On 25 April, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, Mr Alan Shatter, T.D., announced the publication of the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Adults) Bill 2012.  The Bill creates a criminal offence of withholding information in relation to serious specified offences committed against a child or vulnerable person.  The offences specified include most sexual offences and offences such as assault causing harm, abduction, manslaughter or murder. 

The Bill will apply to the non-disclosure of information received after the Bill is enacted, even where it relates to something that happened before enactment.

The Bill also outlines a number of potential defences, for example, where the victim has requested that the information would not be further disclosed, or where a person such as a parent, guardian or medical professional is acting in the interests of the health and well-being of the child or vulnerable person.

The penalties for an offence of withholding information are set out in section 5 of the Bill and are related to the gravity of the offence concerning which information is withheld. 

A copy of the Bill is available here.

On the same date, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald, T.D., published the Heads of the Children First Bill, which will be sent to the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children for consultation with key stakeholders to take place before the Bill is finalised.  The purpose of the Bill is to put Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children on a statutory basis.  The Heads of the Children First Bill strengthens the current Children First Guidance in three key areas:

  1. Organisations covered by the legislation will have to ensure that they are safe places for children, and that they work in co-operation with the statutory authorities;
  2. Organisations and named professionals will have a statutory responsibility to report information about abuse or significant neglect to the HSE, whether it occurs in the organisation or elsewhere;
  3. The HSE will have obligations to support organisations and professionals but will also have the power to take action where they have reason to believe that the organisation is not operating in compliance with the legislation.  

The organisations that come under the legislation include all organisations where children attend without their parents or guardians.  Examples are schools and educational organisations, health and social services, leisure and sporting organisations and religious and spiritual organisations.  Among those professionals who will have to comply with the legislation are doctors, teachers, nurses, social workers, psychologists, social care workers, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and the Gardaí.

Failure by organisations and professionals to comply with the legislation could result in a prosecution or closure of a service.

A copy of the heads of Bill is available here

At the same time, the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) is seeking the submissions on the draft new National Standards for the Protection and Welfare of Children.  Information collected from the consultation process will be used to inform the development of the Standards, which when approved by the Board of HIQA, will be submitted to the Minister for Children who will draft regulations giving HIQA the legal powers to measure performance against these Standards.  The deadline for receipt of submissions is 17 May, 2012.  Copies of the draft National Standards can be downloaded from HIQA’s website, www.hiqa.ie.