COMMITTEE ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD CONSIDERS REPORT OF IRELAND
The Committee on the Rights of the Child today considered the combined third and fourth periodic report of Ireland on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Introducing the report, James Reilly, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs of Ireland, said that the decade since the last review had been a very turbulent one, with the economic crisis and its profound social consequences, which had limited the progress Ireland could make. The emphasis had been placed on protecting, to the extent possible, a number of critical areas of public expenditure, particularly for vulnerable groups. The Ministry for Children and Youth Affairs had been established in 2011, and the Child and Family Agency in 2014. Better Outcomes, Better Future: The National Policy Framework for Children and Young People 2014-2020 had a wide scope, from the broad universal investments made in all children, to targeted support for more disadvantaged children so that all had the opportunity to reach their full potential. The target was to reduce consistent child poverty by at least two-thirds of the 2011 level.
Committee Experts appreciated the establishment of the Department for Children and Youth Affairs and the existence of numerous strategies for promoting children’s status, and wanted to know more about how those various programmes worked in practice. Experts asked questions about the high suicide rates of youth in Ireland, the status and treatment of Travelers and Roma, non-denominational education, the availability of abortion services, the functioning of the Ombudsman for Children, and policies on breast feeding. More information was sought on the steps taken to combat child poverty and homelessness, as well as on foster care, adoptions and the right to know one’s biological parents.
Gehad Madi, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Ireland, in concluding remarks, stated that the good intentions by the State party should be fully matched by implementation on the ground; some laws had been enacted, but were still waiting to become operational. Other policies and strategies were still in the pipeline.
Mr. Reilly, in his concluding remarks, stressed that the National Framework for Children and Young People Better Outcomes, Brighter Future was the Government’s roadmap, which included 163 commitments. It had been built on a wide consultation with young people themselves, as well as their parents, civil society and service providers.
The delegation of Ireland included representatives of the Department for Children and Youth Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Department of Justice and Equality, Department of Health, Homelessness and Housing, Inclusion Supports Department, Department of Education and Skills, Department of Social Protection, Office of the Attorney General Dublin, and the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Committee will next meet in public at 10 a.m. on Friday, 15 January. In Chamber A, the Committee will continue its consideration of the fourth and fifth periodic report of Peru (CRC/C/PER/4-5) and the initial reports of Peru under the two Optional Protocols (CRC/C/OPAC/PER/1 and CRC/C/OPSC/PER/1). In Chamber B, the Committee will start to consider the combined second and third periodic report of Haiti (CRC/C/HTI/2-3).
The combined third and fourth periodic report of Ireland can be found here: CRC/C/IRL/3-4.
Presentation of the Report
PATRICIA O’BRIEN, Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that the promotion and protection of human rights had always been at the heart of Ireland’s foreign policy. Ireland was proud to have served on the Human Rights Council in recent years. The treaty body system was sometimes described, with good reason, as the engine room of the international system.
JAMES REILLY, Minister of Children and Youth Affairs of Ireland, said that the decade since the last review had been a very turbulent one, with the economic crisis and its profound social consequences, which had limited the progress Ireland could make. The emphasis had been placed on protecting, to the extent possible, a number of critical areas of public expenditure, particularly for vulnerable groups, and developing robust plans so that future investment would realize the rights of all children in Ireland. Realising rights and achieving social inclusion was about much more than household income levels. Household joblessness could lead to the transmission of poverty from one generation to the next, and the consequences for children in that regard. Despite the significant level of the national debt, large resources had been allocated to childcare, education and health.
The Cabinet Ministry for Children and Youth Affairs had been established in 2011, and the Child and Family Agency in 2014, while, following a referendum, children were now specifically recognized as rights holders in their own right in the Irish Constitution. Child-related welfare payments had been maintained at 33-35 per cent of the minimum adult welfare rate, while the number of teachers and special needs assistants in schools had been substantially increased. The practice of detaining children in adult prisons had been brought to an end. The Children First Act of 2015 provided for mandatory reporting and related statutory safeguarding provisions as well as removing the “common law” defence of reasonable chastisement. The International Protection Act provided for a single procedure for the examination of applications for asylum. Corporal punishment was not allowed in Ireland, including in the home environment.
Since the Action Plan for Jobs had been launched in 2012, almost 135,000 jobs had been added to the economy; the unemployment rate had fallen to 8.8 per cent. A 33 per cent increase had been made in the childcare budget, enabling every child in Ireland to avail of free pre-schooling, including children with disabilities. An additional 100 million euros had been added to the social protection measures for families with children. Additional funding had also been secured for mental health services.
Since the economic crisis, there had been a marked growth in the rate of child poverty, and, despite the Government’s best efforts, one out of 12 children in Ireland still lived in consistent poverty, which was a cause of considerable concern. The target was to reduce consistent child poverty by at least two-thirds of the 2011 level, or the equivalent of 100,000 children. Addressing homelessness, a very complex problem, was a major challenge. The Social Housing Strategy 2020 gave back to the State a central role in providing social housing. Innovative approaches would continue to be applied so that every child and their family had a place to call home.
Better Outcomes, Better Future: The National Policy Framework for Children and Young People 2014-2020 had a wide scope, from the broad universal investments made in all children, to targeted support for more disadvantaged children so that all had the opportunity to reach their full potential. The Government’s efforts would principally include the continuation of structural reforms and investment to improve the quality and responsiveness of services to respect children’s rights, and continuing to build and implement legislation and policies that recognized the rights of children and young people and allowed for their vindication. The huge contribution by civil society and the Ombudsman for Children to protecting and advancing the rights of children had to be acknowledged.
Questions by Experts
KIRSTEN SANDBERG, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Ireland, noted that in spite of the challenges connected to the economic crisis, there had been a number of positive developments, including the creation of the Ministry for Children and Youth Affairs.
Ratification of the Optional Protocol on the complaints mechanism was welcome. Ireland was encouraged to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, as it was the only European Union Member State not to have done so.
As for the legal status of the Convention, it was regrettable that it was not fully incorporated in Ireland’s public law. What was planned in that regard?
How long would it be before the Children’s First Act entered into force? Was there a plan to make a comprehensive review of the Convention in order to secure full compliance of Irish legislation with the Convention?
Was there any particular strategy in place connected to Traveler and Roma children? How was the impact of the austerity cuts affecting them?
The Expert wanted to know whether the Ministry for Children and Youth Affairs had the power of cross-cutting coordination across the Government.
A question was asked whether there was a plan to have the Ombudsman for Children placed directly under the Parliament. What complaints mechanisms were in place for asylum-seeking children, given that the Ombudsman did not have that prerogative?
There seemed to be a lack of awareness among public bodies of the Convention, which meant they did not always apply the best interests of the child. The delegation was asked to explain what was being done to speed that up. Were judges systematically trained on child matters?
GEHAD MADI, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Ireland, wanted to know about the earliest age at which a child could get married under a court order.
Information was sought about efforts to eliminate racial and other kinds of discrimination. The denominational structure of the educational system created difficulties for families who wanted to educate their children in a non-denominational setting.
Why had the Travelers not been recognized as an ethnic group? What was the exact position of the Government in that regard?
The Expert inquired about the application of the principle of the best interest of the child by courts and the State administration. The outstanding gaps in that regard ought to be addressed.
Infant mortality in Ireland was below the European average, but the mortality rate of Travelers infants was three times higher than that of the general population. What efforts were being made to increase the security of children, especially on the roads? What policies were in place to deal with the high suicide rates of children in Ireland?
JOSÉ ANGEL RODRÍGUEZ REYES, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Ireland, asked what happened if parents failed to reach an agreement on which name to give to the newborn, especially out of wedlock.
To what degree was one’s right to identity and origin protected, especially in the context of surrogacy arrangements? At what age could children be allowed to learn about their biological identity?
When it came to transgender children, what mechanisms were in place to seek acknowledgement of different gender, and at what age was that possible? More information was sought on the prohibition of non-consensual treatments of intersex children. Was that a problem which ought to be addressed? Was compensation possible to those children put to surgery without their prior consent, asked another Expert?
The Expert wanted to know if corporal punishment was prohibited under all circumstances and in all settings. Were there any awareness-raising campaigns?
How many trials had been initiated on abuses of children from the 1930s to the 1970s and how many convictions had been handed out, asked the Expert?
A question was asked whether there were enough social workers in Ireland. Was there a 24/7 hotline in place?
What was being done in Ireland to prevent bullying in schools?
Another Expert raised a question on the minimum age of criminal responsibility and the minimum working age.
The issue of the stigmatization of pregnant girls was raised by an Expert. She also asked about the surnames of children born out of wedlock, who were not given their fathers’ surnames.
If a child was born on Irish territory, was he entitled to Irish citizenship?
Another Expert inquired whether the right to privacy was protected during criminal proceedings. How about internet service providers which divulged information about children?
Were there plans to decriminalize abortion? There was discrimination against pregnant girls who had to travel abroad to get an abortion.
Replies by the Delegation
The delegation explained that it was expected that the bill removing obstacles to ratifying the second Optional Protocol on the sale of children should be in force before the end of 2016.
In addition to children’s rights to a referendum, there were very specific provisions in the laws on the best interests of the child. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission also played a role in that regard. A national strategy on the participation of children in decision making was in place.
Ireland accepted general rules of international law as a code of conduct. International agreements to which Ireland became a party did not become part of Ireland’s legislation unless explicitly approved by the Parliament. An inter-departmental committee on human rights provided further opportunity to ensure that the State was meeting its human rights obligations; monitoring of and ensuring accountability were covered by a current project.
The Children’s First Act had been recently signed into law, said a delegate. A Children’s First interdepartmental implementation group was in place. It provided for mandatory reporting by key officials and safeguards on services for children. Each Governmental department had produced its own roadmap in that regard.
The common law defence of reasonable chastisement had been removed. It was widely supported across Ireland.
Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures was a cross-agency strategic framework covering children and youth until the age of 24. The Ministry for Children and Youth worked with and coordinated a wide array of partners on its implementation. It included 163 commitments in total, which had been defined in broad consultations with children and civil society groups. It served to ensure that the principles of the Convention were embedded in the legal framework. The Ombudsman for Children was also extremely active in promoting the principles of the Convention. A major public event had taken place on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Convention.
Efforts were underway to put a new Traveler and Roma strategy in place. Defining themes, objectives and actions were the three stages in the current process, in which the Roma community was a partner. Child and youth issues were given due attention, as well as the protection of private data.
Regarding the impact of austerity, a delegate stated that additional resources were now being allocated as a way of compensation for some of the cuts which had had to be made. Cuts in welfare provisions had been also somewhat compensated by targeted measures; the provision which now stood at 64 euros per child per week was quite close to what it had been before the crisis. Having come out of the bailout, the Government now had additional resources for children and families with children.
There was a very strong culture in Ireland of consulting with civil society on a range of issues. Social impact assessment was also in place: households with children were proven to have gained most from the 2016 budget.
The number of children living in consistent poverty was a matter of serious concern and a priority area for the Government. The best way out of poverty was through employment that paid more than welfare, stressed the delegation. The more people worked, the less need there would be for welfare provisions to children.
The Ombudsman for Children received its funding from the Ministry for Children and Youth Affairs. It was an independent institution and its funding was not connected to the actions it took. The Lower House of the Parliament could vote on funds to the body if the Ministry had not taken care of the expenditure requests.
There had always been a complaints procedure for direct provisions centres, and an independent appeals officer, who was a judge, was now in place. The key to reforming the system would be through the enactment of the International Protection Act.
Judges in Ireland were independent, and their continuous education was overseen by a specialized committee. There was a proposal to establish a new family court, and the idea was to make children as comfortable as possible in courtrooms.
A delegate informed that public procurement in Ireland was conducted in line with Irish and European Union legal requirements. A standard template of tender documentation existed. The working outline of the national plan on business and human rights had been published online, and consultations on it would be undertaken with representatives of civil society. There was a reference to the rights of young persons in the outline.
The Government had decided that an exception for courts to allow early marriage should be abolished. There were only between 20 and 30 early marriages every year.
The Government was close to finalizing a new integration strategy for Roma and Travelers. In terms of recognition of Travelers as an ethnic group, the delegation explained that the authorities had consulted with Travelers groups; it had taken a while to understand what exactly the Travelers were looking for.
The Government was committed to move towards a more pluralistic education system, so that it could provide a diverse enough number of schools for all religions. Over 90 per cent of new schools had a multidenominational ethos, said the delegation. The patronage divestment process ought to be sped up. The transparency of the admission system, which had been an issue before, was now addressed by a new legislative framework.
Regarding gender recognition, the delegation stated that Ireland had been at the forefront of promoting gender self-recognition, including for children aged 16 and over.
Questions by Experts
Ireland did not have paternity leave, and its maternity leave could be longer, said an Expert. She also asked about the expenses of child care. A number of deficiencies in the provision of child care had been observed by the Ombudsman.
The Expert inquired how the system of social workers could be improved.
Did the State party have plans to put in place a strategy on child abuse? Children sometimes seemed to stay too long in a harmful family environment.
Children who had been homeless and outside of the regular care system were not eligible for after care. Could the delegation explain? Clarification was also sought on legal provisions for step-parent adoption.
What was being done to help children find out the identity of their fathers who were priests?
On the standard of living, the Expert noted that some groups still seemed to be particularly bad off. School meals were provided only in some disadvantaged districts. The problem of homelessness was very grave, and emergency housing was inadequate.
The Education Bill did not include a provision to be heard in education. There was an incomplete complaints handling structure in place. The Expert also raised the issue of leisure and sports activities for children and adolescents.
Was there a detailed action plan to offer health care for children living in poverty?
A question was asked about how many hospitals had breast-feeding facilities in place.
How quickly was it possible to provide health care to obese children? The Expert also wanted to know about the existence of policies promoting inclusive education.
Another Expert inquired whether the Government planned to establish legislative proposals on immigration and residency. The principle of the best interest of the child ought to be observed, and all unaccompanied minors should have access to early and continuous legal advice. It seemed that this was not always the case.
The delegation was asked to elaborate further on the direct provisions system and recommendations made in that regard.
The Expert also raised the issue of the eviction of Roma and wanted to know what the Government was doing in that regard.
More information was sought about detention facilities for children. The Committee was concerned about the age of criminal responsibility, which remained at 10 years of age.
Could the delegation clarify if an appeal procedure existed in cases of family reunification?
The delegation was asked to provide information on any cases of child abuse by the Catholic clergy.
The Committee very much welcomed the increase of the age of voluntary recruitment from 17 to 18.
What was being done to prevent Irish minors and foreign minors in Ireland from being recruited by ISIS or other terrorist groups?
Another Expert inquired what happened to children whose parents were imprisoned. Was there a particular area in prisons for mothers with their children?
A question was asked on the number of beds available for mentally ill children and what was being done to improve conditions for such children. Was there a national mental advocacy plan for children?
Details were sought on the availability of contraception for adolescents, as well as on alcohol and tobacco use by children.
Were there platforms for the participation of children in cultural activities?
Several Experts raised the issue of abortion and asked for clarification on provisions allowing for the termination of pregnancy.
The majority of placements of children to voluntary care were done with the consent of their parents. Based on what criteria were such decisions made?
Replies by the Delegation
Since the Transgender Recognition Act had been adopted in 2015, two recognition certificates had been issued to a 16 and a 17-year old. The possibility of children under 16 to apply for recognition would also be considered. Cases of intersex children were extremely rare; medical intervention could be undertaken only after very careful consideration and consultations. The consent of the parents was necessary. The issue of compensation would not normally arise, other than regular compensation for cases of negligence.
Unintended injury was the leading cause of death for children under 18 in Ireland, so Ireland was developing a national child injury prevention plan.
If parents of the child could not agree on the surname, the registrar could leave that field blank or unchanged, and the field could be filled in later when the parents had agreed. Generally, though, the registrars would write down the mother’s surname as giving children double barrelled surnames was deemed unwieldy.
The delegation stated that a 2015 bill provided a statutory basis for the provision of information in both past and future adoptions. A mechanism had been found to address the constitutional concern of privacy, which was now with the Attorney General. Any child could be adopted with the consent of his parents, whether they were married or not.
Turning to health issues, it was explained that it was recognized that Traveler and Roma communities had quite specific needs. There was currently no specific policy in place. Asthma, diabetes and high risk of suicide were among health threats for Travelers.
The Government had introduced free general practitioner care for all children until the age of six; plans were in place to extend it to all children under 11. Obesity was recognized as an issue in Ireland, and the policy was being completed to address it. It was acknowledged that further efforts were needed to promote breast feeding; a new maternity strategy, covering that aspect, among others, was being finalized.
The Government had to refocus its attention to the issue of drug abuse. An independent review of the current strategy would be conducted, based on which a new strategy would be prepared. There had been a significant decrease in drinking alcohol in recent years. There were directives in place to protect children from smoking, and the first signs were encouraging. Recently, a smoking ban in cars where children were present had entered into force. Efforts were also underway to denormalize smoking in the eyes of children.
There was a very high level of suicide among young people between 15 and 19 years of age. A new suicide prevention strategy Connecting for Life had been launched in 2014; around 40,000 volunteers were involved in youth work in Ireland and that was one of the most promising approaches to move forward and decrease suicide rates.
Assisted reproduction legislation was being drafted to provide for the transfer of parentage. The child conceived that way should be allowed to find out the identity of its biological parents, which was not the case now.
The percentage of children living in poverty stood at 11.2 per cent, the delegation clarified.
Responding to the questions on violence against children, it was stated that there were 24 commitments in that regard under Better Outcomes, Brighter Future, which included monitoring and reporting clauses. Child protection and family protection were part of the strategy. Efforts were underway to increase public awareness, especially in the areas of prevention and family support; the public was also being educated on how to report cases of abuse.
It was explained that 93 per cent of children who needed it were in foster care. There was an effort to increase the number of Traveler children in the care of relatives. The number of children with special needs being placed abroad had decreased in recent years. The authorities had taken into consideration comments by the Ombudsman’s office in that regard.
All social workers had quite a detailed checklist with the view to ensuring that they did not miss any crucial information when considering foster cases. A small percentage of children still did not have an allocated social worker; those at risk or in residential care were always guaranteed one. The delegation was not aware of children being sent to care because of the lack of disability support.
An extremely inappropriate use of separation of two children in special care had been identified by an unannounced visit by the Health Information and Quality Authority. The overall levels of special care were high and the quality was assured through independent monitoring.
Provisions were in place to ensure that sexual health services were delivered at the highest level. Abortion was prohibited in Ireland unless there was a real and substantial risk to the life of a woman which could only be averted through abortion, in line with the 2013 act. That provision did not extend to victims of rape or incest. An individual who might wish to travel to another country to get an abortion was not assisted in any way. Crisis pregnancy counselling services were provided across the country. Repealing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution (which prohibited abortion) would leave a vacuum; a citizens’ convention would be needed to decide on which wording would replace the existing text.
On the questions related to disabilities, the delegation informed that services provided were in the process of major reconfiguration at the moment. Good progress had been made, with the aim of bringing equity of access to children with disabilities and addressing geographical disparities.
When the economy had come to a halt, the construction sector had also done so. The Government was now trying to reinvigorate that sector and increase the availability of housing. There were 90,000 people currently on the social housing list. For the sake of comparison, in 2015, a total of 13,000 social housing units had been created; in 2016, 17,000 new units were foreseen.
People were falling into homelessness because of the dysfunctional private rental market, but also due to family problems. Emergency accommodation was inspected before being used. The issue of homelessness was viewed particularly seriously by the Government. Temporary accommodation was not the right environment for children to grow up in.
Individual members of the clergy were subject to the same laws as all other citizens, the delegation stressed. In 2012, legislation had come into effect making it criminal not to report sexual offences against children or other vulnerable persons. To ensure that religious congregations had procedures for dealing with abuse, the authorities provided support through advising. Compensation was awarded in Irish courts based on injuries, damages caused and other factors. Many cases had been settled outside of courts and such settlements had not been made public. It was imperative that everyone involved in such cases was brought to courts; there had been numerous convictions in that regard.
National and local structures were in place to provide Traveler-specific accommodation. One in four Traveler families opted for this option, which was a significant increase. It could take 18 months or more to complete a housing project, a delegate explained.
The International Protection Act should become operational shortly. The principle of the best interest of the child had been incorporated following a number of consultations with children’s and civil society groups.
The Government was dedicated to establishing family courts and was consulting with all interested parties. Such courts would be established through divisions in the existing court structures.
On sexual offences, the delegation said that the different treatment of boys and girls in such cases was not considered as discrimination as the burden of unwanted pregnancies fell more heavily on girls.
The number of Roma, according to the census, was in the low hundreds. There was no indigenous Roma minority in Ireland; they were rather recent migrants from the European Union and their Irish born children. European Union nationals did not need to register with the police and nobody had to declare their ethnicity.
The age of criminal responsibility remained at 12 years of age. There were no children aged 12 to 14 currently in detention; there were five 15-year olds in detention at the moment.
A roadmap had been prepared for the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The intention was that all legislation necessary for it would be in place by the end of 2016; the Optional Protocol would be ratified at the same time. The Department of Education provided support to ensure that deaf or hard of hearing pupils could follow school curricula. There were 1,200 such children in mainstream education. Fifteen per cent of the education budget went to the education of children with disabilities.
The authorities were increasing efforts to expand pre-schooling for three- to five-year olds. The number of available places in child care had also been increasing. The basis of the current scheme was to have affordable and high quality child care. Paternity leave of two weeks had been put in place; Ireland’s maternity leave was actually better than in many European countries.
Regarding poverty, the deeper problem was that such children often lived in households where there was little work; thus, the focus was to increase employment opportunities. The Government had increased resources going into school meal programmes.
The Government was hoping to create a different kind of ethos of rehabilitation and resocialization of young offenders. The plan was to end the practice of sending young boys and girls to prison, and detention was to be seen as absolutely the last resort. The new bail supervision scheme should support children to keep in line with bail conditions so that they could stay out of prison.
Religion was a subject at junior certificate levels, from which pupils could opt out. Individual patron bodies continued to use the curricula that they had developed themselves, as there was no religion curriculum at the national level.
Almost all post-primary schools and many primary schools had student councils.
GEHAD MADI, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Ireland, expressed gratitude to the delegation of Ireland for their professionalism in providing answers. The Minister had clarified many issues, while acknowledging some of the existing hurdles. Good intentions by the State party should be matched by implementation on the ground; some laws had been enacted, but were still waiting to become operational. Other policies and strategies were still in the pipeline. It was encouraging that changes would be made regarding the under-18 marriages. The Committee and the delegation were working towards the same goal of protecting the children of Ireland.
JAMES REILLY, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs of Ireland, stated that it was significant to accept and acknowledge that Ireland was still on a journey, but it had a plan. The National Framework for Children and Young People Better Outcomes, Brighter Future was the Government’s roadmap, which included 163 commitments. It had been built on a wide consultation with young people and children themselves, as well as their parents, civil society and service providers. It was child-centred and recognized the needs of the most vulnerable. 2016 marked the centenary of the uprising which had ultimately given birth to the democratic Republic of Ireland. Mr. Reilly thanked the Rapporteurs and Committee Experts for their contributions, as well as civil society representatives who had contributed to the parallel report, and the children and young people who had contributed to their own report called “Picture Your Rights”.
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