Other Questions

Early Childhood Care Education

Helen McEntee

Question:

125. Deputy Helen McEntee asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will develop a nationwide scheme for equal access for children with special needs to the early childhood care and education scheme, which provides a free year of childhood care and education for children of preschool age; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7737/15]

At the risk of repeating what has just been said, will the Minister consider developing a nationwide scheme to provide equal access for children with special needs? The early childhood care and education scheme currently provides a free preschool year of childhood care for all children, including children with special needs. This can be divided over two years, with six hours per week in the first year and nine hours per week in the following year, or it can be availed of in one year. It is free to all parents, but there is no extra allocation of funding to support children with special needs. Will the Minister address that?

The early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme provides one free preschool year to qualifying children before they commence primary school. The ECCE programme is a free and universal programme to which all children, including those children with special needs, have access.

The issue of access to the free preschool year for children with special needs was taken into account when the free preschool year was launched, and a number of measures were introduced to make the programme more accessible for those children. The measures include an exemption from the upper age limit for qualification under the programme where a child is developmentally delayed and would benefit from starting primary school at a later age. In addition, children with special needs can apply to have the preschool year split over two years on a pro rata basis - for example, by availing of the programme for two days a week in the first year and for three days a week in the second year - if that would be in the child's best interest.

The majority of children with special needs avail of the free preschool year in mainstream child care services. I am aware that the HSE, where possible, assists children with special needs who may require additional support to enable them to avail of preschool services in mainstream settings. I am also aware that the Deputy's native County Meath is particularly good in this regard.

My Department has been working with the Department of Health and the Department of Education and Skills to build better supports that will facilitate children who have special needs.

The aim is to develop an agreed framework for the provision of resources to support children with special needs in mainstream child care settings. I have established a high level interdepartmental group to examine the issue of future investment in early childhood care and education and child care for school-going children. As part of its work, the group will consider how best to make appropriate provision for children with special needs who are accessing mainstream child care services. I have asked the group to report to me by the summer. I will not pre-empt what the group might propose but clearly one of the issues I would like to see addressed is the lack of uniformity of approach in different parts of the country.

I thank the Minister for his response. As he has mentioned, we are extremely lucky in County Meath because a source of funding is provided through the HSE's disability sector. This helps with the assistance of children who are attending preschool years. This is something our county has decided to do and many parents and teachers are grateful for it. The problem is that the funding is not definite. Every year it is subject to consideration. Every year budgets are tighter and every year more and more children are seeking to avail of these services. This puts a strain on the system and makes it more difficult to provide the right assistance. Further, the HSE feels it should not be funding these services.

We speak of inclusion of children with special needs at a mainstream level and in the community to ensure children feel part of their community. The Minister is a strong advocate of this. As he has mentioned, this is the first Government to have a dedicated Department with responsibility for children. I will stress what has been stressed by many Deputies in this House today. When the interdepartmental group is meeting and examining all aspects of education, early learning years in particular should be taken into account and serious consideration should be given to the introduction of a national scheme. It is important for children to get the help they need at an early stage, especially those with special needs. The HSE in County Meath can provide this funding for only so long. It also means that no other counties can provide it.

I am very concerned that this issue will be examined. The best context in which to look at it is the interdepartmental group. It is appropriate that the roles of the HSE and the Child and Family Agency in supporting families are considered when examining funding for special needs assistants for older school-going children. We are trying to support parents to come out of poverty. We want to lift their children out of poverty. We know the best way to do this is to support the family. The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the Department of Finance, the Department of Health and my Department are involved in this interdepartmental group as is, most importantly, the Department of Social Protection. This group has all the required membership to develop a coherent, properly analysed and properly priced Government approach. The Government, therefore, will be able to look realistically at the options and determine what it can afford to do during the current year and what it can afford to do the following year. We know if we do these things that we will get the results we seek.

I welcome the interdepartmental group. It is fantastic that the Departments are coming together. If funding is to come down the line, it would be a good idea to have the Departments work together on this and to avoid putting strain on any one particular Department. I look forward to hearing what comes out of this interdepartmental group, but the sooner the better for all involved.

Child Detention Centres

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Question:

126. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will provide details of the 16 boys reportedly being held in adult prisons; when these boys will be placed in more age-appropriate settings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7693/15]

I raise the issue of the 16 boys aged 17 years currently detained in the adult prison system. Yesterday, HIQA published an inspection report on the Oberstown campus which highlights significant risks for the children aged up to 16 years currently detained there. There is frequent use of single separation, a lack of holistic assessments and a lack of care planning. What assurances will the Minister give regarding these serious shortcomings and failures with the transfer of the 17 year olds expected in the not too distant future?

The programme for Government commits us to end the practice of detaining children in adult prison facilities. Significant progress has been made in implementing this important objective. Before this Government took office, both 16 year old and 17 year old boys were detained in the adult prison system. The transfer of responsibility for 16 year old boys to the children detention schools was implemented in May 2012. The Government commitment will be met in full this year when the extension of the Oberstown campus will result in the transfer of responsibility for 17 year old males from the adult prison system to the children detention schools. On 19 February 2015, three 17 year old boys were detained on remand in St. Patrick's Institution and the number of 17 year old boys serving a sentence of detention in Wheatfield Prison was 12.

The Oberstown capital development project will enable the extension of the child care model of detention. This focuses on education and rehabilitation to minimise reoffending and will apply to all those under 18 ordered to be detained by the courts on criminal justice charges. The development will also provide associated education, recreation, visiting, security and other ancillary facilities. It will mean that all detention services for children are delivered in a single location, maximising the scope for ensuring best practice standards and for operational efficiencies.

The first five units of new residential accommodation have been handed over to the Oberstown campus. To ensure safe and secure custody of children in the new buildings and to meet the appropriate health and safety standards, a period of training and orientation is required for newly recruited and existing staff, testing of equipment and the fitting out of the new units. This process is continuing and is due to be completed shortly.

To transfer responsibility for all 17 year old boys, we need to achieve the required complement of new care staff to work in the expanded facilities and the passage of necessary legislation to ensure that all legal issues are fully addressed.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

A campaign is ongoing to recruit in excess of 60 new care staff for the operation of the expanded Oberstown campus, and 38 staff have been recruited to date. My Department is progressing the necessary legal changes required to transfer responsibility for 17 year old boys from adult prison facilities by amending the Children Act 2001. It is intended to publish as soon as possible the Bill that will give full effect to these amendments and to enact the legislation without delay. When these steps have been achieved, the practice of detaining children in adult prison facilities will cease as early as possible this year.

It is critical, as we move towards the transfer of the final cohort of children out of the adult prison system, that the facility that is to receive them be operational to the highest and most appropriate standards. That very definitely is not the case, as the report published yesterday by HIQA clearly underscores. The frequent use of single separation for young people is deeply concerning for each and every one of us. It is a practice that should be employed only in very serious circumstances as a last resort but, according to the report, that does not appear to be the case.

The absence of holistic assessments and proper care planning is also very worrying. We need to see direct involvement by the young people themselves and all the others who have an appropriate input to make in the determination of the care plans.

Is the Minister aware of the serious concerns that are reflected in regard to the current regime in Oberstown? Is he taking any steps to ensure it is fit for purpose in regard to the current number detained and the transfer of responsibility for 17 year old boys? When in the not-too-distant future will the transfer occur?

A campaign is ongoing to recruit more than 60 new care staff for the operation of the expanded Oberstown campus, and 38 staff have been recruited to date. My Department is making progress on the necessary legal changes required to transfer responsibility for 17 year old boys from adult prison facilities by amending the Children Act 2001. It is intended that the Bill to give full effect to these amendments will be published as soon as possible and that the legislation will be enacted without delay.

The HIQA report related to October. Since that time, a comprehensive action plan has been agreed with HIQA and Oberstown management as part of the report.

The actions include revised guidelines on the implementation of existing campus policies in the areas of separation of children and medication management. Other actions being taken include an agreed training schedule for staff in the areas identified in the report - for example, behaviour management, fire safety and manual handling.

I have to ask the Minister, in the light of the publication of the report yesterday, and previous commentary relating to the Oberstown campus management, if he has, and if we can have, confidence in the current management's commitment and ability to ensure that the system in operation there is of the highest standard and fit for purpose, and is acceptable for the current numbers in occupation and those who are soon to be moved to the facility? Would the Minister indicate to us when the 17 year olds will be moved?

In regard to the McElfatrick report - I have raised this previously - my certain personal view is that this report has been suppressed, and I fear there are reasons for that-----

A question, please.

-----that are not evident to us. Will the Minister consider publication of the McElfatrick report, which I believe will shed light on the current state of affairs and that which has applied in regard to Oberstown over some considerable time past? Without that report being in the public domain and properly acted upon, we will see a continuation of the failings and shortcomings that have given rise to such public concern about Oberstown, which is the worst possible backdrop to the final transfer of young children out of the adult prison system to that new entity.

On the commissioning of the new development at Oberstown, we need to start afresh, with the certainty that we have a service that is fit for purpose and of a standard of which we could all be proud.

The Deputy asked me if I had confidence in the management at Oberstown to ensure that we have standards in place that are safe. I have confidence in the management there. They have put in place a plan that will address the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, report. The actions and the timelines are agreed with HIQA. That is certainly our intention. However, there has to be a realisation in this House that some of these young men or older children are 17. Some present with exceptionally challenging behaviour from time to time. The training that the staff get in the facility is to help them deal with and de-escalate those behaviours but it is not always possible to so do, as we all know.

The Deputy asked me when the transfer of 17 year olds will be complete. I hope to bring the Bill to Government in April.

And the McElfatrick report?

I will cover the McElfatrick issue as well, but in regard to this Bill, we have had a huge number of complications in what seemed like a simple piece of legislation. When it is being examined by parliamentary counsel, questions come back in volumes with regard to policy issues, etc. We are dealing with them. We would like to see it expedited. We want to meet our commitment and we will.

In regard to Mr. McElfatrick, the report is the subject of an ongoing process and I am advised that no steps can be taken at this time which could be interpreted as prejudicial to the process.

Early Childhood Care Education

Sandra McLellan

Question:

127. Deputy Sandra McLellan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps being taken to guarantee the commitment to universal accessibility of the preschool year for all children, including those with disabilities; and the assurances provided to parents whose children will come of age before September 2015. [7772/15]

I wish to ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps being taken to guarantee the commitment to the universal preschool year for all children, including those with disabilities, and the assurances provided to parents with children who will come of age before September 2015.

With the indulgence of the Chamber, I will answer this question, which has been raised frequently today, because it is a very important issue and a very important area. We are talking about the early childhood care and education programme, which provides one preschool year to qualifying children before they commence primary school.

The ECCE programme is a free and universal programme to which all children, including those with special needs, have access.

Children are eligible to avail of the free pre-school year where they are aged more than three years and two months and less than four years and seven months at 1 September in the relevant year. Children born between 2 February 2011 and 30 June 2012 will qualify for the programme in September 2015.

The issue of access to the free pre-school year for children with special needs was taken into account when the free pre-school year was launched, and a number of measures were introduced to make the programme more accessible for these children. These measures include an exemption from the upper age limit for qualification under the programme where a child is developmentally delayed and would benefit from starting primary school at a later age. In addition, children with special needs can apply to have the pre-school year split over two years on a pro rata basis, for example, availing of the programme for two days a week in the first year and for three days a week in the second year, if that would be in the child's best interest.

It is important to emphasise that most children with special needs avail of the free pre-school year in mainstream child care services. I am aware that the Health Service Executive does, where possible, assist children with special needs who may require additional support to enable them to avail of pre-school services in mainstream settings. However, the fact that these supports are not nationally consistent is a matter of concern to me.

My Department has been working with the Department of Health and the Department of Education and Skills to build better supports that will facilitate children who have special needs. The aim is to develop an agreed framework for the provision of resources to support children with special needs in mainstream child care settings.

The free pre-school year is supposed to be a universal benefit for all children but, as we know, many children with disabilities are prevented of availing of it due to the absence of necessary supports. In a previous answer, the Minister stated the support is not available nationally. The availability of special needs assistants, SNAs, to enable a child's attendance depends on where they live and ranges from none at all to only covering a proportion of the week.

Many parents are forced to hire SNAs, otherwise the child would be denied an opportunity to attend. This question deals with access to the free pre-school year, particularly for those with disabilities. What is in place is inadequate and there are serious difficulties. I ask the Minister and the interdepartmental group under his aegis to consider seriously this matter in their work.

I assure the Deputy that it will be taken very seriously. It is one of the serious issues for the interdepartmental group to examine. As I stated earlier, we have all the key actors involved in this group: the Department of Social Protection; the Department of Education and Skills; the Department of Health, which is leading it; the Department of Finance; and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It is critically important for all those Departments to be represented.

We need to ensure that the money allocated for child care is spent in the most effective way to achieve better outcomes for children. As other speakers have said, the money spent on this area yields the greatest return not just for the child but also for society generally.

The interdepartmental group will clarify and examine what we are trying to do, as well as finding the best way of achieving that. In addition, it will measure how those achievements are being met through current schemes and other Government expenditure. It will then come up with a list of options that are properly priced and analysed so that, if money becomes available, the Government can ensure it has the maximum impact when it makes its decision to put in extra funding, if that is the decision. As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I strongly feel we will find there is a need to look at how we have been spending money in this area and also to spend more on it.

I ask the Minister to consider the proposal in Sinn Féin's budget 2015 document to address immediately the most significant inequity in existing public child care provisions, which is the exclusion of many children with disabilities from the free pre-school year. The sum of €12 million would provide 1,000 children with 15 hours of SNA support per week in order to attend the free pre-school year. This fund would supplement existing ad hoc provisions from the HSE and other disability service providers, which are grossly insufficient. I ask the Minister to consider that.

As I have said on a number of occasions, there is no uniformity of support for special needs children across the country. This has been quantified and will be part of the work of the interdepartmental group. The Department of Education and Skills is working on this at the moment. Many children are in the ECCE programme but are not immediately identifiable as special-needs children from the point of view of the system; they are clearly identifiable by their parents, who can outline what their special needs are. The group will examine this and I believe we will get the result we need to be able to make the case very forcefully that additional investment is needed in the area. As the country's resources grow with the recovery of the economy, I would like to see this as a priority, as would many of my Government colleagues. However, we have to operate within budgetary constraints and the rules of our financial arrangements.

Homelessness Strategy

Robert Troy

Question:

128. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs how his Department is ensuring the implementation of adequate and up-to-date care plans for families with children who enter emergency homeless accommodation in the State. [7765/15]

Given the sizeable increase in the number of home repossessions and the spiralling costs of private rent, what engagement has the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs had with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to ensure we have an adequate response and up-to-date care plans for families with children who enter emergency accommodation because their homes have been repossessed or they can no longer afford private rent?

As the Deputy will be aware, on 4 December 2014, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government hosted a special summit on homelessness to reaffirm the Government's commitment to ending involuntary long-term homelessness, including that of families with children, by the end of 2016. A number of actions arising from the summit were formalised into an action plan to address homelessness, and substantial progress has been made in implementing that plan. Overall progress is overseen by the Cabinet committee on social policy and public service reform. The plan and progress reports are available on the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government website.

The December 2014 action plan to address homelessness includes a commitment for the Child and Family Agency and Dublin City Council to co-ordinate operations to ensure that services are fully responsive to the particular protection and welfare needs that might arise for families in emergency accommodation.

The Child and Family Agency has advised me that it has had meetings with Focus Ireland, the Department of Social Protection and Dublin City Council on vulnerable families and issues facing care leavers. The agency intends to create a multi-agency protocol to be clear about individual agency and multi-agency responsibilities with regard to homelessness, and work on this will commence shortly.

In cases in which there are welfare or protection concerns about children in families presenting as homeless, the reporting of such concerns to the Child and Family Agency is governed by the Children First guidelines.

In addition, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government recently issued a ministerial direction to the four Dublin local authorities and certain other housing authorities prioritising homeless households and other vulnerable groups, including young people leaving State care, for housing in their respective areas for a six-month period. This measure should reduce the number of homeless persons, including families, in emergency accommodation.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Policy responsibility for homelessness, in so far as it extends to my Department, relates to children under 18 and any child welfare and protection concerns that may arise in the context of the Child Care Act 1991. A child can only be received into the care of the Child and Family Agency where there are welfare or protection concerns and, as part of this process, care plans are devised to address the identified needs of the child. These care plans may, in certain instances, refer to additional supports required by the child’s family.

Homelessness as part of a family group is not of itself a basis for seeking to receive a child into care. Furthermore, there is no statutory basis for the preparation of care plans for families with children entering emergency accommodation.

While we do not have definite figures, the Peter McVerry Trust claims that in the past two years the number of homeless families has increased from 50 to 400. Given the lack of Government action to address spiralling private rental costs and repossessions of family homes, it is predicted that 1,000 more families may face eviction and homelessness in the year ahead.

Yesterday the Children's Rights Alliance published its annual report.

In the area of child welfare, which includes child homelessness, the Government received an "F" grade. Fergus Finlay, who is not unknown in Government circles, said that the grade was being allocated based on the Government's utter failure in respect of child poverty.

Does the Deputy have a question?

Is the Minister satisfied that he has a comprehensive strategy in place to deal with what will undoubtedly be a huge increase in the number of families facing homelessness this year?

The Deputy points out one issue in the report. I am very concerned about the issue of child poverty. I note that the overall report gave the Government a "C" in respect of issues to do with child care and children. However, child poverty is a matter of serious concern, which the Government will tackle through various interactions between different Departments. Clearly, we are concerned that children are in poverty and that this remains a persistent problem. The best way to lift children out of poverty is to help their parents rise out of poverty. That is why jobs are so important. This Government has created 80,000 new jobs, with 40,000 new jobs planned for this year alone. That is the best way to give people financial independence. The party of Deputy Troy and his colleague behind him was in Government for quite some time and did very little to address this matter through jobs. We believe in helping people become independent, not dependent on the State.

The Minister is right. Jobs are the best way to lift children out of poverty. This is why it is unbelievable that in four years, the Government has failed to tackle one of the biggest barriers to getting people back into the workforce, particularly people on the lowest incomes - namely, the cost of child care. The Government is failing in that regard. It is the private sector that has created jobs, not this Government. It is good that the Minister does acknowledge that the Government received an "F" grade in respect of child poverty, because the Government's decisions have resulted in a doubling of the number of children living in consistent poverty since 2009 and a 2% increase in 2014, a year of economic growth. The Minister should take his head out of the clouds. While there is some economic recovery out there, there are tens of thousands of families in poverty traps. Does the Minister not read the daily newspapers? Only before Christmas, we heard about a homeless family who had to go to Dublin Airport to ensure their children were kept warm. Does the Minister think this is right in a modern democracy? Does he think it is right that, as a society, we stand over a situation in which children must go out to the airport to keep warm? What are the Minister's plans to ensure that children in these vulnerable situations are supported?

I have made it clear that jobs are very important, but there are a number of programmes supporting families in the area of child care, such as the child care employment and training support scheme, the community employment child care schemes and after-school programmes. These programmes will help parents to get back to work and break the cycle of poverty. Equally, it is very clear that we need to have more high-quality child care and education in the preschool years to give children better outcomes. We have had a long discussion about this today and on numerous other occasions, and everybody on all sides of the House agrees that investment in the early years yields the best outcome for children and the best return for the State.

Youth Services Provision

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

129. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will provide a progress report on the national youth strategy, particularly with regard to youth at risk of the poorest outcomes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7757/15]

We will deal with the Minister's failures in the area of child poverty in Private Members' business tonight. I want to ask about another failure in the national youth strategy that was highlighted in the Children's Rights Alliance report. It was highlighted very dramatically last week when over 150 young people, many of whom were in tears, came here to protest about the lack of proper services and beds for young people with psychiatric difficulties or who are potentially suicidal. Is it not the case that the Government is dramatically failing to provide the supports and services that young people with mental health problems need and that these people are suffering very badly as a result?

The national youth strategy will focus on the youth-related policy commitments outlined in Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the national policy framework for children and young people. It will be a universal strategy for all young people aged ten to 24. It will have a particular focus on those who are most disadvantaged or at risk and who have the poorest outcomes and are, therefore, in most need of support. A national youth strategy task force convened by my Department is overseeing the development of the new strategy. This task force comprises statutory youth interests, voluntary agencies and organisations working with young people.

I am keen that all stakeholders have a role to play in the development of the new national youth strategy, and a comprehensive consultation process is under way at present. The consultation will conclude at the end of this month. It includes online surveys of young people and those working with young people, and a number of major stakeholder consultation events. These events are for young people, the youth sector, NGOs working for and with young people, education and training boards, Government Departments, agencies, business, academia and other youth interests. Last Thursday, I attended the consultation with young people. More than 150 young people from around the country gathered in Croke Park to discuss their priorities for the new strategy.

The events also include consultation on the findings of the recently completed value for money and policy review of youth programmes that target disadvantaged young people. The review specifically addresses the needs of young people who are vulnerable to drug or alcohol misuse and who are at risk of homelessness, early school leaving or marginalisation in their communities. It makes recommendations for the future operation of the youth funding schemes and their development in the years ahead to ensure that we have effective, evidence-based programmes designed to secure the optimal outcomes for young people at risk of disadvantage.

I intend that these recommendations will be implemented in the context of the national youth strategy over 2015 and 2016. The new strategy will provide a framework for actions initiated by Government Departments and statutory and non-statutory organisations into a co-ordinated, society-wide plan for young people. I anticipate that the strategy will be completed promptly following the conclusion of the consultation process with stakeholders.

That concludes Question Time.

I did not get a supplementary question.

We are three minutes over time. I gave the Deputy extra time.