I thank the Member for his question. Under articles 17 and 18 of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 2003, responsibility for child protection in schools falls to schools’ boards of governors. Schools, however, must have regard to guidance issued by the Department. The key document in this respect is 'Pastoral Care in Schools: Child Protection', issued under the DE circular 1999/10.
As that document explains, teachers and others working in the education services have a significant contribution to make to the safeguarding of children. All schools and colleges should create and maintain a safe environment for children and young people. Child protection protocols in schools should include the following: first, that school governors should ensure that their school has a child protection policy and procedures based on the guidance provided by DE and the education authorities; secondly, that, as part of these procedures, each school should have a designated teacher to whom all allegations or suspicions of child abuse should be referred for notification to social services; and thirdly, that all staff should be trained to be alert to the signs of possible abuse and know the action to take if they have concerns.
Schools do not have an investigatory role in relation to child protection concerns. There are protocols in place to refer concerns to the relevant agencies, most pertinently social services and the PSNI. The overarching policy framework and relative responsibilities across Departments and agencies for safeguarding children and young people is outlined in the Department of Health publication 'Co-Operating to Safeguard Children and Young People in Northern Ireland'.
In the light of the recent sentencing of a man caught in possession of abuse manuals who was employed at a school to only 12 months' imprisonment and two years on licence, and who is now due to be released because of time already served awaiting trial, will the Minister outline what conversations he has had with the Justice Minister on this very serious issue?
I agree with the Member if the implication of his question is that the sentence, which in that particular case will outrage people, is too lenient. I have always supported mandatory sentences in these matters and I suspect that he will have a similar view. However, we also need to ensure that the judiciary takes these things seriously. There will always be some flexibility in that. It is important that the most vulnerable in our society, and schoolchildren in particular, are properly protected, especially when we are talking about abuse issues and abuse in schools, where there is a duty of protection in place. I share the Member's desire to see much tougher sentences arising out of this and it is something that needs to be progressed.
There is a broad range of international and domestic child protection legislation relating to welfare. The principal domestic legislation is the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. It is the overarching piece of legislation, which sets out the requirements for professional practice in relation to children and young people and identifies the welfare of children as being of paramount importance, which is correct. It sets prevention and protection as two of the key principles.The Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 2003, which now covers the Education Authority as well, places a statutory duty on boards of governors to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, to have a written child protection policy and to specifically address the prevention of bullying in schools. Obviously, on the issue of bullying, direct anti-bullying legislation was put through the House last year. The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 also incorporated significant changes to the law on sexual offences to provide better protection for younger people from sexual abuse and exploitation. Finally, there is a requirement in the Children's Services Co-operation Act, which was passed through the House in 2015. It is:
"Every children’s authority must, so far as is consistent with the proper exercise of its children functions, co-operate with other children’s authorities and with other children’s service providers in the exercise of those functions."
So there is an overarching bit to try to ensure that there is that cooperation, because this is not an issue that relates just to Education. There are also key implications, particularly, for Health and Justice. It is only by that level of key cooperation that we will start to tackle these problems.