We will be ‘laughing stock’ over hotline for missing children

THE Government will be obliged to promote a new EU-wide hotline for missing children from May 2011 – even though the service will be unavailable in Ireland for the foreseeable future.

Members of the Oireachtas Committee on Communications yesterday expressed astonishment over delays in establishing a special 116000 hotline to report missing children, including cases of suspected child abduction across Europe.

Senator Joe O’Toole said it was outrageous that a situation would be allowed to develop where a vital service that was unavailable in the Republic would be promoted by the Government. “We’ll be made the laughing stock of Europe” remarked Mr O’Toole.

Senator Maria Corrigan said the promotion of the hotline number in the absence of such a service being available in Ireland would be “incredibly dangerous and irresponsible”.

Officials from the Department of Communications explained that the Government was obliged to transpose the EU directive governing the use of 116 harmonised freephone services of social value by May 25, 2011, which requires EU member states to promote such numbers.

They also claimed that the issue was under consideration by the Department of Health and Department of Justice, which were also examining an alternative Amber Alert service, the child abduction emergency number used widely in the US.

However, the Commission for Communications Regulation claimed it has received no applications to operate the hotline number for missing children, despite it being made available since August 2007. ComReg commissioner Mike Byrne said only 11 of the 27 EU member states were currently operating a hotline for missing children. He claimed the failure of the majority of EU countries to provide such a 24/7 service was largely due to funding.

The 116 numbers are an EU-wide initiative to provide harmonised phone services of social value so that EU citizens can access key services governing wellbeing and personal safety by dialling the same number regardless of which EU country they are in. To date, just five freephone 116 numbers have been assigned for use across the EU.

These numbers are: n116000: A hotline for missing children.

* 116006: A helpline for victims of crime assigned to the Crime Victims Helpline in Ireland.

* 116111: A child helpline assigned to Childline in Ireland.

* 116117: A non-emergency medical on-call service.

* 116123: An emotional support helpline assigned to the Samaritans in Ireland.

However, Mr Byrne told the committee that only the 116111 helpline for children was currently available in Ireland, though the helpline for victims of crime is also due to become operational before the end of the year.

The 116123 helpline for the Samaritans will not be available until early 2012 because of the issue of funding, said Mr Byrne.

Senator O’Toole said there was no need for a separate call centre to operate the hotline for missing children.

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