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Andrew Lynch: A cold, emotionless Andrews doesn't inspire confidence

The defeated look on Barry Andrews' face said it all. Appearing on last night's Six One News, the Minister for Children was forced to admit that he had no idea how many young people have died while in State care over the past decade.

Having recently told the Dail that the official number was 23, he now concedes that the real figure may be closer to 200 -- and most embarrassingly of all, he still cannot get the relevant information from an organisation that the Government itself set up.

It's been obvious for a long time now that the creation of the HSE was one of this Government's biggest mistakes. What we didn't know until recently was that this bureaucratic monster has had such a devastating impact on so many children's lives.

The murder of poor young Daniel McAnaspie has finally blown this scandal out into the open, revealing the callous attitude of a health service that was supposed to protect them and a minister who is clearly in office but not in power.

The deaths of children in care became a live issue last March, when Fine Gael TD Alan Shatter used Dail privilege to publish a draft report into the death of teenage mother-of-two Tracey Fay in 2002.

Visibly shaken at the time, Barry Andrews set up an independent panel to investigate all such cases.

Two months later, that panel has yet to receive a single file from the HSE. The officials involved claim that they are prevented from doing so by legal advice -- a feeble excuse which the minister himself has said he does not accept, since there is no need to name any individual child.

This inevitably creates the suspicion that the HSE is desperately trying to bury vital information, which would reveal that the tragic cases of Daniel and Tracey were actually just the tip of the iceberg.

For long-term watchers of the health service, this is a depressingly familiar scenario. Our politicians have no difficulty in setting up panels and commissioning reports, temporarily creating the impression that they are in charge of the situation.

When it comes to actually achieving tangible results or taking personal responsibility, however, it seems that there's always somebody else to blame.

It should not escape our attention that Mary Harney has conveniently chosen to make herself invisible throughout this entire affair, silently leaving one of her junior ministers to take the flak.

Since Barry Andrews has a tendency to come across as cold and emotionless on television, this has done nothing to increase public confidence. Every child protection agency accepts that the minister's heart is in the right place -- but while he's promised to "take a hard line" at a meeting with the HSE on Thursday, it's hard to imagine him knocking heads together or banging the table with rage.

The real problem here is not a lack of policy -- it's the Government's inability to implement it.

Over the past few years, the minister's office and the HSE have both put in a set of guidelines that, in theory, should guarantee the safety of every single child. As a report by the Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan revealed earlier this month, however, it's impossible to tell if the new system is working because there's a complete lack of external inspection or internal audit of child protection services.

All of this raises another awkward question for Brian Cowen: When exactly are we going to have this referendum on children's rights? The Oireachtas committee on the issue issued its report last February, along with a proposed new wording for Article 42 of the Constitution.

So far, however, the Taoiseach has stubbornly refused to commit himself to a date -- presumably because he would also have to hold the three outstanding by-elections on the same day and he does not want to see his fragile Dail majority eroded further.

There are over 5,000 young people in State care today. That's why both the Government and the HSE have a duty to put aside their selfish interests and ensure that the truth comes out.

For the sake of all those children, both dead and alive, Barry Andrews must not accept defeat.