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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Vol. 805 No. 2

Topical Issue Debate

Crèche Inspections

As 11 Members have raised this issue with the Ceann Comhairle, namely, Deputies Peter Mathews, Simon Harris, Derek Keating, Robert Troy, Mary Lou McDonald, Ciara Conway, Alan Farrell, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Róisín Shortall, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and John Lyons, there will be just one and a half minutes available for each Deputy. Consequently, I ask for their co-operation. The Minister will then have four minutes, after which there will be a further 30 seconds for a supplementary question. I call on Deputy Mathews.

The fact that 11 Deputies have sought to highlight the alarm that has been raised nationwide on this issue speaks for itself. It is appalling that the most vulnerable citizens were subject to the type of treatment, neglect, bullying, harassment and downright punishment imposed that occurred in a couple of those crèches and which was shown on "Prime Time" last night.

I want this issue to be put at the top of the Minister's agenda. I understand three of those crèches are located in the constituency I represent. I am appalled to think that the children were so treated and that their parents have been put under the stress of being misled in terms of what was supposed to be a crèche that looked after these children.

The Minister should understand that it is not good enough to refer to the HSE inspection report which stated that 75% of child care facilities were in breach of regulations last year. Seventy-five per cent of what? Half the crèches breached regulations on adult-child ratios and staff background checks. That is not good enough. Some 40% failed to provide a safe environment for children. That is unacceptable. One of the crèches received over €1 million from the State last year. That is appalling. I want a root and branch investigation to find out what went wrong. I want to know the numbers of children in the crèches, the number of crèches in the country, the private ones in particular. I believe they get notice about inspections, which they should not do because the others do not; they can arrive on the spot.

This is a rapid fire round. Parents in my constituency of Wicklow, and parents throughout the country, are upset, worried, disturbed and shocked at what they witnessed in last night's "Prime Time" programme into what the Minister correctly described this morning on national radio as incidents of emotional abuse in some crèches, including one in my county. It is widely accepted that the Minister is a reforming Minister; that is widely acknowledged by all stakeholders. In past years this country invested in bricks and mortar, but not in standards and quality. That is what we now must do.

I want to put a number of questions on the record of the House. When will we see the publication of the much-needed Children First legislation? Can parents currently access inspectors' reports into crèches? When will these reports be available online similar to the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, reports? Is the Minister planning on recruiting more inspectors? Is she satisfied with the standards of inspectors? Can she confirm if a Garda investigation is under way, and what is the status of that? Will people who were involved in incidents face punishment? What advice would the Minister give to parents in Wicklow and throughout the country who had to drop off their children at crèches this morning, will collect them this evening and are now worried sick after the incidents that "Prime Time" correctly exposed?

Since last night many words have been used to describe the distressing and disturbing events we witnessed in the "Prime Time" programme but there is only one word we should use - abuse. Last night, we saw further evidence of children being abused in Ireland. We saw babies being thrown onto mattresses, babies being shouted at, babies blackmailed, babies being bullied and threatened. We even saw a case where a baby was left in a room alone as punishment: punishment for a little baby.

It is understood that up to 25% of staff do not have adequate qualifications or training in early child care services, and up to 50% of staff are not adequately supervised or do not have continuous professional development courses available to them. I would be appreciative of the Minister's response on that.

The Taoiseach said today that the Government's response to this issue would not involve the ticking of boxes. Will the Minister give us her opinion and that of the Government on mandatory reporting of abuse?

Last night, Professor Hayes stated that quality in child care depends on staff. What new measures are needed to be put in place to ensure that the correct type of people are employed in early child care services?

Last night, people were shocked, horrified and traumatised having witnessed cruelty, emotional abuse, physical heavy-handedness, and a blatant abuse of parents' trust. There was a clear failure to deliver professional care and high standards for children in early child care settings. We cannot have a quality service without a quality workforce.

In terms of what needs to be done, the Health Service Executive must immediately establish a helpline for parents; provide additional inspectors where gaps currently exist; publicise inspection reports; and publish the two critical items of legislation.

This crisis provides the Minister with an opportunity to secure the much-needed additional resources from her Cabinet colleagues to ensure full implementation of Síolta, Aistear and the workforce development plan.

I ask the Minister for a definite timeframe for the publication of the Children First guidelines and the setting up of the child and family support agency. Can we have a timeframe for the implementation of the workforce development plan? Will she consider the possibility of introducing CCTV cameras, where parents are agreeable? Will she withdraw State funding for facilities found guilty of breaches and replace the model of inspection of compliance with a model focused on outcomes for our children?

As shocked as people were watching last night's programme, we all understand that these are some of the consequences for society when caring roles are relegated to second class. I am sorry to say that in many of the decisions taken by the Minister's Government, that trend of undervaluing carers and carers' work has continued. The programme clearly illustrated huge deficiencies in respect of not just the qualification of staff but the suitability of some staff in these crèches. They include issues around regulation and inspection. These issues must be addressed as a matter of urgency, and no State funding should go to any facility that is not properly inspected, regulated and with suitable and suitably qualified staff.

The second issue that arose from last night's programme is one of child welfare. As other speakers stated, what we witnessed was bullying and brutalisation of very young children. When will the Children First guidelines be put on a statutory basis to oblige the responsible and professional people working in this sector to report any misconduct of this nature?

Are the crèches that were exposed on last night's programme still open today? Did they take children into their care today? If the answer to that question is "Yes", in the name of all goodness how could that be the case?

This is not the first time I have raised the issue of the provision of quality child care places with the Minister because what she has been faced with is a legacy of an approach by previous Governments where child care was merely a tax incentive for builders to provide crèches, and no more than that. Child care places were seen as no more than a labour activation measure for women. What is evident in the damning, distressing footage we saw last night is that nowhere in the provision of care were the needs of children being met.

I ask the Minister to ensure, after the horrendous footage we saw last night in the crèches, that funding must be linked to quality. I am not talking about infrastructure or access to the best, new and brightest toys. I am talking about the warmth of the relationship between the care giver and the child because that is what counts. That is what will achieve the best outcome and impact on the provision of child care for children. It is not just a labour activation measure for women to return to work. It is about the provision of quality, inclusive, holistic child care for our children.

How do I summarise in 90 seconds what we all witnessed last night? It is near impossible, but what we witnessed on the video footage was a fundamental breach of trust in terms of the most vulnerable people in our society by those turning a profit. The individuals responsible, and all child care professionals, should be in this area because it is a calling, they have a basic love of children, and they want to nurture and educate those children for the many hundreds of thousands of parents who are unable to do so for a short period every day.

Qualification should be mandatory for every individual who works in a crèche or child-minding facility, and those individuals should be thoroughly vetted and monitored on an ongoing basis because parents must have confidence in them. Some Deputies mentioned the crèches still operating today. Parents must have confidence in those facilities in terms of the care of their children.

If they cannot have that confidence, something is wrong with the system we oversee. All of this must be related in some way to the ongoing funding of such facilities. If we are funding them as a State, even though they are clearly in breach of the guidelines issued by the HSE, the funding must be stopped to ensure they adhere to those standards.

The RTE investigation into child care facilities, "A Breach of Trust", is clearly the talk of Ireland today. Parents with children in child care are extremely worried and they are looking to the Dáil for assurance that the practices seen on our screens last night cannot be tolerated. Will the Minister give such an assurance today? Strapping toddlers to chairs for hours on end, shouting in their faces, tossing them about like rag dolls, forcing them down on mattresses with blankets over their heads and locking them alone in rooms are appalling practices.

A review and reform of regulations with legislative change is clearly necessary. State funding for child care should be more closely tied to strict adherence to regulations. I want to lay emphasis on that. It is absolutely essential. There must be a fundamental review of the policy of dependence on the private for-profit sector. The training and pay of child care staff must also be addressed.

I have questioned the Minister on these issues during the current Dáil and she has spoken of new strategies, programmes and plans. They are all very well but without funding commitments, they will be meaningless. We are prepared to work on a cross-party basis to advance these issues, as we have demonstrated time after time. The new child and family support agency will take a lead role but it must be properly funded and equipped to do so. What can the Minister guarantee in the interim pending the establishment of the new agency?

We have always known the first five years are the most important in a person's life. It is the time when the future emotional, social and educational well-being is laid down. It is, however, the area that receives the least support and investment and for which there is the least political responsibility. That has been the case with successive Governments and, unfortunately, it appears it is still the case.

During the boom, the expansion of child care services was largely determined by the needs of the labour market. It became a numbers game and the welfare and best interests of children were secondary. The State can no longer afford to abdicate its responsibility in this area. While I do not question the personal commitment of the Minister to this area, it is simply not good enough to say the new agency will take responsibility for all of this. When will we ever see this new agency?

Action is needed now and we cannot afford to delay this any further. Four things must happen immediately: registration and not just notification should be mandatory, an inspection service must be provided in every county, all inspection reports must be put up online and State support must be conditional on meeting minimum standards in respect of ratios and qualifications. Where they are not met, State funding must be withdrawn and the facilities closed. We cannot afford to allow our children to be abused in the manner we saw last night any longer. Action must be taken.

I do not want this controversy to distract the Minister from her intention of providing a second year of free child care in the next budget. We must examine the entire model, however, because effectively we are funding private companies to deliver a public service. Does the Minister not think it is time for the Department of Education and Skills to have a central role in this to roll out the Aistear and the Síolta programmes?

What we saw last night just would not happen in a primary school, as I know from being a primary school teacher and principal, because of the management structures that are in place. The parents who send their children to these centres want to know what will happen to the centres their children have been in where the incidents took place. Do they have a future and will they continue to receive State funding? Most people in the House would question whether the State should be funding such companies.

I do not want to wait for another RTE investigative programme to have a hidden camera in a direct provision centre in Ireland. If we are outraged about this situation in child care provision, as we should be, there are direct provision centres in this country that are also abusing children. We must not just look at the issues raised thanks to the RTE programme last night, but at the provision of State care for children across the State.

I will preface my remarks by saying there are many crèches today that are carrying out exemplary professional work with children. I worked as a secondary school teacher and if someone reported that a teacher had tied up a student or put a student into a room with a blanket over him or her, we would be gobsmacked. We put up with this for long enough in our nursing homes but it is not acceptable and tolerated any longer. It was never tolerated in our secondary and primary schools and it should never be tolerated in our preschools. Can the Minister give an assurance there will be an increase in inspections, that unannounced inspections will be introduced and that any staff shortcomings will be addressed? Will the Minister withdraw public funding from child care providers if they are found to be in breach of HSE regulations? Public money should be withdrawn from crèches that fail the children in their care. Regulations and standards must be enforced if they are to be taken seriously and the public have the right to be able to have faith in the system.

The Minister said on "Morning Ireland" today that inspection reports would be available online. Will that be new inspection reports or will that include inspection reports form the past?

This has been a watershed moment in our thinking on child care and early years education in Ireland. We must focus less on the profits of companies and more on the educational and developmental needs of our children.

I thank colleagues from all sides of the House who raised this important topic, the care of our children under five years of age and the services they attend. It is the first time we have had such a focused debate on this age group and that speaks for itself.

Obviously, I regret what has precipitated this debate. I agree with what my colleagues had to say about the scenes we all saw last night. The images were harrowing, distressing, shocking and absolutely unacceptable. We saw poor practice and the dereliction of duty and care resulting in the mistreatment of young children that bordered on abuse. It was extremely distressing to watch. I concur with the comments made. It is striking that when our children begin in primary school at five years of age, the inspection regime, the curriculum, focus, teacher and mentor support are all in place to a much greater degree than is the case in this sector. It has happened in other countries but it has not happened here and that is the task that faces us. Those are the issues we must address.

I will try to respond to as many comments as possible. The Child Care (Pre-School Services) Regulations 2006 are the basis on which the HSE carries out preschool inspections. Clearly, the incidents shown last night would appear to constitute serious breaches of those very regulations. We need stronger and more robust inspections which take account of quality to a far greater degree than the current regime and we need stronger sanctions. I certainly concur with the points made on that. If we take the current regulations, such as regulation 5 on the care and development of young children, and regulation 9 on managing the behaviour of young children in these centres, we can see they were not adhered to as intended.

That goes without saying.

As Members probably will be aware, the practices witnessed and the centres that were the subject of the programme are also the subject of a thorough and comprehensive investigation under way by both the Garda and the HSE. All such instances of mistreatment of children in child care settings should be reported to authorities. It does not need statutory reporting. That is essential and necessary under the current guidelines but, obviously, obligatory reporting strengthens that provision. Clearly, under the current guidelines, any instances of abuse of children or instances bordering on abuse of children where there are concerns should be reported.

It should be noted that the children in last night's report appeared to be younger than the preschool cohort and in that programme there is no evidence of poor practice in relation to that cohort. Last night's report would obviously make us extremely sensitive to examining and investigating continuously what precisely happens during the course of the early childhood care and education, ECCE scheme.

I alert Deputies to the fact that Pobal investigates the ECCE scheme on a yearly basis and we have an annual report since we began that only last year. We now have a cohort of information about compliance across the sector. There are some statistics I will share with Deputies. The issue of qualifications has been raised a good deal. For the first time ever, as I stated, last year we collected information on this cohort. For example, the number of staff qualified at FETAC level has risen, from 70% in 2010 to 86.5% in 2012, and 86.5% of staff are now qualified up to level 5 in these settings. That is important information. We have demanded higher standards in training for the leaders in the ECCE programmes, and 98% of those have level 5 or above. There is continuous improvement but there is no room for complacency.

Some Deputies raised the issue of mandatory qualifications. For the new contracts and new regulations in September, I am examining increasing the level of qualification which ought to be in place for staff who are employed within the sector.

The matters addressed in last night's programme deserve and demand a comprehensive response. We should discuss them at greater length on another occasion in order that we can comprehensively discuss the range of issues that have been raised on this occasion under the Topical Issues debate format.

Parents need to be reassured that their young children, whether in child care services, crèches or wherever, are protected and cared for. As a number of Deputies stated, there are many examples of high quality practice in this country. We do not want to create panic in every parent in the country about the standard of services which are being provided for their children, but we need to be vigilant. Parents themselves are vigilant. Parents are not powerless in this situation. As some Deputies suggested, we want to encourage parents. What parents should do is go to their providers and ask questions if they are concerned. They should ask to see inspection reports, which are available. New inspection reports will be available online in a number of weeks. On the inspection reports already done, there was a substantial piece of work in providing those as well. Something we need to do which has not been done to date is to analyse all the reports. We need to see the messages from the inspection reports from around the country.

The HSE has informed me that there will be a website available shortly outlining what prosecutions have taken place so that parents will have access to that information. Today, I spoke to Mr. Gordon Jeyes about bringing the findings together and analysing them by sector - private sector, not-for-profit sector, community sector - to see what we can learn from the inspection reports that have been done. Deputies will be surprised to hear that, like many issues in relation to children in this country, we did not have these national data. We do not have a national approach to inspections. I have asked Mr. Jeyes to ensure we adopt that national approach. That will ensure inspection staff can be redeployed in a flexible manner to deal with some of the gaps, and a number of inspectors are being recruited.

There were quite a number of other issues raised which I will not have the opportunity to respond to right now, but perhaps I will have an opportunity when I respond after the Deputies have spoken.

On the child care preschool services regulations, which are the foundation on which everything is done, there should be national statistics and national inspection reports. That should be a priority. The Minister should get that moving fast. As Deputy Shortall stated, we want action, not words. We also want immediate emergency teams to get into the crèches that failed on inspections and were in any way deficient. The Minister should get qualified paediatric nurses in there to see that the standards of care are correct. The Minister stated, for instance, that it bordered on abuse. It did not border on abuse; it was abuse. It was bullying. One should call it what it is.

If ever the limitations of this House were to be seen, this is it where one has 30 seconds to speak about a major issue.

It is pathetic. It is not the Minister's fault. I am pleased that there is a thorough Garda investigation. I would ask the Minister to give consideration to the use of the Health Information and Quality Authority. HIQA is carrying out inspections of nursing homes. It will start carrying out inspections in residential homes for persons with disabilities. It is the independent regulator. It merits consideration.

We also need to look at the issues of childminding in the home. This is the next issue that could come down the tracks if we do not. It has been addressed in the North and in Scotland. It merits consideration in this jurisdiction.

It is about empowering parents. The Minister is quite correct. I very much welcome the fact these inspection reports will go online shortly.

I thank the Minister. I would like to have more time to spend discussing some of the finer points of the Minister's report, but in the time available I will confine myself to three points only. One, I raised the issue of abuse and the Minister responded by stating that it bordered on abuse. When children and babies are treated in the way they were treated as shown in the programme last night, I respectfully say that is not bordering on abuse. There is clear evidence of abuse of children. Two, in response to my question on mandatory reporting, the Minister stated that issues like this should be reported. I have stated previously in this House, and I ask the Minister to take this to the Government, that it is my firm and honest opinion, especially after last night's programme, that we must have mandatory reporting on abuse. Three, can the Minister tell us the number of service providers which receive State funding that have never been inspected?

Can the Minister ensure at the earliest possible opportunity that the Government will make adequate time available for a proper debate on this? Can she confirm whether the HSE has established a helpline to deal with this and whether she will look at the possibility, with parental support, of installing CCTV in child care settings? Can she give us a definitive timeframe for when the children first Bill and child and family support agency Bill will be before the House, and that the children first Bill will deal with childminders?

I agree with the Minister that the last thing one would want to cause is widespread panic because my children, like those of many others, have had very positive experiences in crèches.

I am gobsmacked at the fact that crèches which clearly have broken the current HSE guidelines and into which there is a Garda and a HSE investigation under way would still be open today. If the Minister wants to give confidence to parents and to stem any panic, she must prove categorically that where abuses and breaches of regulations occur, even before she introduces the reforms of which she speaks, firm action will be taken. Can she explain to us how, in light of all of this evidence, these crèches are still functioning?

The issue of child care in the home was raised. That is a significant point. Why did the Minister cut the childminding advisory posts? There were only a limited number of them across the State. They offered a network, support and training for individuals who care for children in their own homes. It was a bad decision and it might be one that comes back to haunt us.

We should not cause panic among parents and as a parent of a young child I understand how much we rely on child care. I contacted my local crèche this morning in Dungarvan just to say I was thinking of the workers there. It has been a very difficult day for them, and these people are very committed to their job and giving care and attention to children on a daily basis. Most in the House would probably agree with that statement.

The Minister spoke about Pobal analysing the results of the community employment schemes around the country. Anybody with experience of services funded by Pobal would say that its reports always focus on numbers but we must move away from them if we are to speak about quality child care provision. It is not just about numbers, how many new pieces of equipment have been bought or how many children attended a service but rather what the child and the carer do in the service which has the biggest impact. It is unfortunate that it took this investigation to bring the matter to the fore. I am not sure the inspections as they stand would have outed the sort of poor practice we saw last night, which is really scary. We must focus on that and I know the Minister is really committed to the area. I hope to continue working with her to ensure we can bring improvements to fruition.

I thank the Minister for her response. The point just made by Deputy Conway is true and it may be the case that inspections may not have picked up the problems we saw last night. That is all the more reason for us to get the Children First Bill published, as it is crucial at this point. Deputy Harris indicated we must empower parents so they can have confidence in the child care service providers they use and we must ensure that the response of the Minister, the Government and the House adequately provides such empowerment.

With regard to enforcement of regulations, where a child care provider fails the HSE child care standards from 2006, it should be closed and funding should be stopped. It is an occasion where the Minister needs a big stick because if something like this recurs, it would be disgraceful.

The issue of child care standards must be examined in the round. I bring to the Minister's attention that there are 35 child care positions advertised on the JobBridge website today. These are internships so we must ask how appropriate these are. I have no problem with such placements but they should be made in addition to full staffing levels and not instead of properly trained staff, as I suspect they are so often.

Last night we got a glimpse of a sample of the for-profit sector and it is entirely unacceptable that corners are being cut and children are paying the price while some of the companies involved are returning substantial profits. In the community sector the reality is the Government is cutting funding for child care facilities. We are all familiar with the fact that so many of those facilities in our constituencies are struggling to survive and the funding arrangement makes little or no provision for management or supervision of those services, which are being cut to the bone.

The Minister cannot get quality on the cheap and she should not expect parents to police these matters. Parents have a right to expect that where facilities are being provided for our most vulnerable and where State funding is forthcoming, the State should be playing its part in ensuring that quality is there. That is clearly not happening and action must be taken in the area. The Government must take its responsibility seriously.

I thank the Minister for her reply and I know her commitment to the area is unquestioned. In her reply she indicated that none of the children depicted in last night's programme would have been in receipt of the free preschool year as they were too young. If we are to convince the Irish people that we need a second free preschool year, we will have to deal with younger children and we must be able to ensure Irish people will have confidence in the system and that the second preschool year will be worthy of taxpayers' investment.

I would like the Minister to respond to my question about direct provision centres as the issue is connected to how we deal with children under the care of private providers funded by the State and those funded directly by the State. The Minister knows that direct provision centres are dealing with children who are not being adequately cared for. We all know about this so we cannot let the opportunity go by without addressing that issue. As others have said today, we need a fuller debate at an early stage to flesh out these issues in a more prolonged debate.

At the nub of the debate is the idea that when every parent who loves his or her child leaves that child to the door of an institution, he or she wants the child to be safe and cared for. That is all we ask for. We know the Minister has the commitment, as became clear with her response. I am sure anybody listening shares my wish that when a child goes to a crèche or any institution like a crèche, the child's educational and developmental needs should be met. Above all, they should be safe and cared for.

I thank colleagues for raising the range of issues. The question is whether a more robust inspection system would have found the problems instanced last night. The international evidence is that if there is an inspection system which engages in a positive way with providers, working with them to improve standards and which collaborates over time, there is a higher chance that the kinds of scenes we saw last night would be avoided or uncovered through an inspection system. Nevertheless, it would not be guaranteed, and there is a range of other issues that must be addressed in order to provide the safe environment about which Deputy Lyons has spoken. That would encompass dealing with issues.

A certain focus has not been evident historically, and there are large legacy issues in the area that we will not be able to address overnight. Nevertheless, I should be clear that they will be addressed. I have stated that what I saw last night was emotional abuse and there is no question about that, as children's developmental needs were ignored and responses were inappropriate in many instances. There is a big job to be done.

There are many excellent community crèches and child care services where parents are receiving a high quality service. We also have good private facilities. Nevertheless, we must have a robust inspection system and deal with the issues raised by many Deputies, including sanctions, compliance and consequences like prosecutions. All those elements must be addressed. At times, this may not be the way we want to go as we want to primarily provide a high-quality service but all the elements must be addressed.

In April this year there were a total of 270 community child care schemes and every Deputy in the House knows about the quality in many of those community services. There is still work to be done with qualifications and access-----

There are problems in many of them.

There is a range of issues and the work has been ongoing. Last night's programme threw a sharp focus on the issues but there are initiatives under way at present. I reassure Deputies and parents that these are working towards registering all child care facilities. It is unbelievable that in this country we have allowed people to open child care facilities by simply notifying the HSE. That cannot go on and it will stop. It is the legacy of what we have allowed to happen in the sector. The responsibility for that would encompass the approach to children in a very general way.

The responsibility lies with the Minister.

The Government has been in power for two and a half years. Will the Minister answer the questions we put?

The Minister is over her time.

We are clearly working towards a more comprehensive and broadly based inspection regime. Unlike the previous Government, this Government will bring in mandatory reporting and has already had consultation. It was not done in 14 years despite promises by previous taoisigh.

To answer the question on the child and family agency, in a few weeks we will have legislation in the House to establish the new child and family agency, which is the most radical reform the area of child protection and child care services has seen in decades. This is under way at present. The legislation will be in the House and will go to Government in a number of weeks. This will mean we will have a dedicated focus for the first time on these issues with dedicated management throughout the system. We have not had this in the HSE. This dedicated focus will ensure we have higher standards and this is extremely important.

A number of Deputies raised the question of child minding. Every day parents take decisions and a total of 70% of children in the country are looked after by private childminders. This is the decision parents take. They make decisions about the quality of this care and take the decision these childminders will mind their children. There is no regulation in this area. In other countries there is such regulation. This is an issue which may well be on the agenda in the near future also.

Turf Cutting Compensation Scheme

Unfortunately, the way the Dáil is structured does not work very well at times and today we have seen it. I hope we will have another debate on the child care issue very soon. Everyone would like to have been involved in it. I have children and we were lucky we had excellent child care facilities.

I ask the Deputy to speak to the issue.

I will but it must be said that the debate must be held again. Surely it is worth 30 seconds.

I wish the Minister the best of luck with it.

The cessation of the turf cutting compensation scheme has caused much concern for quite some time, and major concern in recent weeks because legal agreements were sent to those who signed up to the scheme. A frequently asked questions document was sent with the legal agreement and one of the questions was with regard to what the letter was about. The answer stated under the cessation of turf cutting compensation scheme in order to finalise - a very important word - compensation arrangements applicants must sign a legal agreement with the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. It also stated the letter included the legal agreement the person was being asked to sign, with the instruction to return both copies of the agreement to the Department within four months.

One of the implications of signing this finalising legal agreement is that if the more than 700 families who wanted to be relocated, or signed up to be relocated under the compensation scheme, sign up they will be told that if an alternative bog is not found by 2017 in the case of the first bogs designated, or 2018 otherwise, then the Minister may move these people to another scheme. This other scheme is financial compensation, something to which they did not sign up and something about which we warned them, but now their eyes have been firmly opened.

Some people will say 2018 is a long way away and all of the relocation bogs will be organised by then. Perhaps if we had a competent National Parks and Wildlife Service it would happen and perhaps if we had a Minister who would really work with turf cutters it might happen, but this is not what is happening. As a result, since 1997 none of the 53 supposedly special area of conservation bogs has been successfully organised with regard to relocation for the turf cutters affected. The idea that between now and 2018 something will happen all of a sudden and all of these people will be satisfied is barely credible to say the least. The Turf Cutters and Contractors Association warned - I am bringing in its message; these are not my words but those I have been asked to bring in - that all the Government was trying to do was slowly but surely stop people cutting turf. Now it transpires, and is quite clear, that the scheme was a halfway house to stop people cutting turf.

Other concerns have been raised in this regard, one of which is whether it will put a burden on the land. It will and there will be a cost to this. Who will bear it? It looks like it will be the turf cutter. There is also an issue with regard to indemnity but we will return to this.

It is a condition of the cessation of turf cutting compensation scheme that applicants must sign a legal agreement with me as Minister. These legal agreements are required under the scheme to give legal certainty to people regarding their long-term compensation. It binds the State to deliver on the compensation they have been promised. The signing of agreements also means the applicant undertakes to no longer cut turf on special areas of conservation. The scheme sets out clearly the obligations placed on the recipients and on me as Minister. As announced in the Dáil debate in March last year, an additional once-off incentive payment of €500 for qualifying cutters is being provided where agreements are signed with the Department.

Under the cessation of turf cutting compensation scheme, three types of legal agreements have been and are being issued by the Department. There is an agreement for qualifying turf cutters who sign up to the annual payment of €1,500, index-linked, for 15 years. There is also an interim relocation agreement for qualifying turf cutters who have expressed an interest in relocation but where no relocation site is available for them. This relocation interim legal agreement provides for the payment of €1,500, index-linked, or a supply of 15 tonnes of cut turf per annum while these applicants are awaiting relocation to non-designated bogs. There is also a final relocation agreement. This agreement has been issued to qualifying turf cutters who have expressed an interest in relocation and where a site has been assessed as suitable for relocation and is ready or can be made ready for use for domestic turf cutting.

The legal agreements are modelled on those which have been agreed with groups of turf cutters from Clara bog in County Offaly, and from Carrownagappul bog and Curraghlehanagh bog in County Galway. The interim legal agreement is required in the case of relocation sites because for the majority of raised bog special areas of conservation the relocation site and the terms and conditions applicable to these sites will take time to finalise. Turf cutters are being asked to sign the interim agreement on the understanding that when a relocation site is sourced, assessed and agreed they will be asked to sign a final legal agreement at that time. If it is not possible to find a suitable relocation site, for example, for reasons of quality or quantity of turf, planning requirements, or issues with regard to the purchase or lease of a site, the Department will consult with turf cutters as to the best option to take at the time.

All of the legal agreements clearly state that title to the property will not change. The existing land ownership or turbary rights held by an applicant will not transfer to me as Minister by the signing of the agreement. As the Deputy is aware from my reply to his question on 25 April last, relocation is a very complex process, in terms of investigating suitable sites for turf quality and quantity; the infrastructure, including drainage works, required; establishing the number who can be accommodated on the site; the cost and feasibility of land purchase or lease; and possible planning and environmental impact assessment requirements.

Of the 2,651 applications for compensation under the cessation of turf cutting compensation scheme received and acknowledged by the Department, 781 applicants have expressed an interest in relocation to non-designated bogs. In collaboration with the Peatlands Council and with the assistance of Bord na Móna, the Department is actively engaging with turf-cutting communities to consider how relocation can be progressed for these applicants.

It is my aim to facilitate, as far as possible, those qualifying cutters who wish to continue to cut turf by putting in place relocation sites for as many cutters as possible in the shortest possible time. The interim agreements are designed to guarantee the delivery of compensation while relocation is being put in place. The national SAC management plan may deliver additional flexibility where relocation is not possible.

The Turf Cutters and Contractors Association could assist this process, and the interests of the majority of cutters who are engaging with my Department, by working with me within the law, rather than encouraging people to work against all our efforts to resolve outstanding issues.

I appeal to the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association to return to the Peatlands Council and engage with the RPS consultants who are now undertaking the scientific work which is essential to underpin the national SAC management plan as well as the review of the national heritage area waste bog scheme.

The organisation that the Minister accuses of working against him is the only organisation in this country which, in the 17 years that this issue has gone on, has produced proposals for a solution. Less than 18 months ago, the chairman of our organisation, Mr. Michael Fitzmaurice, was described in a telephone call by the Taoiseach as a patriot. What has changed? Was there something to be gained from calling him a patriot then, while now suggesting that the same people are working against the Government? I do not really understand that.

The Minister says the legal agreements are modelled on those which have been agreed with groups of turf cutters from Clara bog, Carrownagappul bog and Curraghlehanagh bog. I am very familiar with what is going on there. The Minister may well have come to an agreement with some turf cutters on Clara bog, but he has not come to an agreement with all of them. In fact, the ones the Minister has not come to an agreement with are people who own large amounts of that bog. Is it fair that they are being left out?

The Minister referred to Carrownagappul bog which was held up as an example of one that was working. It was said that if only we would all do what they were doing, the problem would be solved. Deputy Paul Connaughton is connected with that bog. If that bog is solved, why in the last month have people gone back to cut turf on it? Last year, they did not do so because they believed that the Minister was trying to accommodate them. Subsequently, they have discovered that the deal on offer is not like-for-like. A 65 year licence is not the same thing as owning a bog. If a licence-holder dies, it is non-transferable, which is not the same. If the National Parks and Wildlife Service deemed that a person had cut very little turf, he or she would be out on his or her ear after a couple of years.

There is a serious question to be answered here about indemnification of bog owners. One of the major concerns expressed at the Peatlands Forum was the issue of flooding neighbouring lands and damaging livestock. We were seeking indemnification for those people. It seems that the Minister sorted out the indemnification for the State and to hell with the turf cutters, but we are not buying it.

We all understand that this is a very complex matter. This is European law transposed into Irish law and we have to implement it. Whatever progress we make here will also have to be within the law. I appeal to Deputy Flanagan and the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association to engage with the RPS consultants on issues such as flooding. I have met the RPS consultants on two occasions and I think there is a great opportunity here. I really mean that. I appeal to the Deputy and everybody else concerned to engage with the consultants. I think that solutions can be found to some of the present issues, including those the Deputy has raised here in the House. This is a great opportunity that we have been afforded within European law, and with the agreement of Commissioner Potonik, to try to resolve this matter. I appeal to everyone concerned to engage with the RPS consultants.

Will the Minister call off the courts then?

I appeal to all to avail of this opportunity.

Taking people to court is no way to negotiate.

Today, I have written to a prominent member of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association saying that I am prepared to talk to it. I will continue to speak to it about this issue. Deputy Flanagan has accepted that more has been done in the last two years than when this was introduced back in 1997. That is when people should have been out there protesting against the designation. More has been achieved, however.

We did not know the Minister was designating.

When somebody keeps interrupting, it means that they are hurting.

Some 2,600 people have signed up for compensation. I would like to thank publicly those people who are obeying Irish and European law, who are taking the compensation and are doing their best to co-operate with the Government in solving this matter. Politicians on all sides of the House are making a genuine effort to get a solution. At the end of the day, this is European law. The 53 conserved bogs will win ultimately. They will remain in the ownership of those who own them for future generations to enjoy also.

And the Minister can sue them.

Social and Affordable Housing Provision

The importance of every citizen having a safe and secure home cannot be overstated. Like the Acting Chairman, I am increasingly concerned about the critical shortage of social housing provision in the greater Dublin area and especially in my constituency. Some weekends, up to two thirds of those who contact me are in desperate need of housing. I am increasingly presented with difficult situations on the housing front.

In recent months, the number of homeless people in the Dublin Bay North constituency has been increasing. They are sleeping in cars, shopping centres or on the street. The spring count of people sleeping rough in Dublin in April showed that 94 persons were sleeping on the streets of the capital. That is the highest level since spring 2009, which shows that no progress has been made to reduce the number of people sleeping rough on our city streets.

The Fingal county manager, Mr. David O'Connor, recently told us that about 9,000 individuals and families are on the Fingal housing list. A recent meeting with the Dublin city manager, Mr. Philip Maguire, and Dublin City Council housing manager, Mr. Dick Brady, revealed shocking housing and homelessness figures for the Dublin Bay North constituency - which is housing area B of Dublin city - and for the whole of Dublin city.

There are just under 20,000 individuals and families on the Dublin City Council housing list, with a further 7,217 on the city's transfer list. In Dublin Bay North there are 5,152 families and individuals on the housing list and a further 1,124 on the transfer list. Some 236 families and individuals are homeless in area B out of a total of 849 for the whole city.

Many of the housing applicants I meet on the area B list have been on that list for between eight to 15 years. In one case last year, the applicant had been on the list for 18 or 19 years. While I accept the commitment of our officials, the policy response to these appalling figures by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Dublin City Council and Fingal County Council has been abysmal.

In 2011, for example, just 115 housing units were allocated in area B of Dublin city with a further 149 units in 2012 and just 68 units so far this year. If senior citizens' accommodation is excluded, the figures are just 67 units for 2011, 89 for 2012 and 45 so far this year. When the crash occurred in September 2008, we had up to 2,000 vacant housing units on the north fringe of Dublin city and the south fringe of Fingal. Over the last four or five years, however, many of those units have been occupied by investors with rent supplement tenants, by purchasers and voluntary housing agencies.

Clearly, however, only a resumption of construction and direct housing provision can hope to address this appalling housing crisis in area B, which is in my constituency. Some of those desperately searching for housing are constituents affected by cuts to rent supplement and the refusal of landlords to accept rent supplement. Earlier today, I tried to raise the issue of caps on rent supplement payments with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, but unfortunately my oral question was not reached.

Rent supplement, which was intended as a temporary measure, is increasingly being relied upon by individuals and families in the medium and longer term. Reduced caps are forcing many constituents out of rented accommodation into temporary accommodation or, indeed, into homelessness.

In Fingal, for example, where the caps have been set at €775 for a family with one child or €900 for a family with three children, the total rent demanded for properties in some areas far exceeds those amounts.

The recent death of Margaret Thatcher reminded people that it was her governments which abandoned social housing provision and began relying on private rented accommodation and the very expensive Exchequer-funded rent supplement, and in the process enriched the landlord class, which funded and, indeed, owned the Tory Party. From the late 1980s the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael led Governments, also very close to the landlord class, embarked on the same socially regressive policies in this country with a Government policy of abandoning capital investment in housing and a move to increasingly relying on the rental market. It is not working and the glaring failure of this can be seen in our constituency.

I see the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, beside the Minister for Social Protection. It has been mooted in the media in recent days that at least €1 billion or up to €2.5 billion might be available for construction projects to boost employment. I have been consistently referring to the need for this Government to kick-start a capital investment programme for social housing and I have repeatedly raised this with the Taoiseach on the Order of Business. Before Christmas he told me this would happen in 2013, but 2013 is becoming a stand-still year for the economy.

Deputy Broughan is one minute over his time.

We urgently need a housing programme. The Minister of State has said she is tailoring the use of available Exchequer supports to prevailing conditions but that is not good enough.

I thank Deputy Broughan for raising this issue. It is a critical issue for me as well as for Deputy Broughan and I strongly support the issue of construction whenever we have the funds to do it. I realise it is a particular problem in Dublin. This morning I met Dublin City Council assistant manager, Mr. Dick Brady, whom Deputy Broughan mentioned, and his officials regarding homelessness. The Dublin area gets approximately 70% of the money available for homelessness in the country. It is approximately €30 million again this year and it was similar last year. We will continue to work with them to address that issue.

The Government's housing policy statement, published in June 2011, reaffirms our focus on meeting the most acute needs of households applying for social housing support from within the resources available. Our social housing programme is framed in a manner which optimises the delivery of social housing and the return for the resources invested. We are tailoring the use of available Exchequer supports to prevailing conditions and exploring the full range of solutions to address housing needs. Delivery is being significantly facilitated through more flexible funding models such as the rental accommodation scheme and leasing, but we are also developing other funding mechanisms that will increase the supply of permanent new social housing.

Traditional models of large-scale local authority social housing construction are not feasible in the current economic circumstances, which is why the housing policy statement recognises that the approved housing body sector must play a key role in addressing social housing need. The Government is committed to exploring and developing such funding mechanisms as will increase the supply of new social housing. Such mechanisms will include options to purchase, build-to-lease and the sourcing of loan finance by approved housing bodies for construction and acquisition.

In this regard, I am conscious that the move from capital funded programmes of construction and acquisition by approved housing bodies to more Revenue-funded options presents challenges. I am therefore developing an enabling regulatory framework for the sector that will provide support and assurance both to the sector itself and to its external partners as it takes on the expanded role envisaged for it by Government and to underline its status as a viable and attractive investment opportunity for financial institutions. My Department is actively working with the sector on the development of a voluntary code which I expect most bodies will endorse. This code, which I hope to launch in the coming months, will serve as a learning opportunity for the sector and for my Department as we develop a longer-term statutory framework that will best support the enhanced role of approved housing bodies, AHBs.

I am satisfied that the widened range of schemes to facilitate social housing delivery, and the innovative approach being adopted, will enable us to maximize the delivery of social housing within the very burdensome current financial constraints. As soon as those constraints are beginning to lift we will review the construction area. The importance of a housing sector built on the pillars of choice, fairness and equity across tenures is central to the approach being taken by this Government to the housing sector. Providing local authorities and approved housing bodies with a suite of options that can be tailored to meet different categories of housing need is central to this Government's policy approach. We have to respond to the need that is there in whatever flexible ways we can to provide homes for people who need them.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. We do have to respond to those who telephone us to say they are walking the streets or they are in hostel-type accommodation where they are very unhappy or frightened. It is a terrible situation in which to place citizens. Deputy Seán Kenny and I had a great predecessor as Deputy in our constituency - Conor Cruise O'Brien. In his political philosophy, one of his key arguments was that if one has executive power in government one is responsible for everything that happen in that area. This House is responsible for everybody who is homeless or in difficult housing situations tonight, and we must live up to those responsibilities.

In the context of preparations for the budget, which under the two pack arrangement is very early this year, is the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan pitching to the Minister beside her, Deputy Howlin, who I am sure is totally aware of this situation in County Wexford as well, for a serious new housing programme under whatever model the Government decides to proceed with? What kind of hope can she give to us? The Acting Chairman, Deputy Seán Kenny, knows inside out that in the second half of this year we have almost no prospects in area B or in the Dublin Bay North constituency of receiving significant additional housing for 5,000 people. This is an emergency, it is a crisis. We have to try to address it. Has the Minister of State been speaking with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton? Unfortunately I did not manage to have the question of the problem with rent supplement debated on the floor of the House today. We are trying to address the vicious circle or catch-22 situation where family members are unable to work and are being placed in a situation where, to some extent, they are being used to put pressure on landlords and rental price levels, which is very unfair to them.

I welcome what the Minister of State said about the voluntary sector. I look forward to her bringing in the two housing Bills, which was mentioned yesterday, and the voluntary code. However 2015 or 2016 is too late for many of the people of the kind who the Acting Chairman and I represent. We need some kind of dynamic programme to be launched later this year, to be up and running and to deliver results on the ground. We have seen how in the UK the increasing use of emergency hostel or hotel type accommodation places major burdens on local authorities and the state. We are heading in the same direction. It is related to the first item that was debated here today, the private provision of pre-school facilities. Perhaps the private sector is making huge profits from a situation which should not exist.

Deputy Broughan is one minute over his time.

I hope the Minister of State might have mentioned to our colleague, the Dublin City Council assistant manager, Mr. Dick Brady, this morning that we want to move to the transparent time on the list system as soon as possible. We were supposed to do it three or four years ago so that we could know exactly what was happening on housing lists, yet the delays are interminable.

The last matter referred to by the Deputy is a matter for Dublin City Council. Different councils do things different in ways, but I hear what Deputy Broughan is saying. engaged with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin on the construction of houses. Deputy Broughan will be pleased to know that at the Labour Parliamentary Party meeting this morning we had a very strong debate on housing issues and the need for the provision of housing. It is a core value for us.

Fair play to the backbenchers.

It was the backbenchers and the frontbenchers, but unfortunately Deputy Broughan was not there.

Deputy Broughan was not there. He could have contributed.

The Minister, Deputy Burton, is carrying out a review of rent supplement. I am not here to answer for her. We intend to transfer that clientele to the local authorities in the near future. I recently launched a housing-led policy on homelessness. All the research shows that if we can get people into homes as soon as possible rather than hostels for long periods of time that is a much more effective way of addressing their homelessness and of giving them a long-term sustainable and caring solution. We are working on that. We are going to spend less money on hostels and crisis intervention and more money on resettlement and support. That is the direction of the housing-led policy I have launched.

I am very hopeful that we are making good progress on homelessness including in the Dublin area where the predominant problem of homelessness is. This is a very important issue and I am glad Deputy Broughan raised it today. We are sourcing as much social housing as we can through NAMA.

We want to use whatever mechanisms we can use at present. Whenever some capital becomes available we intend to construct more local authority houses.