Priority Questions

Childcare Costs

Anne Rabbitte

Question:

29. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her views on whether the subsidy levels under the single affordable childcare scheme are sufficient to account for the absence of increases to these levels in budget 2018; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [44019/17]

My question is to ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her views on whether the subsidy levels under the single affordable childcare scheme are sufficient to account for the absence of increases to these levels in budget 2018, and if she will make a statement on the matter.

I believe that budget 2018 marks another substantial further step forward in supporting families with young children. In recent years, I have secured significant additional investment in the early years sector, focusing investment on different but critical elements of early years care and education. The new measures announced in budget 2018 form part of a trend in continued growth and investment. In budget 2017, I secured a 35% increase in child care funding, following a similar 35% increase in budget 2016.

There has been an increase of 87% in early years funding since 2015. Despite this, Ireland will require many years of significant investment in child care to catch up with our OECD counterparts. The increase in targeted subsidies introduced last month does, however, represent a major step towards accessible, affordable, quality child care. These increases reflect my ambition to support the provision of quality child care services with appropriately supported and qualified staff.

The increases in the targeted schemes introduced last month are considerable, up to 50%. This will significantly decrease the amount of co-payment required of low-income families or parents in education or training. Some families will benefit from as much as €7,500 per child per year. I also introduced a universal subsidy worth up to €1,040 per year. This subsidy is aimed at children not yet in the free preschool programme.

I have used budget 2018 to deliver fully on the commitment in the programme for Government regarding early childhood care and education, ECCE, and to increase investment to support the quality of services.

All of these changes are points towards our goal to deliver affordable, accessible, quality child care.

I welcome what was delivered in the budget for ECCE. Focusing on the affordable childcare scheme, will the Minister confirm what she has started with regard to the affordable childcare scheme, and that our ICT system will be in place for September 2018? I am seeking a commitment from the Minister to have a pathway for that to ensure it will be there. How is the legislative framework proceeding to make sure that the Revenue and social protection pieces of the jigsaw related to the affordable childcare scheme will also be in place for September 2018? While I compliment the fact that some families will be in receipt of €7,500, some are missing out and will not even get as much as €12 per week. There are as many as 9,000 not included because of the threshold of €47,500. Was there much uptake of the GP cards or have any of the Minister's staff a reflection on that? That was an avenue to bring more people into the affordable subsidy level in the affordable childcare scheme.

Those are very helpful questions with regard to the Deputy's original question. On subsidies provided for families to ensure that the cost of child care is more affordable, the Deputy's first question asked if we are on track to ensure that the affordable childcare scheme will be able to be delivered in 2018 in light of the ICT issues. As I understand it, that process is continuing within the context of an overall group that is outside of my control and needs to ensure that proper quality and systems are put in place over a period. That is an oversight group, as the Deputy is aware. As I have said before, it is much better to get this right, because it is going to be in place for generations, than to get it wrong. I hope it will be able to be delivered but I cannot absolutely guarantee that now.

I understand that the legislation, asked about in the Deputy's second question, is on track. On the threshold for families, some may have missed out because we do not have the affordable childcare scheme fully developed to be delivered in the way that was originally intended, although we will deliver it. That issue was behind my judgment to ensure that every child is entitled to two full free years of preschool. That will add to the affordability issue for families.

I ask the Minister about ICT in every session. She has said she hopes that it will be there. Is funding the issue? Is it very complex? Is it difficult for one Department to work with three others? Is it that we are introducing a new system that has never been brought in before? Is the Minister looking at the model with regard to the student universal support Ireland, SUSI, system? I am trying to understand where we are going with this ICT because it all hinges on the ICT. Child care costs cripple parents. None of us will deny that. If this is holding up progress in delivering the affordable childcare scheme, I hope to understand what the hold-up is.

I know the Deputy is aware of this, but it is important to put on record that significant increases to reduce the cost of child care for families are being put in place and have begun to be delivered since September. There is a significant sign-up rate for those various schemes, including the universal scheme for under threes, which was the first time that the Government has put in place subsidies for families for children under three. As the Deputy is aware, a significant additional investment is being made in targeted funding. That is just beginning to roll out. Families are beginning to feel that and there has been a significant sign-up rate for those schemes. It is important to place that on the record of the House.

The Deputy identified the issue of the ICT system.

The development of the ICT system is progressing in an oversight group process. This involves a special office of people with expertise in information systems to ensure that what is ultimately delivered will be correct, and will last. That is outside my control. It is a process that involves other systems that are being developed from scratch, as significant as this one in terms of, as the Deputy rightly points out, the sharing of Revenue and social protection data that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and other Departments have identified needs to be done in order that we get that right. I hope that we can deliver but it is outside of my control. It is in the context of that process that we will deliver the best system for children and families.

Child Poverty

Denise Mitchell

Question:

30. Deputy Denise Mitchell asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the extra efforts being taken to tackle youth poverty and child homelessness; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43809/17]

Question No. 30 is in the name of Deputy Denise Mitchell. Unfortunately, Deputy Mitchell cannot be here. Deputy Ó Laoghaire is taking the question. I am sure the House is okay with that.

Deputy Mitchell conveys her apologies. The Deputy asks about the extra efforts being taken by the Department and the Government generally in regard to youth poverty and child homelessness, both of which are related, and asks that the Minister to make a statement on the matter and outlines what actions were taken in the budget to deal with this.

The reduction of child poverty and supports for homeless children and families are key political priorities for the Government.

My Department works closely with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection which has lead responsibility for child poverty in informing the development of this cross-sectoral priority.

My Department administers a range of funding schemes and programmes to support the provision of youth services to young people, including those from disadvantaged communities, throughout the country. In 2017, I provided current funding of €57.4 million to support the provision of youth services.

Recently my Department operated a youth employability initiative funded under the dormant accounts funding scheme. The programmes assisted over 1,000 young people, aged 15 to 24 years, to build skills that enhanced their employability. A review of the initiative to inform any future linked development is taking place.

During 2016 and 2017, I also gave approval for funding of 14 new youth projects and the expansion of seven others. These sample projects will provide youth services, including those related to homelessness, in areas of need as identified by the local education and training boards across the country.

There are 109 family resource centres currently in receipt of funding from Tusla and I have provided Tusla with resources for an additional 11 centres to be opened. I have also provided extra supports for family resource centres and will be making a significant announcement on this later this week.

In relation to housing, we are working closely with Tusla to provide supports for families in emergency accommodation in order to mitigate the challenges faced by parents and children in this situation. I have introduced free child care for the children of families experiencing homelessness. Regarding school attendance, Tusla's educational welfare service offers a number of supports to children and families experiencing homelessness and works together with other statutory and voluntary agencies in this regard. Actions taken by Tusla include the provision of funding for child-support workers and the appointment of a homelessness liaison officer.

As the Minister stated, these are cross-sectoral issues and there are many Departments responsible for them. Nonetheless, in terms of the Government as a whole, it is fair to say that the number of children in emergency accommodation, at almost 3,000, is at quite a shocking level at this stage. The related welfare issues are quite serious. There is the issue of food poverty and its implications for them. Generally speaking, there is the question about how suitable some of the emergency accommodation is.

In the first instance, I want ask the Minister whether she would support, in regard to the homelessness issue, some form of further independent inspection regime for emergency accommodation, in particular for families, and whether there has been any progress in Tusla's engagement with the existing forms of emergency accommodation.

I agree with the Deputy that the number of children in emergency accommodation is unacceptable. I indicated in my speech in response to the budget that the Government could be doing more, particularly in regard to preventive measures, in order to prevent as many people and families as possible moving into the emergency accommodation. One of the difficulties is that many children and families are moving out but, as the Deputy identified, the numbers continue to increase. Many children and families have received some form of a home but the fact that the numbers are continuing to go up is the difficulty. I agree there needs to be, as I said, further preventive measures. The Deputy will be aware that Tusla has worked with others to develop standards on ensuring the safety and protection of children while they are in emergency accommodation.

I am aware the Minister has committed moneys again in this year's budget to the area-based programme on tackling child poverty. The Minister also mentioned the family resource centres, which I would be a strong advocate of. What is the Minister's vision for the area-based projects over the next few years because there are some projects which are the remnants of Atlantic Philanthropies' investments and others that are probably more directly coming from the Department. All of these do good work. Some may have slightly different models of practice. I very much believe that this area-based approach is crucial in tackling poverty as well as some of the Barnardos centres, but I am unclear as to where the Government sees the future of all these centres and projects and what the strategy and roadmap for these projects are.

I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire for the excellent question. As the Deputy will be aware, I was able to secure funding in budget 2018 in order to ensure the continuation of the area-based programmes that are going on in different places throughout the country. As the Deputy indicated, there are different models being employed in that regard, but they certainly are all focused on prevention and early intervention, and the provision of services in the context of the communities where they are located.

The overall programme is currently being evaluated and reviewed by the Centre for Effective Services. The purpose of the evaluation is to assess the impact of the programme nationally. Work on the evaluation is ongoing but initial indications are positive for improving outcomes for children in 13 areas of disadvantage. Of course, I will await that report, but I have some views on ways in which we can continue to ensure communities, in the context of encouraging them to participate with children and families, between State and NGO and voluntary bodies, do the best they can to ensure that the children who are able to access those initiatives' services receive the best health, educational and care outcomes possible.

Departmental Expenditure

Anne Rabbitte

Question:

31. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the amount of funding that will be ring-fenced for the roll-out of mandatory reporting in 2018; her views on whether this will be sufficient; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [44020/17]

I ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the amount of funding that will be ring-fenced for the roll-out of mandatory reporting in 2018, her views on whether this will be sufficient and to make a statement on the matter.

I recently announced my intention to commence the mandatory reporting provisions of the Children First Act 2015 with effect from 11 December this year.

It is not possible at this stage to be precise about the amount of funding to be allocated to a specific area such as Children First. Children First mandatory reporting, for example, could benefit from social workers who are dealing in part with other aspects of Tusla's work and also from elements of staff training and IT costs. Exact funding requirements will become clearer as Tusla develops its business plan for 2018. However, I have emphasised to Tusla that mandatory reporting is a critical requirement for 2018 and the agency has committed to taking all actions necessary to achieve effective implementation.

I will shortly be issuing Tusla with its 2018 performance statement in line with the provisions of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013.

Tusla will, in response to the performance statement, prepare a business plan for 2018 which will be submitted to me for consideration. The precise level of funding to be allocated for the roll-out of mandatory reporting will be considered by Tusla in preparing its business plan, having regard to the overall level of funding available in 2018.

I am pleased to make additional resources of €40.6 million available to Tusla in budget 2018. It will bring Tusla's financial allocation to just over €753 million in 2018. This level of funding will allow it to recruit additional staff, respond to identified risks and meet increased demands for services, including those arising from mandatory reporting. In particular, the financial allocation will allow Tusla to meet a number of key priorities in line with its obligations under the Children First legislation. It will include ensuring the appropriate internal systems are in place to deal with the intake of mandatory reports by Tusla and that a suite of resources will be available to support and assist all sectors in implementing the legislation.

I thank the Minister for her response and welcome the €40.6 million in additional funding for Tusla which is to cover the cost of the roll-out of mandatory reporting and the roll-out of the nationwide out-of-hours social work service, as well as a further investment in family resource centres, including the opening of an additional 11 centres. My real concern centres on the fact that the CEO of Tusla, Mr. Fred McBride, said recently at a committee that evidence from other jurisdictions suggested mandatory reporting could increase the number of referrals to Tusla by 150%. He had sought an additional €38 million to support the roll-out of mandatory reporting. The Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, welcomed the Minister's announcement of mandatory reporting and while I wholeheartedly support her initiative, I believe there is not enough funding in place to support it. I would like to hear her views on Mr. McBride's remarks and his business plan.

I am open to correction, but it is my understanding, based on communications with my Secretary General, that Mr. McBride indicated that there could be a significant increase in the number of referrals to Tusla as a result of the roll-out of mandatory reporting. I understood it to be a 50% increase, as distinct from 150%, but we can take another look at that matter. It is Mr. McBride's job to identify where there is the potential for an increase, but at the same time, he is aware - we have had such discussions subsequent to this kind of exchange - that nobody knows exactly what the increase in the number of reports will be or what percentage of them will be substantiated. While potentially the increase could be as high as 150%, I do not expect it to be so, particularly because the Act identifies that, in the context of mandatory reporting, those reporting must have concerns that there is "significant harm" to a child, as distinct from the lower threshold that currently applies in the context of voluntary reporting. Given the raising of the threshold to a concern about "significant harm" to a child, it is my expectation that we are covering many children in the context of the voluntary reporting. There may be some increase, but it is my belief the additional resources I have secured for Tusla are sufficient. I further add that it is not just about resources; it is also about the processes by which Tusla takes in referrals.

If I were to accept the 50% figure which I am more than willing to do, my other concern relates to the recruitment of staff. It is my biggest concern. The Minister's predecessor, Senator James Reilly, announced the recruitment of an additional 247 staff in 2015, but if one looks at the figures for the past 18 months, one will see that we are struggling to recruit the necessary staff. While it is levelling out a little, the introduction of mandatory reporting will bring about additional pressure. Will we be able to recruit and retain the staff needed to bring forward this very positive change? Tusla has had a very difficult 18 months, with one negative report after another. Mandatory reporting will now be on its table too. While the Minister may have provided enough funding for staffing in Tusla, what does she think about the wider recruitment issue?

The Deputy has asked some excellent questions. In announcing the resources I shared a platform with Mr. McBride and we had a lot of discussions in that regard. He has identified that there are 305 people at various stages of recruitment; that Tusla is in the process of recruiting and ultimately employing the people concerned. In that context, there has been a lot of positive action in the context of Tusla's overall three-year plan to get the numbers it needs. It has been proactive and working extremely hard to recruit the necessary mix of team members and professionals. Of the aforementioned 305 people, 185 are social workers. A lot of work has been done to achieve that number of new recruits. In addition, the resources I am putting in place will ensure Tusla will be able to continue that recruitment to add an additional 300 workers.

Child and Family Agency Staff

Denise Mitchell

Question:

32. Deputy Denise Mitchell asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the measures or initiatives being undertaken to ensure the retention of highly skilled social workers within the Child and Family Agency; and the extra resources which will be allocated to recruit more social workers. [43810/17]

This follows neatly on from Deputy Anne Rabbitte's last question. It relates to Tusla and the initiatives being undertaken to ensure, in particular, the retention of social workers, as well as the resources required to recruit more social workers. This is obviously a very important issue. I welcome the additional moneys for Tusla which was one of the priorities identified in Sinn Féin's pre-budget submission. I am glad that the Minister has secured additional funding for Tusla. The question is focused on staff retention but also on the recruitment of staff.

I acknowledge that the recruitment and retention of social workers are among the biggest challenges for Tusla. Working in child protection is one of the most difficult tasks and I welcome the dedication of all professionals in Tusla who undertake this extremely important task.

Tusla has worked hard to retain staff by developing a supportive working environment. Its overall turnover rate for social workers is about 7%, compared with 15% in the equivalent system in England.

As part of its retention strategy, it has implemented an extensive continuous professional development strategy during 2016 and 2017. During 2016 social workers had more than 3,700 training course attendances as part of the strategy which commits to all social workers having a minimum of 21 hours for personal development plans and ten hours for engaging in continuous profession development.

Tusla has also introduced a national transfer policy to facilitate staff who wish to relocate to another part of the country within its services, while ensuring the agency retains their valuable expertise.

Tusla's health, well-being and employee assistance programme has a range of services available to staff, including a critical incident stress management team to support teams and individuals in the event of an traumatic event. The programme has just completed a staff retention survey and the findings will inform part of the new retention strategy for Tusla.

Other supports for Tusla staff include rehabilitation services to support staff who are out of work owning to injury or illness.

In addition to its retention measures, Tusla is putting a huge emphasis on recruitment. This includes an intensive graduate recruitment programme and a rolling programme to attract existing social workers.

Budget 2018 provides for a significant increase in the funding allocation for Tusla. In 2018 there will be €753 million in funding available to Tusla, representing an increase of €40.6 million or 5.7% on the allocation in 2017. Since the establishment of the agency in 2014, its funding will have increased by €144 million or 23.6% in 2018.

I thank the Minister for her response. This is not the first time a response from the Government has compared our system favourably with that in place in Britain or, specifically, England, but I do not think we should compare Ireland with England. The English social care system is in crisis and almost anything could be compared favourably with it.

So many of the issues, controversies and reports in recent years have been related to resourcing, while some have been related to social workers being overburdened with work and having unmanageable case loads. The issues surrounding child protection social workers seem to be particularly acute. The number of child protection social workers leaving the system was quite considerable when we discussed this issue about 12 months ago. What is the current retention rate in that specific category?

I will be happy to supply the Deputy with the details, but I do not have the specific information to hand. Picking up on his point about the system in place in England, I will also be happy to compare this jurisdiction with others, although I do not necessarily agree with him on the matter. The fact is that Tusla has been able to retain social workers. The current turnover rate is approximately 7%, which is very good, although we would obviously prefer it to be lower. Tusla is working on this, with particular reference to the retention programmes I have mentioned.

I understand the reason the Deputy is raising the issue of people working in the area of child protection. I have been encouraging Tusla to show leadership. Yes, we need social workers and to make their working environment more conducive. I have tried to identify some of the ways in which the organisation is supporting its staff in tha regard. At the same time, however, we need to move forward plans to ensure the mix of staff working in the area of child protection is the right one in order that social workers, social care workers, administrators and front-line staff are doing the jobs they have been trained to do. That will make the system more efficient.

I take the Minister's point that turnover rate is currently at 7%. When we dealt with this issue 12 months ago, we were talking about losing 150 social workers a year, which was very significant. I would like to pass on some observations made to me by social workers on matters I have previously raised with Mr. Fred McBride at committee level. One was that there previously was a grade of advanced social work practitioner. This issue might perhaps be worth exploring. Another observation is on the centralised manner in which recruitment is carried out. There is a desire that this function be devolved to more local social work operations, with a desire to have more administrative staff. Given that the work involved in child protection is so intense, it might be worthy of its own grade. This issue might be examined in the context of employment conditions and pay. I do not necessarily have a settled view on it, but I am curious to hear the Minister's view.

It is certainly a suggestion that could be entertained and I will be happy to communicate it to Tusla. The Deputy has clearly already raised the matter with the CEO, Mr. Fred McBride. His focus is on considering additional ways by which staff working on the front line with children who have experienced significant harm can be supported, which is good. Some of the questions have focused on how we can attract and retain staff. It concerns the ways in which social workers can see they will be supported and that their status will be accorded. It also concerns their conditions and pay, of course. I am well aware of these issues, as is senior management in Tusla which is looking for ways to continually improve in that regard. I think the Deputy's suggestions are worthy of consideration.

Child and Family Agency Funding

Seán Sherlock

Question:

33. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the way in which the additional financial resources apportioned to Tusla announced in budget 2018 will be deployed. [43904/17]

Deputy Jan O'Sullivan will take this question for Deputy Sherlock. Is that agreed? Agreed.

As storm Ophelia was, unfortunately, quite hard on east Cork, Deputy Sean Sherlock is not able to be here. The question is very much related to the previous ones. It concerns the general way in which the additional financial resources apportioned to Tusla will be deployed.

I am fully aware of the difficulties in County Cork.

I am pleased to inform the Deputy that I have allocated an extra €40.6 million to Tusla for next year. This will bring its allocation to more than €753 million in 2018. It is higher than the extra €37 million allocated in 2017.

I will shortly issue Tusla with its 2018 performance statement in line with the provisions of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 and it will then prepare a business plan for 2018, setting out its proposed main areas of spending.

I have already indicated to it that among my priorities for 2018 will be: actions to support mandatory reporting under Children First from 11 December this year; addressing the gaps in out-of-hours services; and further investment in family resource centres in local communities that deliver services to families, especially in disadvantaged areas across the country.

I am pleased that the extra funding secured will also allow Tusla to recruit over 300 staff, reduce the number of unallocated cases, improve ICT and advance developments in areas such as domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, adoption, aftercare, and homelessness supports.

I am pleased to be able to support Tusla in this way in a major programme of service development and reform.

A more specific breakdown of funding happens in the process of preparing a business plan. More generally, however, I can say approximately €15 million will support existing services which also concerns recruitment. A further €10 million will be used to build up front-line service capacity and recruit 140 staff in critical areas, including the management of unallocated cases; aftercare and special care services. These are just some of the breakdowns I could offer to the Deputy.

Like my colleagues who spoke previously, I, too, am very concerned to ensure a significant number of social workers will be recruited specifically in the area of child protection. The Minister gave the figure of 185 social workers going through the recruitment process. I know that last year the goal of achieving a 60% reduction in cases to 2,700 by the end of 2016 was not, in fact, reached. Perhaps the Minister might give us an indication as to where we are in that regard.

I am not sure if my next question falls under the heading of Tusla or whether it comes directly under the auspices of the Minister's Department, in which case she may not be able to answer it today. Last year the Department had to step in to assist with ABC programmes because of funding difficulties. The Minister will be familiar with this issue from her constituency. I am very concerned to ensure the programmes will be able to continue because of the work done in disadvantaged communities, in particular. Will funding be allocated to support children who are homeless? Again, as I am not sure if this comes within the remit of Tusla, I may be straying from the question.

On children living in emergency accommodation, the same supports will be available to them as they move from hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation into family hubs. Tusla does have some responsibilities in that regard. There has been a lot of investment in family resource centres throughout the country. Existing centres will be able to apply for up to €10,000 in additional funding for their work in 2018 and we will also initiate 11 new centres.

Part of their focus will be on linking in with family hubs in their areas to ensure there are ongoing ways of supporting children in accommodation in that context, for example by bringing their prevention and early intervention services to them.

I do not know whether the ABC question is relevant because I am not sure whether it comes under Tusla. I would be very interested to hear if there are plans to ensure these programmes are protected.

I apologise for not having time to answer the Deputy's question in my previous reply. As I indicated in response to another Deputy, I have secured funding for 2018. The programme is under evaluation by the Centre for Effective Services. I would expect a report to be delivered to me in the near future so I can review the evaluation of the impact of this provision. So far, the signs are positive. If the evaluation is positive, we will review the overall approach to see whether it is something we wish to continue. For example, we will look at the exact locations. We will consider whether we want to open it up and, if so, whether sufficient resources are available to facilitate this. We will think about other ways in which we can support the overall ultimate aim of reducing children's poverty in disadvantaged communities.