Priority Questions

Early Child Care Education

Robert Troy

Question:

69. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the public procurement exemption clause applied when allocating €900,000 to two independently managed child care organisations in terms of what specific Department of Children and Youth Affairs guidelines feature this specific exemption; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [54102/13]

Will the Minister indicate, in relation to the €900,000 allocated to two independently managed child care organisations, the public procurement exemption clause used and where I can find the documentation?

As the Deputy will be aware, I went into detail on the approach taken in this matter in a Topical Issue debate on 26 November. Earlier this year I announced an eight point preschool quality agenda to address issues of quality in the preschool sector. As part of this agenda, I announced that from September 2015 all existing staff working in preschool services would be required to hold a qualification in early childhood care and education at FETAC level 5. Preschool leaders delivering the preschool year will be required to hold a qualification at FETAC level 6. The Child and Family Agency Bill 2013 which has passed all Stages in the Oireachtas provides a legal basis for the setting of minimum qualification requirements for all staff in the sector.

In budget 2014 I secured a total provision for next year of €4.5 million to support implementation of the preschool quality agenda. This includes an additional funding allocation of €1.5 million to support the training of existing staff to meet the new qualification requirements. It is intended that this training provision will be repeated in 2015, bringing the total provision to €3 million in the period 2014 to 2015.

The total number of existing child care staff who will need to have completed training by September 2015 is estimated at 3,000. My Department is currently putting arrangements in place for a new training programme over the period 2014 to 2015. Planning is under way for my Department, in association with Pobal, to publicly seek expressions of interest from accredited training providers who wish to provide FETAC level 5 or level 6 training under this initiative. It is likely that the city and county child care committees will play an important role in identifying qualifying staff and supporting them in accessing suitable training from the panel put in place through the expressions of interest process. I expect the full details, including detailed specifications, selection criteria and operational arrangements for the new initiative, to be finalised and announced in January 2014.

In addition to these plans, it was agreed with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that €900,000 in once-off savings available within my Department’s Vote in 2013 could be directed towards support for the training of preschool staff.

My Department agreed to increase the grant funding being provided in 2013 to Early Childhood Ireland and the Border Counties Childhood Network in return for the provision of additional accredited training to existing staff. The provision of training and high-quality supports has been a particular feature of the grant-aided work carried out by these bodies and both are accredited to deliver FETAC level 5 training in early childhood care and education. The additional provision is included in their revised annual work plan agreed with the Department each year as a condition of their annual grant aid.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I believe the approach taken has facilitated early progress in the important and ambitious objective of training more than 3,000 staff who must meet prescribed minimum qualification requirements by September 2015 if they are to continue to work in the sector. This early progress and the lessons from the pilot undertaken with two voluntary organisations that have existing grant agreements in place with my Department will be built upon in the new year when a range of providers will be invited to participate in the scheme in order to achieve the coverage necessary to train the full cohort of staff who require training over the next two years.

The level of grant aid made available to these voluntary organisations, which varies from year to year, is a matter for my Department to determine, having regard to key priorities and the availability of resources. These are traditional grant arrangements which are commonplace between the public sector and various national and local voluntary organisations across many sectors, including social services, education and vocational training.

I am not questioning the validity of these two organisations, but I want to know whether there is a public procurement exemption for dealing with an allocation of funds of almost €1 million from the Minister's Department. A "Yes" or "No" answer will suffice. If there is not, are there guidelines in place in the Department for allocating resources to service providers? Again, a "Yes" or "No" answer will suffice, and if the answer is "No", would the Minister not agree that there should be guidelines for the allocation of resources of this magnitude? Also, what other service providers were considered in terms of their ability to deliver this much-needed training fund? I acknowledge that it is welcome and much needed, but what other service providers were examined to determine whether they could deliver what the Minister wishes to deliver in this respect?

As the Deputy will be aware, grants were made available across the Government to a range of organisations, and in my Department we grant money on a yearly basis, all well documented, to a range of organisations, whether it be Barnardos, Early Childhood Ireland or Forbairt. For example, Childminding Ireland gets €340,000 and NYCI gets several million euro. The Deputy knows the list of grant organisations. We believe that the provision of training and high-quality supports has been a particular feature of the grant-aided work carried out by these bodies previously under the Fianna Fáil-led Government, and both are accredited to deliver FETAC level 5 training. The additional provision was included in their revised annual work plan and is agreed with the Department each year as a condition of their annual grant aid. As I explained to the Deputy previously when I addressed a Topical Issue on this matter, this particular organisation is unique. Early Childhood Ireland is a limited company with charitable status. The money was given - it is not simply a matter of handing over a grant and not expecting anything in return - purely to provide training at a lower cost to a group of workers who were very poorly paid to reduce the cost of such training and so that it could be accessible to them at a subsidised cost. It was given to them by way of a grant as part of their annual grant. Therefore, the questions that the Deputy has asked do not arise.

Will the Minister confirm that there is no public procurement process in her Department for allocating funds? I would like a "Yes" or "No" answer to that question. Are there guidelines in place? The Minister must remember that this is the first time her Department has allocated funds in respect of a training fund and, therefore, guidelines should be in place. What other service providers did the Minister consider to ensure she was receiving value for money in this respect?

The Minister talks about opening the process further for the next tranche, in 2014, which I welcome. The Minister refers to doing this through the county child care committees. What level of consultation has the Minister had with county child care committees? Have they submitted this as part of their service plan?

I serve on the board of a local community child care crèche. If we are painting it, looking for new furniture or taking on a new service, we must find a minimum of three quotations. Organisations at the bottom of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs must ensure they are getting value for money. What did the Minister do to ensure her Department was getting value for money in respect of this? Are guidelines in place for administering funding of this magnitude? Was there, or is there, a public procurement process for this?

I have explained to the Deputy that this was a grant to an organisation to deliver a programme which it had been previously funded to do. It involves training the early years sector. The organisation had been delivering it and had conducted a number of pilot projects on it. The delivery of quality training and support has been a feature of the work these organisations did all along. This was a grant given to the organisation in order to do this.

To provide a service.

It provided a training service to people who needed it. The early progress and the learning from the work undertaken by these two voluntary organisations, which have existing grant arrangements in place-----

Of course they have existing grant arrangements in place with the Department. My Department follows all appropriate processes, as do all Departments. They were invited to participate in the scheme in order to achieve the coverage necessary to train the full cohort of staff. I remember Deputy Robert Troy asking, after a briefing in Buswells Hotel, to set up a training fund. I seem to remember the Deputy saying that a training fund should be set up and that Early Childhood Ireland should be supported in having a training fund in order to-----

I did call for a training fund.

Yes, in order to achieve the necessary coverage to train the full cohort of staff.

Many organisations were precluded from participating in the training fund.

What I was asked to do on many occasions was to have a quality agenda for the early years and part and parcel of it was what I have done and delivered within a couple of months. I have introduced legislation for registration. I have introduced legislation-----

Which we supported.

-----for supervision-----

The Minister should answer the question.

I have answered the question.

The Minister did not compare it with another service provider to ensure value for money.

The training is being delivered by a highly credible organisation which has done this training previously and it was asked to deliver more of the training last year in order to ensure we would have people trained, which we have now asked for in the legislation.

Child Care Costs

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Question:

70. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps she will now take in order to help ensure the affordability of child care across the board in view of the details exposed in the recently published Indecon report commissioned by the Donegal County Childcare Committee; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [54030/13]

I seek from the Minister a reaction to the content of the Indecon report commissioned by the County Donegal Childcare Committee, with which the Minister is familiar, as she launched the report.

I launched the report and quite a number of Deputies attended the launch. I welcome the work being done by the County Donegal Childcare Committee. I asked Indecon to take a sample of the costs of child care for parents in Ireland and to make suggestions on how we could deal with that. The report focused on the difficulties being experienced by parents in meeting the costs of child care, particularly those in low paid employment. It emphasised the issue of affordable child care for working parents. It is a concern for all of us, given that the tendency in Ireland over the years has been to give direct cash payments to parents rather than building up an affordable and accessible child care system.

However, we have made some progress, as the Deputy knows, in this regard. In response to the report, I have stated that I will examine the recommendations. There are two recommendations in particular, one of which is a possible tweaking of family income supplement in order to support working parents. There would be many implications in that for the tax and welfare system and there is the issue of a poverty trap. I have indicated that I will examine both recommendations in the report. I have also announced that I will review the two schemes we have now - child education and training support and the community child care subvention - examine the criteria currently being used and see if there is a better way of organising the services.

Primarily, we are maintaining the free preschool year at a cost of €175 million, and I have stated repeatedly that it is my intention to move towards a second free year as soon as finances allow. The troika has departed and we have a new medium-term economic framework, and I see it as a priority area, as resources permit, to make the early intervention in supporting parents and providing child care. I will certainly make that case.

The Indecon report must be welcomed and I commend the initiative by the Donegal county child care committee. The report, entitled Supporting Working Families: Releasing a Brake on Economic Growth, confirmed what many of us recognise to be the reality, which is that high child care costs are putting a quarter of parents off returning to the workplace or looking for an opportunity to commence employment, with most low-income families finding the cost absolutely impossible to meet. The report indicates that a two-child family faces an annual bill of €16,500 for full-time child care, with the average full-time cost over a ten-month period at €9,150 for one child and €16,470 for two children. This places Ireland at the second highest point across all OECD member countries. Consideration of the recommendations is critical and this is a major issue. We must establish what steps are now being proposed by the Minister.

I have heard the Minister's reply, but what discussions have taken place in the Department or with other Departments and Ministers on the findings of the Indecon report? It should be recognised that the report recommends that targeted child care initiatives should focus on lower-income families with members who are either in employment or currently unemployed but anxious to secure employment. That should be done among several other initiatives. We are losing the services of a quarter of potential workers because of the prohibitive cost of child care.

I am reviewing the two schemes we have, and that will be done in 2014. Budgetary decisions were made on supporting the preschool quality agenda, and improving the quality of services in early years is very important. We discussed previously how training and mentoring are a crucial part of working towards the extension of child care, and we want any child care available to be of high quality and high standards.

There have been a large number of inquiries about and significant take-up of the training currently being made available by UCI, and that will no doubt grow next year. That will make a difference to quality and will ensure that parents can have more confidence in services, with children doing better as we train more staff and provide mentoring to those staff. This is building to what the Deputy speaks about, which is a service that is more available. Ultimately, if we are to subsidise child care it will cost money, and we must find the resources in order to develop the sector. There will be a review of the two schemes and the maintenance of the free preschool year. We will also build up training and work towards a second free preschool year, and that is the approach I have discussed with Cabinet colleagues. I will also examine the particular recommendations of the Indecon report and I will ask the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, to consider them as well.

I welcome the Minister's elaboration on her initial reply, as it is critical that other Departments are engaged.

Indecon believes that a child care amendment to the current family income supplement would be a good policy initiative to encourage unemployed parents back into employment and to assist lower-income parents to remain in employment. It makes the case that any labour market policy initiatives should consider the current employment status of the targeted groups. It also points out that employment-focused child care policy initiatives should be aimed at either encouraging parents to enter the labour market or increasing their working status from part time to full time. These are specific areas of recommendation and the report is most helpful in that regard.

Indecon also strongly recommends that beneficiaries of the incentive should be restricted to tax-compliant and HSE-registered child care providers. It also makes the point, on which I would strongly reflect, that whatever steps are now to be taken in this hugely important area, there must to be monitoring, evaluation and assessment of their impact. After a period of three years a detailed report should be prepared in order to give the full facts as to the success or otherwise of the initiatives involved.

There is a debate between what is in the Indecon report and the particular recommendations it makes and, for example, Start Strong. That emerged at the launch, at which many people favoured continuing with the universal approach and introducing a second year as a universal measure. It is worth noting the success of that first year, as the Growing Up in Ireland study, published last week, showed for the first time that young children who had been in the free preschool year had made an extremely good transition into primary school. We have very good evidence on the universal approach, but it might be possible to consider some initiatives such as those that have been recommended by Indecon. A second free preschool year would require considerable additional funding, but as the economic situation improves our children are our greatest resource. Early intervention must be a byword. We ought to look towards building up as many supports as we can, not least because it is an economic imperative that parents should be able to combine work and family life and should have the kind of child care services they need. I will continue to work towards that. The building block is training. As Deputy Ó Caoláin will acknowledge, that has been put into the budget this year and it will mean that by this time next year we will be in a considerably different place in terms of the number of people who are trained to FETAC levels 5 and 6. With the mentoring programme we should be able to move towards more of a career structure for those who are in child care, because that has been missing.

Could I ask that we keep to the time limits? That would allow us to make more progress.

Preschool Services

Luke 'Ming' Flanagan

Question:

71. Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she is determined to bring in a second preschool year; if so, the date on which it will happen; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [54043/13]

My question is to ask about the promised second preschool year and whether the Minister is going to go ahead with it. The Minister’s reference to the troika now being gone is interesting. Earlier this year I understood that an announcement was due on the initiative, and the reason it did not happen is that the scandal broke on television and the Minister pulled back on it, but now the reason is that the troika is gone. The troika seems to get blamed for everything. Is the Minister going to proceed with a second preschool year? That excuse does not help.

I have always said that I believe a second year is the right direction in which to go as far as preschool services are concerned and that we ought to offer a second year. That is the vision I have been working towards. I have never been able to say precisely when it would come about but it was always very clear that a number of issues needed to be addressed prior to the introduction of a second year. They centre in particular on the quality of the services - staff availability and training, the availability of a high-quality service, and funding. I mentioned the troika by way of referencing the fact that things are improving in terms of the economy, but we do have a long way to go. As part of any improvement in the years to come I want child care to feature strongly among the public services we provide.

That is the context in which I am making my point. Obviously, 68,000 children are availing of the free preschool year. The feedback from it is extremely good. The transition to primary school has gone very well for the first cohort of children whom we have examined who have had the benefit of preschool education. We are working towards our objective.

I highlight continually the benefits of early intervention. A second free preschool year would represent approximately €3,000 worth of free child care to parents and it would generate 4,000 to 5,000 new jobs. It is obviously on the agenda and I will work towards it. As the budgetary position allows for it, I would like to see this developing. This year, we have taken the additional steps in regard to training. The additional funding is not currently available due to financial constraints on the Government but all the evidence tells us that we get very good outcomes when we allow for the quality preschool provisions in question. I certainly will be working towards this objective. I hope that we will move towards a second year. I set up the early years advisory group to examine the needs of those under six and five because we have not been particularly good at doing so in this country. We will have our early years strategy published early in the new year.

The Minister said herself that all the evidence shows good outcomes. Apparently, the Government cannot afford to do something now that will save us money and make money down the line. I cannot understand how the Government can continue with policies like that. It happens in so many areas that a decision is made not to do something now that the evidence clearly shows would save money in the longer term. Many people use the preschool period to develop their lives in other ways. With the help of grandparents, etc., parents can avail of what is nearly a full day's service. Not having the second year curtails parents.

When the scheme was first introduced, it was much trumpeted that one year was to be made available. I found that a little bizarre in respect of the playschool that my children attended. The way the system worked previously was such that both my children got two preschool years. This is interesting. Supposedly progress was made resulting in just one year, and further progress means that no one can tell us when the second year will be made available.

I do not quite know what the Deputy is referring to when he mentions two free preschool years because this was the first time there was a free preschool year. It was made available at a cost of €175 million. I do not know the Deputy's individual circumstances but I acknowledge there have been some extremely good community preschools that have offered services, but I am sure they were being subsidised. There is €280 million to subsidise community child care services, and the services are available for those who are doing training also.

The Deputy will recognise the quality of provision. There is no question but that wonderful services have been developed down through the years by many dedicated professionals on the front line, but it is very clear that the work needs to be done to ensure that, in order to make available a second free school year, staff will have qualifications at FETAC level 5 and level 6 if they are supervising. We must put in the supports that are needed, and we are doing so now. This is a very important stepping stone towards the second year. I will continue to work towards the provision of the second year. I have had discussions with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, because, clearly, there is co-ordination needed to take into account the kind of experience children are having in junior and senior infants in national school.

Not proceeding now is not saving the Government any money. Advocating the idea that we do not have the resources to ramp up whatever training needs to be provided results in a waste of money in other areas. There are children in my area who, because of circumstances at home, must go to school a little earlier than they would otherwise go. They are causing a problem because they are obviously not as well developed as other children in their class whose parents can afford to pay for an extra year, for example. This is a major disadvantage and represents a bad start.

It is like getting two seeds, putting one in good soil, the other in bad soil and then complaining that they did not grow well. We see the stark results in my home town where €100,000 is spent every year to try to do the impossible in Castlerea Prison, but there is no money available to help people at the beginning. We see it starkly and it is frustrating that we do not see a solution to it.

I agree with the Deputy on the need for early intervention. It did not have the focus it needed for many years and I am trying to change this. I welcome the Deputy's comments because he is absolutely right. The evidence is overwhelming that if we invest in the early years, we will save money on prisons, detention centres and so forth. We must help children with difficulties at the earliest possible stage in their lives. That is precisely the reason I established the early years strategy group. For the first time, we have a national early years policy. The strategy group published a report entitled, Right from the Start. I agree in principle with the Deputy that we must focus much more attention on early intervention measures and I am doing what I can in that regard. Early intervention is needed in many areas, including health. A strong focus on children under six years is absolutely essential. I am playing my part in improving training in early years education and child care, as well as developing policies which take account of all of the issues involved, including maternity care, breast feeding rates, supports for mothers, parenting courses and the family support agency, all targeted at early intervention. I welcome the Deputy's support and prioritisation of the issue. Early intervention must become bywords for the future.

Youth Services Funding

Robert Troy

Question:

72. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs when she will announce funding being provided to youth groups in 2014; if she will confirm that there will be no further reduction in such funding in 2014; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [54103/13]

Given that 37% of young people under 18 years are at risk of poverty and social exclusion, I ask the Minister to indicate when she will announce the funding to be provided for youth groups in 2014. I also ask her to confirm that there will be no further reduction in such funding next year.

The youth affairs unit of my Department supports the delivery of a range of youth work programmes and services for all young people, including those from disadvantaged communities, by the voluntary youth sector. The funding schemes support national and local youth work provision for some 400,000 young people and involve approximately 1,400 paid staff and 40,000 volunteers.

In line with Government policy, my Department, with all other Departments, has been required to achieve significant savings on schemes and services in line with the reductions set out in the comprehensive review of expenditure, CRE. However, I am pleased to advise the Deputy that, as part of budget 2014, I have secured an additional allocation of €1 million in current funding to reduce the impact of the CRE savings requirements on youth services next year. This means that the savings requirement in 2014 will be €2 million rather than the €3 million indicated for youth services in the CRE. The total current funding allocation for youth services will be €49.78 million.

The CRE proposed reductions of 10% for national youth organisations and reductions of 5% for local youth projects in 2014. While my Department is still finalising the 2014 allocations, I can advise the Deputy that the reductions will be significantly lower than those proposed in the CRE. Every effort is being made to finalise these allocations promptly in order that youth projects and national youth organisations can be advised of their 2014 allocations as soon as possible.

I will continue to meet representatives of many youth organisations and groups to try to see how we can work together to ensure the most effective and efficient use of the resources available in order to continue to support the provision of quality youth services for young people in 2014. The CRE had projected reductions of 10% for national youth organisations and 5% for local youth projects, but I have managed to ameliorate these reductions to a significant degree through an additional budgetary allocation.

The Government’s Action Plan for Job claims there is considerable potential for youth work services to contribute to the wider Government approach to addressing youth unemployment. Despite this, we witness a further cut of €2 million in the 2014 youth services budget, on top of 5% cuts in 2013 and 2012. Recently I had the pleasure of visiting Cabra For Youth and witnessing at first-hand the fantastic good work it was carrying out with a shoestring. One third of its funding comes from the Irish Youth Justice Service and the other two thirds from the Department. The Irish Youth Justice Service recognises these groups require a basic level of funding, below which it will not go. It has not made one cut in funding in the past two years. Does the Minister agree that there is a basic level of funding that community and youth groups need to maintain the services they provide? Will she confirm that she will not go below that threshold? Youth groups are at the pin of their collar and do not know what cuts are down the track.

I must ask the Minister to reply. I will call the Deputy for a further supplementary question.

The Budget Statement was brought forward by two months, but the Department has not yet informed youth groups what their budget allocations are for 2014.

There is ongoing contact between my Department and youth organisations. CDYSB, City of Dublin Youth Service Board, is also in contact with youth organisations and I am very keen to ensure front-line services will continue. Any organisation facing a situation such as that described by the Deputy has been met. Every effort has been made to address the issues involved, including the need for supplementary funding. I have met many youth groups in recent months. Everyone involved has informed me that while the groups would prefer to see no cutbacks, they recognise that there will not be cuts of 10% or 5% but minimal cuts this year. I recognise the work they are doing. The extra moneys will allow us to ensure there will be no reductions in youth services, just as there were none in 2012 and 2013. If the Deputy has a case involving a particular group that has particular difficulties, he should bring it to my attention. We have endeavoured to meet organisations which are finding it difficult to maintain their services.

The time has elapsed and I must call Deputy Robert Troy.

I recognise that youth services have taken a hit during the years. That is why I made a particular request this year in the budget that extra moneys be allocated to them in order that the situation would not continue. The position is quite different this year from what it was last year.

Will the Minister confirm when youth groups will know what their budget allocations are for next year? It is unfair on them in planning their 2014 programmes that they do not know what moneys they will have available. The group in question wrote to City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee about its funding in 2014 and was told it could not be informed. If there is the same cut as last year, it will have to move from a five-day to a four-day week. It is making savings by not giving toast to the kids attending the group, stopping its training fund and not carrying out repairs to its facilities. It is welcome that the Minister is taking on board what I have said about this youth group. However, it is not an isolated case; it is being replicated the length and breadth of the country. The Minister agreed with Deputy Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan on the need to invest in youth. We must ensure we invest in these critical programmes in communities.

The time for the supplementary question has elapsed. This is not fair on Deputies waiting for replies to their questions.

Does the Minister agree there is a basic level of funding below which no club can operate? Can she ensure this basic level of funding is maintained by her Department for these youth groups?

Despite the budgetary difficulties, the 2014 budget for youth services is over €50 million, so youth organisations around the country are still getting over €50 million in direct funding, and there is superb work going on. It would be wrong to give the impression that every youth group out there is struggling to provide any type of service. In fact, high quality services are being provided with that €50 million by a variety of groups. That is not to say we have not had to make changes.

There is also need for some reform. Agencies and youth organisations are working together to examine overall services in a community and to make sure they share services as well. We also have to ask that of the youth services. Having said that, I certainly do not want to see organisations getting to the point where they are not able to provide a service. We have had direct contact with quite a number of organisations and that is ongoing.

The proposals on funding will be known very shortly. The good news is that will be far less than envisaged in the comprehensive review of expenditure, due to the fact that I got an extra €1 million to support youth funding this year. That is really important.

Adoption Records Provision

Clare Daly

Question:

73. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in view of the state apologies in Australia, Spain and Britain to children who were the victims of forced and often illegal adoptions, her views on whether the Irish State should make a similar apology to Irish children who were forcibly adopted and exported from the State. [54123/13]

This question relates to the shoddy way in which the Irish State has treated adopted persons. This issue has come to prominence recently with the release of the film "Philomena", and the producers of that film have been inundated with requests from Irish people to seek assistance in getting their identity traced. Appalling crimes of identity theft have been committed against people. Other states have apologised for such behaviour and I wonder whether the Minister would consider something similar.

The issues raised by the Deputy are a matter of concern to me. I note the apology offered by the Australian Prime Minister earlier this year which relates, as I understand, to historical government policies operated in that jurisdiction.

In Ireland, the Adoption Act 1952 provided a legal basis for adoption in Ireland and for the establishment of the Adoption Board. This brought order to what had been the system of ad hoc arrangements in lieu of formal adoption procedures up to this point, so we have had a change from 1952. All adoptions since 1952 in which the Irish State has been involved have been carried out in line with this and subsequent adoption legislation.

However, in reality, the history of adoption in Ireland in the middle decades of the 20th century reflects a complex social history where the influences and pressures of society, communities, individual families and religious institutions, applied in the private realm, resulted in many cases of children being given up for adoption, in some cases through means which were not legal. As a society, we should all be sorry for what transpired. We cannot undo the practices of the past, but I hope that all of us in this House, including me as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, can place on the record our regret at the way Irish society treated so many children and mothers, where children's best interests were not respected and those involved facilitated illegal birth registrations or other arrangements which had, and continue to have, consequences for the children.

Historical private arrangements, for obvious reasons and due to social factors of the era, operated in conditions of great secrecy and there were rarely any contemporary written records of these events. Similarly, the issue of illegal adoptions relates to illegal registrations, that is, children who were given at birth to other individuals who registered these children as their own and who are now unable to access personal records and information.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I have met individuals who have found themselves in these circumstances and I acknowledge and empathise with the situation that these individuals are addressing. Records on adoptions as well as illegal birth registrations are currently held by a number of agencies, including the HSE, the Adoption Authority of Ireland and also by private adoption agencies, maternity hospitals, private individuals and other sources. Information held by the Adoption Authority is primarily about adoptions which took place since the Adoption Act 1952. If no adoption took place the authority would not have an adoption file. Where no adoption took place, if records exist they may be held by a number of sources including hospitals, GPs, mother and baby homes, religious orders and other sources.

The HSE provides an information and tracing service throughout the country to birth mothers, adopted persons and their families. The requirement in the Adoption Act 2010 that agencies providing information and tracing services would gain accreditation resulted in a number of religious orders deciding not to apply for accreditation and transferring files from their mother and baby homes and adoption societies to the HSE. Approximately 25,000 files have been transferred to the HSE regional adoption service in Cork, from the Sacred Heart Adoption Society. The HSE also has records for a number of other adoption societies and mother and baby homes. Furthermore PACT, which is an agency accredited under the Act, has records of various Protestant organisations. A comprehensive list of records and their locations is available on the HSE website.

The national adoption contact register which is operated by the Adoption Authority was established in 2005 to assist adopted people and their natural families to make contact with each other, exchange information or state their contact preferences. I am conscious of recent media coverage of the issue of information and tracing and I would hope that this will encourage more birth mothers in particular to access the national contact preference register and where possible to consent to the release of information.

When the former Adoption Board launched the national adoption contact preference register in 2005, provision was made for persons who were party to the illegal registration of a child to register an interest in the register for possible future contact with another party sometime in the future. Fundamental to the success of the register is that any persons with information in this regard contact the information and tracing unit of the Adoption Authority.

This is obviously a very important issue, which has devastating consequences on people throughout their lives. There is a certain irony in the fact that we are rushing through legislation later in the week to facilitate intercountry adoptions, since some of the people I am talking about here were the intercountry adoptees of their day, leaving these shores - sometimes in illegal circumstances - and ending up in America, and many of them are still trying to find out who they are.

The Minister has previously refused to conduct an independent investigation into this practice. I ask her to revisit that issue. In certain instances in the not-too-distant past 97% of children born to non-married parents were either given up for adoption or died in mother and baby homes. That is a phenomenal figure. In Australia, because the figure had reached 67%, the state apologised for what the Minister has acknowledged was social practice and policy at the time. She has acknowledged the illegality and expressed regret, but there needs to be much more. I would revisit the idea of an independent investigation.

I recognise the Deputy's concern about this issue, on which we have much work to do. The exact route forward is worthy of consideration. As I said, I have met individuals in these circumstances and acknowledge and empathise with the situation they are trying to address. It is appalling to sit in a room and meet people who say the forms were filled in illegally and incorrectly and that they are at a loss in knowing how to trace information on themselves, the scale of which is still open to question. I have previously said that records on adoptions and illegal birth registrations are held by a number of agencies such as the HSE, the Adoption Authority of Ireland, private adoption authorities, maternity hospitals, private individuals and other sources. Information held by the adoption authorities is primarily on adoptions which took place before the Adoption Act 1952. There is the tracing service and we are bringing forward the legislation. I will ask the Joint Committee on Health and Children to discuss the issue of information and tracing. The issue the Deputy mentioned, as to what to do in the case of illegal adoptions, might be an appropriate one to consider in the first discussion.

The official apologies made to the victims of the Magdalen laundries and industrial schools made a huge difference to the people concerned and this issue will not go away. It meant a huge amount to the people concerned in Australia to have the state officially acknowledge the issue. In 2010 Gordon Brown apologised for Britain's role in some of these activities in disrupting the identity of children and facilitating their abuse and exploitation. We are dealing in many instances with a generation of stolen children who have a right to know who they are and a State apology. Many of them were adopted, while others died - one quarter of all babies born outside marriage in the 1930s died. In some mother and baby homes the mortality rate of children was 50%. Subsequently the State has actively tried to deny and frustrate people's attempts to discover their identities. Even now, with centralised records, people still cannot access them. Until that issue is resolved, they will keep pressing because the adoptees of yesteryear are becoming more organised and demanding their entitlements and rights to an apology and vindication.

The Deputy has mentioned inter-country adoptions. In the years subsequent to the era she has described we have learned a lot about adoption, parental permission and consent, the concept of subsidiarity and that adoptions be carried out locally. We have seen a dramatic change. That is linked with cultural attitudes. Very few Irish-born children are placed for adoption. This is in total contrast to the situation in the 1940s and 1950s and has to do with social attitudes. Many factors are at play. It is very important that people who are searching make contact with the National Adoption Contact Preference Register, NACPR, which was established in 2005.

There is quite a difference between the numbers of people signing on for that and the actual number of adoptions that took place. Therefore, we need more publicity about the national contact preference register and must ensure best practice is applied when people are trying to get information to which they are entitled. However, as I mentioned previously, there are also constitutional issues in regard to the mother's right to privacy, which is a critical issue.