Priority Questions

I intend to stick rigidly to the clock. We are a little behind time so Question Time might be like a pilates class in that I will keep the Minister and the Deputies on their toes.

Child Care Services Provision

Anne Rabbitte

Question:

26. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the changes to existing legislation that the introduction of the new affordable child care scheme will necessitate; the timeframe that she plans to use to make these changes to the legislation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40303/16]

I ask the Minister to outline the changes in legislation that the introduction of the new affordable child care scheme will necessitate; the timeframe that she plans to use to make these changes to the legislation; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

I am working to introduce a new affordable child care scheme from next September which will provide financial support for parents towards the cost of child care. The new scheme will provide for both universal and targeted subsidies towards the cost of child care. It will replace the existing targeted child care programmes with a single, streamlined and more user-friendly scheme. I want it to provide "wraparound" care for pre-school and school age children.

To ensure good governance, the affordable child care scheme will be put on a statutory basis. The necessary primary legislation will encompass clear and detailed rules for the assessment of income and the provision of subsidies, clearly prescribed authority in regard to the sharing of data across public bodies and administrators, comprehensive provisions regarding the powers and obligations of the scheme administrator and high level requirements and associated powers of sanction regarding scheme participation by child care providers.

The primary legislation will take account of all necessary amendments to existing legislation. As part of this, the use of the PPS number and data sharing across public bodies and agencies will be supported through legislation and formal data sharing agreements. Officials in my Department are currently drafting the heads of Bill for the scheme, which are at an advanced stage. I intend to bring the heads of Bill to Government for approval early in the new year and thereafter the precise timeframe for the drafting of the legislation and its passage through the Houses will be subject to the usual considerations regarding scheduling and allocation of parliamentary time. My objective is that legislation will be in place in early summer and I look forward to piloting this important scheme through both Houses.

I acknowledge the persistence and determination of the Minister and her team in bringing forward the affordable child care scheme. However, I am a realistic individual and I note all the Departments the Minister must bring legislation through. The Minister is looking at changing the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 which is to work with the personal public service, PPS, number. When one considers that more than 500,000 parents have not used or signed up to availing of the PPS number, the Minister will have to work with the Department of Social Protection, the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The Minister is looking at bringing through legislation for a proper IT system in order that parents wanting to avail of it can do all this online, and she plans to have all that done by August. I wish the Minister well in her endeavours in delivering that. As I stated at the beginning, I am a realist and I can see many problems.

I thank Deputy Rabbitte. I would be a pragmatic idealist. I recognise that the timeframe for introducing the scheme is ambitious, not least because the legislation, as the Deputy states and as I have indicated, will have to be in place before the scheme can commence. Officials in my Department are working to ensure the heads of the Bill will be brought forward for Government approval in the new year.

A key piece of the existing legislation that needs to be examined, and this is what the Deputy refers to, is the Social Welfare Consolidation Act of 2005 because that specifies the bodies that can use PPS numbers and the purpose for which they can be shared. In the process of bringing in the affordable child care legislation, we will look at that Act to determine any necessary amendments.

The reason the PPS numbers and data sharing arrangements are so critical is an online IT application system will be developed that will allow the parents to apply for subsidies online by entering these numbers and other details, such as their work and training status. As the Deputy indicates, that takes several Departments to work together. We need to be ambitious.

Going back to what I said at the beginning, there are 500,000 parents who did not sign up with the Department of Education and Skills by forwarding on the PPS number. People have a reservation about releasing their PPS number because it is private, confidential and personal information. We saw what happened with Irish Water where a U-turn had to be made in 2014 on the release of PPS numbers.

I accept the Minister is bringing through a system where the parent can do it at home and all online, but surely the governance for the child care provider will involve the parent providing information to the provider to cross-check that the parent has submitted the application in order for the provider to get his or her funding. It will revolve around the PPS number. Would the Minister agree that there will be concerns around the use of the PPS number?

I am glad Deputy Rabbitte raised this. It is an important consideration. With regard to the rationale for using the PPS number, it is for a particular benefit - that is what is critical here - in order that we can use it to link to the Department of Social Protection and Revenue Commissioners data, thereby allowing a much faster and more user-friendly service for parents, overcoming the need for them to have to submit documentary evidence and reducing administrative burden.

The PPS number is already used as an identifier within many schemes, including the current targeted child care subsidisation scheme. The focus here is on us looking to use it to provide a benefit, for that to be more user-friendly and in order that parents ultimately can access what we are offering as a subsidy, and it is easier for the providers as well.

On the issue of legal advice on this, the Department's internal legal adviser wrote to us yesterday with high level advice on our heads of the Bill. I understand that, effectively, the social welfare legislation will be amended as necessary to ensure we can use PPS numbers.

Services for People with Disabilities

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

27. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the current Tusla policy on dealing with children with disabilities in accessing child protection services; her views on the recent reports which suggested that children with disabilities were treated less favourably; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39930/16]

This question follows on from a number of reports on RTE's "This Week" programme largely relating to a document released under freedom of information identifying clear cases of inequity when dealing with child protection cases involving children with disabilities. It highlights issues of resources with Tusla in this regard.

It is vital to emphasise that the Health Information and Quality Authority has never found, in all of the inspections that it has conducted, an instance where child protection services, when required, were not immediately available. Tusla has reiterated its position that all child protection concerns it receives are screened and assessed in line with Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children and that all such concerns are treated in the same way, regardless of any other challenges a child may or may not face. Tusla has confirmed to me that no child is excluded from accessing child protection services, regardless of his or her situation.

Each child presenting to our State services comes with a range of different needs and support requirements. Children in the care of Tusla regularly receive disability services from the HSE, where appropriate. Where a child requires additional supports, for example, for a disability, the best possible care and service is sourced for him or her.

The commentary by the HSE, to which Deputy Ó Laoghaire referred, relates to observations on the joint working protocol between the HSE and Tusla. This document, of which disability forms just a part, was agreed upon the establishment of Tusla in January 2014. The comments in question relate to 2014 and matters have moved on since then.

Since 2015, Tusla has been actively seeking to establish a new, detailed, disability protocol with the HSE governing children in care and aftercare, and access to disability services. This protocol would also specify how Tusla might be of assistance to HSE cases in relation to supports under Tusla's remit. I am pleased that, in recent days, Tusla and the HSE have agreed a new protocol in principle which will operate to ensure good collaboration between Tusla and the HSE on disability related services for children.

First, I am conscious that parents of children with disabilities and those with disabilities ultimately find themselves fighting for every right and entitlement that they should be due.

There are a number of elements of the Minister's response that require further development, the first of which is that this protocol has recently been agreed. Obviously, up until now, the existing protocols were still in effect. When will that protocol take effect?

On the correspondence that existed, one of the quotes was "that service providers whilst following the Children First Guidelines are then unable to access child protection services due to an increase in the threshold level and criteria of the CFA framework as set by the CFA [Child and Family Agency]". It was to do with those guidelines and criteria that existed in that framework. The Minister responded that, "where required", these services were available. It seems to have been an issue that there were children who probably should have been considered to be requiring services that were not evaluated in this regard and were not considered to be required.

I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire. I appreciate him asking further questions in this regard. The protocol I identified in terms of recent meetings between Tusla and the HSE is effectively an amendment of a protocol that has already been established. Tusla and the HSE, as I indicated, have been in a process of reaching out to one another to identify new ways to ensure, particularly in disability services because this has to do with the heart of the Deputy's answer, that it is clear who is responsible for what when children who require disability services are in care. Tusla's responsibility is when children are in its care and protection. When children are in Tusla's care and protection, if disability support services are needed to be provided, that is the responsibility of the HSE, but there needs to be an effective protocol developed between the two agencies. I am saying to the Deputy that the two agencies have most recently ensured that in principle they will have a more effective protocol from now on in order that no child who requires those disability services in the context of the care of Tusla does not receive those because of the lack of inter-agency co-operation.

Before I proceed to my second supplementary, the Minister in her response might clarify whether that protocol takes effect immediately or at some date in the future.

My second supplementary relates to another timeline that I would be looking for.

For some time, there has been a debate on Ireland's inability to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD. The convention was signed in March 2007, almost ten years ago, but it still has not been ratified, although it has been ratified by 156 other countries since then. That puts us behind countries with far fewer resources and less capacity, such as Vietnam, Togo, Uganda and many others. The Government, including the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has stated time and again that this is a priority. Can the Minister give a commitment that the Government will ratify that convention? It is vital for children with disabilities.

I assure the Deputy that the protocols have been improved and amended effectively over the last number of months. In the past couple of weeks there was a disabilities protocol group meeting in which it identified that there will be a standardised operating procedure governing retrospective disclosures and the sharing of information as well as a number of other aspects, particularly how to define lifelong placement agreements as adult placements. These are agreed in principle and they are in effect. It is a matter of writing it up and ensuring it is copperfastened in the original text. The group assures me that this is what is guiding the inter-agency co-operation. I and other members of the Government are absolutely committed to ensuring this Government is able to ratify the convention.

Child and Family Agency Remit

Anne Rabbitte

Question:

28. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the responsibility her Department has for children who are placed in emergency homeless accommodation; the steps her Department is taking to care for these children; her views on whether there should be a statutory limit on the amount of time that a child can spend in emergency accommodation; and her further views on whether Tusla should be awarded statutory responsibility for children using homeless accommodation. [40304/16]

Being homeless is distressing and stressful for children and adults alike. In the context of the Child Care Act 1991, my Department has policy responsibility for children under 18 years of age who present as "out of home" without their parent or guardian.

Children under the age of 16 years who present as homeless without their parent or guardian are taken into care. Children aged 16 years and 17 years may be taken into care or provided with a service under section 5 of the Child Care Act 1991, which deals with accommodation for homeless children.

Children who are homeless and in emergency accommodation are in the care of their parent or parents. Given the clearly challenging circumstances in which families in emergency accommodation find themselves, I do not believe that residing in emergency accommodation, in and of itself, should be the basis for taking children into care. Where there are no welfare or protection concerns, Tusla’s role is to provide family support where required.

Tusla has agreed a joint protocol with the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE. This governs child welfare protection matters for children in emergency accommodation. It is fully operational in the DRHE area and it is intended to roll it out across the State. It will be extended to Galway, Limerick and Cork in 2017.

My Department is working closely with Tusla to provide additional supports for families in emergency accommodation and those at risk of homelessness.

All of our family resource centres, FRCs, are working with people who are experiencing homelessness. This was confirmed this week at a meeting of the family resource centre forum. Many FRCs have already developed a local response to the needs of families in emergency accommodation.

I accept what the Minister says, but this is not about taking children into care. The nub of the question is about children in emergency accommodation and the timeframe for that. The reason I tabled this question today is that recently I tabled the same parliamentary question and the answer I received is the same as what the Minister just said. It stated that the policy responsibility for homelessness in so far as it extends to the Minister's Department relates to children under 18 years of age and any child welfare and protection concerns that might arise in the context of the Child Care Act 1991. My concern is the length of time that children are left in accommodation for the homeless, that is, being moved from one bed and breakfast room to another, over and back across the city and the uncertainty of that. Who is there to protect the child? The Minister said there are no protection issues, but we do not know that because we are not watching. We are not vetting where we are sending families when they are going from one bed and breakfast setting to another. That is where I am seeking the support of Tusla.

I, too, am concerned about the amount of time involved. In both my written response to the Deputy and my oral response today, I am trying to make it perfectly clear that the statutory responsibility of Tusla is for the care and protection of children who may require it. That does not necessarily mean if they are with their parents in emergency accommodation. The agency's statutory responsibility does not extend to that. At the same time, I agree that it is very important to ensure that they are in emergency accommodation for as little time as possible. In the overall Rebuilding Ireland - an Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness response, my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, is trying to ensure that this timeframe reduces. However, while they are in that accommodation Tusla took on the responsibility of working with the Dublin Region Homeless Executive to develop safety and protection policies to be provided for children in emergency accommodation. That has been developed in draft form and it will be rolled out in the new year.

I refer to my question again. Does the Minister believe that Tusla should have a statutory responsibility of support? Does she agree that responsibility should not lie with the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and that Tusla should have an input into the governance around how long children and families are spending in emergency accommodation? There should be joined-up thinking. I applaud what is happening in Dublin and I welcome that it will be rolled out to the other cities. However, we must focus on the children. We should put the child at the centre and join the dots between Tusla, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and local government, because there is a piece missing. That piece relates to how long children are spending going from A to B. Who is watching out for the child attending the general practitioner, the child regularly attending school or the child having continuity with their friends and family? As long as they are in emergency homeless accommodation they are going from A to B to C all of the time.

I appreciate the Deputy's passion and commitment on this, and it is important we share that. It will enable a quicker resolution to these issues if we work on this together along with our other colleagues. However, I question some of the Deputy's statements. Although Tusla does not have a statutory responsibility per se for the care of children in emergency accommodation because they are with their parents, that does not mean Tusla is not working under my direction to ensure, particularly through the family resource centres although not exclusively through them, that they have the additional supports that are required to ensure their care and protection while they are in emergency accommodation. In that regard Tusla has developed and conducted a mapping exercise that profiles each area and what is available in each of the family resource centres throughout the country. I have information on the family resource centres in Galway that I will be happy to share with the Deputy after this exchange.

Unaccompanied Minors and Separated Children

Jan O'Sullivan

Question:

29. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the progress that has been made on implementing the cross-party motion introduced in Dáil Eireann on 10 November 2016 including the intention to work with French authorities to identify up to 200 unaccompanied minors that had been in the camp at Calais and would be willing to come here; if work is ongoing to expand Tusla's capacity for this purpose; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39976/16]

I welcome the Minister back from Greece. From her experience there she will have got a good understanding of the perilous journey and the awful conditions the young people in the Calais camp experienced in their young lives. My question concerns the all-party motion which was agreed more than a month ago in terms of being willing to take 200 unaccompanied minors in this country and also the need to ensure that Tusla is given extra resources to deal with the extra responsibility.

As the Deputy is aware, there was a recent Dáil motion in respect of unaccompanied children who were previously living in the unofficial camps near Calais and work is ongoing. I am co-ordinating my efforts with the Tánaiste and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to ensure that Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, is in a position to play its part when the children begin to arrive here. I understand that there have been a number of contacts with the French authorities and that they have welcomed our offer of solidarity. I have had productive consultations with Tusla and I am happy with the progress that we are making. My officials have also recently met with volunteers who had worked with children in the unofficial camp in Calais. The volunteers are aware of the steps needed to implement the Dáil motion.

It is essential that we have the services in place to receive these children from France and the existing service will need to be expanded to achieve this. Tusla has outlined the necessary steps to increase its capacity to receive unaccompanied minors, and the resources it will need, with the intention of ensuring that the equity of care principle is observed. As it will take time to put all the elements needed in place, it can be expected that the relocation of unaccompanied minors will be on an incremental basis. On my recent visit to Greece, to which Deputy Jan O'Sullivan graciously referred, the range of needs of refugee children, especially those without their parents, was apparent and it is important that we are in a position to meet the needs of this very vulnerable cohort and that our efforts are successful.

My real concern is that we begin to make progress on the issue. The Minister said it would have to happen on an incremental basis and we all understand that. We do not expect that 200 children will come together but we would like to think that young people would be able to come here as soon as possible. A number of us met with the volunteers to whom the Minister referred and they made it clear to us that the main concern of most of the children is that they want to go to an English speaking country because they speak English and we are in a position to offer that to them. We must be conscious of the vulnerability of those young people and the fact that they could be subject to trafficking. I am not sure whether the Minister knows if the French authorities know where all the children are at this stage or what information has come from the meetings and contacts with the French Government. Now that it is more than a month since the motion was passed, my aim in tabling the question is to ensure we do see progress. The issue is one to which I will return after the Christmas break.

Just 72 hours ago I was standing in the Eleonas camp in Athens listening to children and families. Like many Deputies who visited the camps, I was deeply moved when talking to children, in particular small children - six and seven year olds - who were as fluent in English as they were in Arabic. Like me, I am sure no Deputy thought the sight of refugee camps on European soil would ever happen again in our lifetime, yet camps, both official and unofficial, now dot every part of the Continent. I mention my visit to Eleonas because the experience has made me more resolute in everything that we do.

In terms of children formerly resident in Calais, a memo will go to Government next week. I can confirm that officials under my Department in Tusla are working very hard on proposals and we are looking at a possible doubling in size of the unit in Tusla which deals with separated children seeking asylum. Deputies may be aware that this unit already has approximately 100 lone children who arrive in Ireland referred to it each year. Those are the kind of issues that will be addressed in the decision that will be taken at our final Cabinet meeting of the year.

I welcome the fact that a memo is going to Cabinet. I thank the Minister for sharing that with us. I am not sure what will be in the memo but I assume ensuring Tusla has extra resources is something the Minister will want to ensure, as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I urge the Minister to keep the Dáil informed because it is clear there is cross-party interest in the issue and we wish to ensure that we are of as much assistance on this issue to the Minister and her Government colleagues as possible.

I thank Deputy O'Sullivan. I will do that. We require additional resources in order to ensure that Tusla will have the capacity and also the ability to manage that capacity. I have requested that a project office would be established within Tusla to manage its responsibilities and contributions to meeting the Dáil resolution. The project office will co-ordinate work within Tusla's national remit and will work with relevant officials in the Department of Justice and Equality. It is expected that the project office will also co-ordinate Tusla's activities and responsibilities with Departments and agencies on the practical logistics of the care of children and young persons once they have arrived in this jurisdiction and that it will also liaise with NGOs and members of the public seeking to make supports available.

Before Deputy Rabbitte introduces Parliamentary Question No. 30, it would be remiss of me not to take the opportunity chun fáilte a chur roimh na múinteoirí agus daltaí atá anseo ó mo bhaile dhúchais i nDún na nGall ó Phobalscoil na Rosann. Bhí sé deas bualadh leo agus tá súil agam go mbaineann siad sult as an turas seo go dtí Teach Laighin agus an Dáil. Slán abhaile leo ar an turas fada ar ais go dtí an Clochán Liath.

Child Protection Services Provision

Anne Rabbitte

Question:

30. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her attention has been drawn to reports from the HSE of Tusla discriminating against children with disabilities in the provision of child protection services; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40471/16]

The question I ask is one the Minister has answered already but perhaps she could further expand on the issue. I wish to ask her whether she is aware of the reports from the HSE of Tusla discriminating against children with disabilities in the provision of child protection services. Could the Minister focus on the new protocol that has been drawn up between the HSE and Tusla?

I will emphasise a few points that were made in the previous reply and then I will come to the protocol. HIQA has never found an instance where child protection services, when required, were not immediately available. Tusla does not discriminate on any grounds, disability or otherwise, and all child protection concerns are assessed in line with Children First. Children have diverse needs which are addressed accordingly and the children in the care of Tusla receive disability services from the HSE, where appropriate.

I referred to the new joint protocol, an amended one, which specifically focuses on disability. It has been agreed in principle. I will outline some aspects of that in a moment. Formal sign-off is expected shortly. Tusla advises that the protocol, the exact wording of which is being finalised, provides a clear escalation process should an issue arise or if there is an unresolved matter around access to appropriate and available resources.

In terms of the protocol, the objectives have been to clarify and set out the respective roles, duties and legal requirements of the HSE and the Child and Family Agency in relation to children and young people with a disability or with a mental health issue, and to develop pathways for increased understanding and co-operation between the HSE and the Child and Family Agency. Collaboration and close co-operation are needed between both agencies in order to ensure a consistent approach for the care of children, in particular those with disabilities.

In terms of the most recent agreements, I have already indicated some aspects of them to Deputy Ó Laoghaire. In addition, the HSE will define the lifelong placement agreement as adult placements, making the distinction with the Child and Family Agency fostering placements as well.

As we are all aware, the issue was in the media for many days and it did bring attention to the matter. The CEO of the Children's Ombudsman, Niall Muldoon, used the phrase "extremely concerning" and the manager of the autism support organisation, Shine, Kieran Kennedy, referred to cases in recent months. This is not 2014. I accept we cannot talk about individual cases but we must be aware of what was said by the CEO of the advocacy group, Shine. Parents at home listening to the debate this evening will welcome the new protocol. It identifies that there were issues, lack of communication and a possible lack of understanding.

Perhaps that is why we needed the new protocol. We need reassurance from the Minister that she is happy with this new protocol, that it will address concerns and that clear pathways will be found to prevent future discoveries

Clearly, if something has been amended, it was required. I was also distressed to hear some of our mutual colleagues respond in respect of media reports and concerns around inter-agency co-operation. My understanding is that they were reviewing in terms of their response a report that was based on 2014 agreements. As I said in my earlier reply, things have moved on in terms of inter-agency co-operation and ongoing efforts to ensure that children with disabilities receive the reports they require when and if they are in the care of Tusla. We have co-operation and inter-agency protocol. Yes, we need to ensure that there are moneys, particularly within the HSE budget, to provide the appropriate supports for children with disabilities in the care of Tusla.

The last point I will hone in on is the child protection bar. Is it too high? Is there a clear understanding between the HSE and Tusla as to when one passes from one to the other seamlessly so that if there is a concern, Tusla is in a position to intervene straight away, the goal posts do not keep moving and there is a clear understanding with the HSE that when it needs to make an open disclosure or involve Tusla regarding a child with disabilities, it falls under the remit? There were obviously different positions, procedures and best practices in different facilities but that is where it might have fallen down. Do we have a clear common denominator of practice and governance from one unit to another?

I believe they exist and that this recent spotlight helps us to ensure in an ongoing way that they exist. I reiterate that from a Tusla perspective over which I can stand in respect of children in the care of Tusla and efforts to ensure those with disabilities receive the supports they require from the HSE that the other dimension to this debate, to which Deputy Ó Laoghaire referred, involves required resources to ensure that those supports are there. It involves resources as well as inter-agency co-operation. I am also being very clear that the supports for children with disabilities come through the HSE budget but we need to ensure that lack of inter-agency co-operation does not stand in the way.