of two, three or four, before they went to school. It seems to me that we can create benefit without necessarily relying entirely on the State to do it. We have talked in this House before about the importance of early childhood education. They are very formative years and are absolutely crucial to a child's development but I think we could do a lot more.

One very interesting development is in Finland, where from 1 January a new preschool education law came into effect, which obliges parents to arrange education for their children before they start primary school. That is a change from privilege to duty. According to a Finnish Ministry of education survey, some of the children did not take part in preschool education because the parents wanted to keep them at home or because the distance to school was too long. In many respects, Finland is leading the way in education. Such a change may mean that no child is too far behind when they start school. Finland recognises that these particular years are vital. Irish schoolchildren start school earlier than their Finnish counterparts but it is interesting to ask whether preschool should be made mandatory. Perhaps this is a question for the ombudsman to get involved with.

There was a young man on the radio yesterday or the day before - not a young man, he is 34 now - who has been in jail for close to half his life. He has had three long jail sentences and when he was asked what went wrong and how he ended up in that situation, he said he never learned, in those early years, how to read or write. He discovered the vast majority of others in jail with him did not know how to read or write and were also illiterate. Something we can do is ensure we have an education system that the quality of the education is important. I gather that boys have a problem in reading skills. We know that we have literacy and numeracy issues here and that is something I would like to see more attention paid to in later life.

One of the most interesting messages in terms of education focus is advocated by the World Bank. It says that education should focus on basic cognitive skills like reading, writing and communication until children are 17 or 18, and that vocational training should wait. We are well aware in this country of the massive amounts of children who left school to go into trades and did not have the skills to adapt when the economy changed. We have to allow children to be flexible by giving them a strong base.

It is also interesting to note that early childhood marriage has been found to have a negative effect on literacy rates for young women. Given the evidence, some experts argue that the minimum legal age of marriage should be raised to 21 years. The current minimum age here is 18 but we know that a lot of exemptions are granted. There was something on the radio this morning or yesterday about a Traveller family where a young man of 16 was getting married to a young woman of 17. We should consider international evidence here, especially in light of incidents of children being forced into marriage.

On the wider issue, we could do more in terms of research and how we can better prepare children with very basic life skills such as basic financial management. I do not really see this being taught at schools. There is a definite link between poor financial management skills and dropout rates at third level education. One bank in the UK has a programme delivered in schools that includes lessons on managing a private bank account and understanding information on pay slips for younger children. Children from age 16 receive classes on credit card use and insurance policy selection among other things. I know 16 sounds a little bit late to be doing that but it is a reminder of what can be done. There is a situation in Ireland where children are getting into financial difficulties because they are unaware of basic financial management skills. It is an area where we can do a lot more in the future.

On children's rights, and this would very much be Senator van Turnhout's baby, there is a lot more that businesses can do. In the past few years, UNICEF launched its children's rights and business principles initiative, which calls on businesses to carry out human rights due diligence, assessing how they may impact human rights and children's rights. Big companies such as IKEA have signed up to the scheme, which gets businesses that are active globally to assess their impact on children's rights. It is of course a moral issue but it can also be beneficial to companies. They get a higher recognition when they do something good like this. I understand schemes have been launched in a number of countries, including Britain, but I do not think the scheme has been launched here. It would be beneficial to look at the scheme in terms of guiding Government policy on improving children's rights. Businesses can do more in terms of children's rights and it could be possible for the ombudsman's office to raise awareness of the issue. It is not a question of forcing things to be done - just raising awareness would be sufficient to do it. I know from my experience in the supermarket business, people felt very good if the employer or service provider was acting in the community interest. It is good for business and for the community as a whole.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I thank all the Senators for their contributions to the debate on this motion. I have much pleasure in recommending to the House that Dr. Niall Muldoon be appointed by the President to be the Ombudsman for Children. Dr. Muldoon comes to this post with a wealth of experience, as has already been acknowledged. He is currently the director of investigations at the Office of the Ombudsman for Children and has been in that role for two and a half years. He is a registered clinical and counselling psychologist and was formerly the national clinical director of CARI. He has worked in the area of child protection for nearly 20 years. In Dr. Muldoon I am fully satisfied that we have a well-qualified, experienced and suitable nominee for appointment as our next Ombudsman for Children.