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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 28 Nov 2017

Vol. 962 No. 3

Priority Questions

Early Childhood Care and Education Programmes

Anne Rabbitte


36. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps she is taking to address the shortages in ECCE places that exist in certain parts of the country; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50554/17]

The purpose of my question is to ask the Minister the steps she is taking to address the shortages in ECCE places in certain parts of the country; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

My Department has conducted an analysis of the ECCE scheme capacity and is satisfied there will be no shortfall in ECCE places for the 2017-18 programme year. It should be noted the peak number of children attending ECCE in 2016-17 was just over 120,000. The 2017-18 numbers are expected and on track to be in line with the 2016-17 uptake.

From September 2018, the ECCE programme will revert to one single entry point, in September, in a given ECCE programme year with eligible children entitled to two full years of ECCE provision. From September 2018, the number of ECCE enrolments in any given year will be around 114,000. The fact that 120,000 children were provided with ECCE places in April 2017 suggests there is sufficient capacity to deal with the lower, albeit year round number of 114,000.

As with the previous expansion of the ECCE programme, my Department is working closely with all city and county child care committees to monitor a range of scheme related issues, including capacity. In the event capacity issues emerge, we will seek to address them accordingly. Recent media statements on the issue cited the total number of children aged three to five in the population and concluded there was a capacity issue for ECCE. It did not account for the many four and five year olds already in primary school or those who opt for only one year of the ECCE programme. The conclusion that a capacity issue exists is therefore inaccurate.

I thank the Minister for her response. I will begin by welcoming that there is now only one entry point in the second year of the ECCE scheme. I also welcome the expansion of the second year of the ECCE scheme. Does the Minister understand where my question is coming from? It is based on a parliamentary question I put to the Department in recent weeks. The reply said there was a shortage of 17,677 spaces, if one was to look at the capacity issue. Of those, six are in the commuter belt of Dublin, which means there is a capacity issue of 8,000 spaces. The highest is in Cork county where there is a shortage of 2,260 spaces. I find it hard to believe 20,000 of those have either started school or are only taking up an ECCE scheme space for one year. What will the Minister put in place to address areas where there will be a genuine shortage of spaces? Are new grants being introduced to expand the number of ECCE spaces or to support crèches to run a model in the morning and a model in the afternoon? If there needs to be expansion in Meath, Dublin or Cork, will there be capital funding to support it?

I appreciate the Deputy's question and the way my Department has answered it. The issue of capacity is consistently monitored, particularly by the city and county child care committees. I am not aware of any specific capacity concerns. If the Deputy has a specific capacity concern, she should bring it to the attention of my Department and the city and county child care committees. There is ongoing monitoring and we are not concerned at this stage. The reply by the Department identified the number of three to five year olds in the population and the number of places that will be available. As I have already said, they do not necessarily correlate. There may be some whose parents choose to send them to school early rather than spending a second year in preschool.

The Deputy's other question was that if we are concerned about capacity, do we have plans for capital investment in 2018. The answer is that we do.

I welcome that funding will become available. The Minister asked me about crèches and areas I was talking about. I was talking about Mountbellew community child care group. There is another community child care group in Kerry that I was talking about, which is looking at 20 or 30 extra spaces. As a result of streamlining the entry points and removing those in December and April, it will see a capacity issue and will need an extra room or a prefab. I saw it earlier this year in Portumna. I welcome that there will be funding mechanisms to support them if they work with the city and county child care committees.

One of the measures I introduced in 2016 and 2017 was to support capital development, specifically for capacity issues. My Department provided €8.4 million for its 2017 early years capital funding programme, €4 million for the 2016 early years capital funding programme and the 2017 funding was made available to providers under three strands, the largest of which, €4.2 million, went towards enabling services to provide additional child care places. I will be announcing details of the 2018 capital scheme in the very near future.

Care Orders

Denise Mitchell


37. Deputy Denise Mitchell asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the number of applications for full care orders that have been made in respect of children already on voluntary care orders in the past three years; her plans to review the maximum amount of time a child can spend on a voluntary care agreement; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50309/17]

How many applications for full care orders have been made in respect of children already on voluntary care orders? I am asking the Minister this question because I have concerns about children being placed on voluntary care orders for very long periods and the uncertainty that brings. I would like her to answer my question.

I thank the Deputy for the explanation of her question. The information requested by the Deputy is not available at present. Tusla’s existing information systems do not directly track movements of children from voluntary to full care orders. However, I am pleased to say the national child care information system, which is being rolled out nationally, will greatly improve information about these trends, including each child’s pathway through the care system. At present, Tusla collects and publishes a great deal of information about the Irish child protection system and about the more than 6,000 children who are currently in the care of the State. Monthly, quarterly and annual data are published on the Tusla website which provides information by age, gender, area and by the reasons for the child's admission to care. It also records the child's care status, whether they are in voluntary care or in care under a court order.

I am committed to helping Tusla improve its central data systems, both for the protection and welfare of our children and to ensure that child protection policy in Ireland is firmly based on high quality evidence. With this in mind, the national child care information system will operate as a central national database supporting the provision of child welfare and protection services. Access to the system will ensure that every social work department has a user friendly way to record the case history of every child who is the subject of a child protection or welfare concern, from the point of initial referral to case closure.

The system has been piloted in Tusla’s mid-west region and the intention is to have it in all areas between now and the end of June 2018. As promised under the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures strategy, my Department has initiated work to review the Child Care Act 1991. All matters relevant to the situation of children in care, including the usage of voluntary care orders, will be considered in the context of the review.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Tusla should start recording and tracking this information. We all know children in care need certainty in their lives. Voluntary care arrangements are intended as temporary solutions for parents who are unable to look after their children. Unfortunately, I have come across a situation far too often in which there are children in voluntary care arrangements for a number of years. It has a huge impact on the children because they have no certainty about where they will be in a year.

This causes them great concern and anguish. A mechanism should be put in place. When a child is in care for a number of years, Tusla should pursue full care orders and have a mechanism in place to protect these children. The current system seems to be somewhat ad hoc in nature, which is not acceptable.

The first issue is the pathway from voluntary care to court-ordered care and that Tusla should be aware of the trends in how many children may move from one to the other. That is an excellent point and Tusla has already taken it into consideration. It is built into the new database that has been developed and that is being rolled out across the country. In recent meetings with the chief executive, the chairperson and other board members of Tusla, I have been assured that the data system should be fully rolled out by the end of June 2018. In that context, we will have considerably more information on the questions and concerns the Deputy raised, which will enable better protection for children in care.

I welcome the Minister's indication that the data system will be rolled out in 2018. Some children aged ten and 11 have been in voluntary care placements for years. These children are vulnerable and do not know whether they are coming or going. Tusla's approach seems to be "If it's not broken, don't fix it". In other words, the relationship is going smoothly. That is not acceptable for children because they want security and to know where they will be in the coming years.

Sometimes other problems arise for children in voluntary care. We have had cases where foster parents were trying to bring children abroad on a holiday but were prevented from doing so on foot of the care order. It is not acceptable that children's lives have to stand still until Tusla gets involved.

This moves into the second area of the Deputy's concerns relating to what happens in the context of voluntary care and decisions that are made to move beyond that. Those are very valid concerns. As the Deputy is aware, voluntary care is an arrangement undertaken by the parents or guardians of a child and Tusla and does not involve the courts system. We need to be aware of the dynamics involved in that, including the kinds of meetings Tusla staff have with the family. Those relationships are important in order to support that voluntary care, which is usually better for the child if it can be supported. On foot of the fact that it does not involve the courts system, it has not benefited as much from extensive research carried out within the Irish child protection system. However, we have some research into voluntary care that has been undertaken, for example, by people in UCC. It appears to be one of the significant pathways to care under a full care order. This is something that my Department has taken into account in its review of the Child Care Act.

Combatting Cyberbullying

Anne Rabbitte


38. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her role in protecting children from online bullying, abuse and grooming; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50555/17]

I ask the Minister to clarify her role in protecting children from online bullying, abuse and grooming.

Protecting children from online abuse, bullying and grooming requires a whole-of-Government approach. The devastating effects are becoming increasingly obvious in our homes, schools and communities.

While my Department does not have the lead responsibility in this area, it plays an important role in a wider range of actions across a number of Departments.

Last week, I met the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, to discuss the cross-Government collaboration that is needed. Much work is being done by individual Departments. However, we need to develop an action plan involving all relevant Departments to ensure that our actions are co-ordinated, complementary and robust. It is our intention to include the Minister for Health and the Minister for Education and Skills in the development of the action plan.

I will commence all remaining provisions of the Children First Act 2015 on 11 December next. The ongoing role of the statutory Children First interdepartmental implementation group, which is chaired by my Department, is to ensure consistent implementation of the provisions of the Children First Act and guidance across Departments, the HSE, the Garda and Tusla. Issues relating to Internet safety, which have a child protection dimension and which require cross-Government collaboration or support, can be raised in that group.

The national youth health programme is a partnership between the HSE, the National Youth Council of Ireland and my Department. It aims to provide a broad-based, flexible health promotion-education support and training service to youth organisations and to all those working with young people in out-of-school settings. The Web Safety in Youth Work resource, available on the National Youth Council of Ireland’s website, provides valuable advice to young people on reporting online behaviour and passing on concerns about the protection and welfare of a child or young person.

I thank the Minister for her reply. It is wonderful to hear that so many Departments are working together on this. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. Dr. Geoffrey Shannon presented a report to the committee explaining that 59% of all children between the ages of nine and 15 use electronic devices. He explained the harrowing effect online devices are having, for example, where the child does not have his or her account completely private. Sometimes a third party would be involved in putting up imagery to such Dr. Shannon referred, including "upskirting" and "downblousing". Dr. Shannon also referred to the right to take down something that might be online. I ask the Minister to liaise with the other Cabinet members, particularly the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment who has done considerable work in the field. I ask that the Minister, along with her colleagues, the Ministers for Justice and Equality, and Communications, Climate Action and Environment, appear together before the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs in order that they might hear about and understand the good work that is being done.

Parents are looking for support. What support can be offered to them and to teachers who, as we heard last week, do not feel they have the tools to do their job? How can we move forward to educate?

I would be willing to accept that invitation and I am certain that my colleagues would also. As the Deputy identified, we need a whole-of-Government approach. The Ministers whose Departments are at the forefront of the issue need to work together to identify more clearly an action plan for what each of us is doing. Together we need to ensure that plan is implemented. For example, the issues that are particularly relevant to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment are technology, the legislative framework and industry.

Combating online child grooming is particularly relevant to the Department of Justice and Equality, and is addressed as part of a wide-ranging package of measures aimed at the reform of Ireland’s criminal law on sexual offences, set out in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. The Office for Internet Safety is an executive office of the Department of Justice and Equality. We are particularly looking at reforming that or approaching it in a different way.

What are the Minister's views on creating the post of digital safety commissioner, as proposed by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs? All the witnesses who appeared before the committee agreed this would be a step in the right direction.

I compliment the Office for Internet Safety on the good work it is doing.

It produced 40,000 booklets but that is only a fraction of the number required. There are great tools in the booklet for younger children, older children, parents and teachers. If I was to make one recommendation to that Department other than that it take on more staff, it would be that the next time those books are published, more be produced. I got them in my office and from the Minister, Deputy Flanagan. As a parent and an advocate for correct usage of the Internet, I found the booklet fantastic. It is really well done. What is the strategy for the establishment of an office of digital safety commissioner? Can the Minister request the production of more of the booklets?

Regarding the Deputy's last request, that has been heard and I will take it back to the appropriate Department.

Regarding the Deputy's first issue concerning the recommendation for the establishment of an office of digital commissioner, we discussed that at the recent meeting with the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and the Minister, Deputy Naughten. We are aware of that recommendation. What we decided as a result of our meeting, which was the first time certainly in the context of this Government that the three Departments have come together, was that we must not only put it in reports that we need to work on this together but that we must come together physically in this respect. Our officials were all present at the table and the next step would be that the officials would meet again to plan perhaps a wider and more public gathering to listen to recommendations on how best the Government should move forward in this regard. The establishment of an office of digital commissioner would be integral to considerations in that context.

School Completion Programme

Seán Sherlock


39. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she has considered the proposed changes in the administration of the school completion programme; if she has engaged in formal consultations with the parties involved; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50382/17]

There are 124 school completion programmes throughout the State, which cover 470 primary schools and 224 post-primary schools. The Minister announced an expansion in budget 2018 for the school completion programme. I want to interrogate further what is the exact figure behind that expansion? I would also ask her why I am receiving correspondence from trade union officials, IMPACT in particular, whom I have been lobbied by and who have expressed concern about their jobs and future employment prospects.

I believe the school completion programme is critical to ensuring that children who are most at risk of early school leaving are supported to stay in education. However, I believe that it needs to be reformed to ensure that it delivers the best possible outcomes for children. To this end, I am examining carefully how best to strengthen it. Any reforms will be informed by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, review of the programme, which acknowledged its great contribution to vulnerable children, but which pointed to the need for an improved governance structure and revised model of employment.

In particular, I want to ensure that services under the programme are compliant with financial and governance rules and that we have a good model of service delivery throughout the country. I also want to ensure that those employed under the programme have clear contracts of employment and that their work is properly co-ordinated.

I am deeply committed to an effective reform of this programme, not only in relation to the governance and employment issues, but also the programmes, supports and processes that are in place to ensure that young people complete school. I am reviewing the extensive consultation process that has been carried out. I am considering recommendations from the expert panel that Tusla has established to consider possible options for reform. I also plan to consult with experts across the educational welfare sector before making any decisions.

In my view the reform will incorporate universal supports as well as targeted supports to ensure that those most in need are reached by the programme. It is critical that we have a whole school approach to this, as well as ensuring that other child and family supports, delivered by statutory or voluntary agencies, are integrated so that the child or young person has the best chance of staying in school. I am also committed to incorporating recognition of the strengths and capabilities of the child or young person into these reforms. I believe the emotional stability of the young person is critical in enabling his or her engagement in learning and contributes to his or her desire to finish school.

What extra resources have been applied to the school completion programme in budget 2018? That was not clear from the document we received on budget day.

In terms of strengthening the structures and governance, and the Minister spoke about reform, apart from the experts, with whom else is she consulting? Is she formally consulting those people who represent workers, namely, trade unions? She has stated publicly previously that she has encouraged people who work within this sector to join trade unions. People represented by trade unions are coming to us expressing concern about their specific programmes and that they are not being consulted. I need a reassurance from the Minister that she will reach out to, or at least engage with, the stakeholder groupings, including the trade unions.

There are two aspects to the Deputy's question. The first relates specifically to the resources allocated under budget 2018 for the programme I have identified, that reform of the programme is a priority for me in the context of the recent letter I wrote to Tusla in terms of a performance statement and I look forward to receiving its formal response laying out a business plan and identifying more clearly the specific resources that will go into that programme. As the Deputy is aware, I received a significant increase in investment for the overall programme with respect to Tusla. I have identified the school completion programme as a priority and I await the response in that regard.

The trade unions have been in touch with my officials and they will be meeting them. We are engaged in a process where there have been reviews and reports. Those have been submitted to me and I am examining them, but I understand my officials will meet the trade union officials as part of that process.

I appreciate the Minister's answer and she has been frank, to be fair. As soon as a budget line emerges around that expansion of the school completion programme, I ask that she would inform the House of it. I do not want to use the word "suspicious" but how long is a piece of string with respect to the engagement with Tusla? We are waiting for it to come back with some ideas or principles in terms of how it will manage the school completion programme and no figure in terms of a budget has been put behind that. What is the timeframe? Will it be the end of 2017, the end or 2018 or the first or second quarter of 2018? It would help if we had accurate information.

I am absolutely committed to making decisions on the reform as soon as possible. I am deeply committed to its reform. I have considerable understanding and experience of dealing with people who work in the context of school completion and have a deep understanding of the issues involved in terms of the programmes and processes that I wish to encourage as we move forward in terms of the reform. I want to do that as soon as possible. It will not be done by the end of this year. I hope that will be possible within the first quarter of next year because of the decision that I have taken to spend a little bit more time particularly focused on examining the programme, what will happen our young people in the context of the school completion programme as well as considering the governance and employment reports that have come in to me. That is why we are taking a little more time to get that whole package as right as possible.

Early Childhood Care and Education Programmes

Anne Rabbitte


40. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she is satisfied that each child in need of support under the access and inclusion model is able to access this support in a timely and appropriate manner; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50579/17]

Is the Minister satisfied with respect to the timely aspect in which the access and inclusion model is accessible by parents and child care providers? I would like her to make a statement on that matter.

We have made good progress in implementing the access and inclusion model, AIM, which helps children with disabilities to reap the full benefits of free preschool education. Its goal is to empower preschool providers to deliver an inclusive preschool experience. As the Deputy is aware, AIM is a child-centred model that involves seven levels of progressive support, moving from the universal to the targeted. It is based on the needs of the child and the preschool setting. Since the introduction of AIM in June 2016, it has enhanced free preschool education for all children, particularly children with a disability. When a preschool provider, in conjunction with a parent, considers that additional support is needed for a child with a disability, an application can be made via Pobal for a suite of targeted supports. These supports involve access to mentoring from a team of dedicated early years specialists at level four; access to specialised equipment, appliances and minor alteration grants at level five; access to therapeutic services at level six; and access to additional capitation to facilitate lower adult to child ratios at level seven.

An application for support at levels four, six or seven is generally responded to by an early years specialist within two to three days. This is followed by an observation visit, which generally takes place within two to four weeks, depending on the availability of the preschool provider and the attendance pattern of the child. An application for support at level six is referred to the HSE within days of the observation visit. An application for support at level seven is generally appraised within two to five weeks. The application process for support at level five, which involves equipment and alterations, is separate. The appraisal process for such applications is usually completed within two weeks and equipment or appliances are delivered within four to 12 weeks, depending on availability and supplier delivery terms for the items required. In the current preschool year, more than 3,000 applications have been approved for targeted AIM supports. There has been one appeal on the decisions. This suggests that access to the model is good.

I thank the Minister for her response. I tabled this question because I recently met a woman who has been trying to get her child, who has a disability, into a preschool service. Even though she lives just outside Portumna, the only preschool service she can get for her child is near Limerick. When I got to the bones of it, I discovered that some child care providers do not look on this project favourably because, frustratingly, it takes 50 working days, or ten weeks, for the whole assessment to be put through. One of the first announcements made by the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, involved the provision of €40 million for the project. There are 1,900 trained link workers and I reckon that a further 900 such staff are in training. I discovered earlier in response to a question that 120,000 children are availing of the early childhood care and education scheme. Has the Minister considered that Pobal could do the applications and the training during the summer? This would enable child care providers to have their systems up and running when services resume on 1 September.

The Deputy has identified a particular case. We are speaking specifically about the AIM programme, which has had huge take-up. As I identified in my initial response, there has been just one appeal of a case of refusal in that regard. I can say in response to another one of the Deputy's supplementary questions that I have tried to identify specific timeframes for our responses at each level. I think a pretty strong and sustainable structure is being developed. When I get emails from people from time to time who are concerned that they cannot access AIM applications or crèches in their localities that will take their children under the AIM programme, I immediately send such messages to my Department to ensure such cases receive attention as quickly as possible with a view to resolving the issues involved.

I hear exactly what the Minister is saying to me. I do not want to trivialise the situation. While the AIM model provides for absolutely fantastic interventions and wholeheartedly inclusive groupings, it is not working in the sense that it takes 50 days, or ten weeks, for applications to go through. It is a boundary for child care providers who are looking to put systems in place so they can work wholeheartedly as part of an early intervention mechanism. When child care providers take in children on 1 September every year, they need to know they will get the supports they need in a timely manner. However, it can take up to ten weeks, which restricts them when they are considering the possibility of taking in certain children. I am identifying an issue that might be discouraging expansion in the child care sector or deterring people from taking up child care services. Last year, 2,443 children benefitted from level four supports and 1,431 children benefitted from level seven supports. There has been a decrease this year, unfortunately, perhaps as a result of the ten-week waiting lists. Some 301 children have benefitted to date in 2017, which means that 1,272 fewer children are in the system this year. I wonder whether the timeframe is the reason for this.

The good questions raised by the Deputy do not take away from the facts I have identified with regard to the timeframes that apply under the various AIM levels. I will bring back to my officials the Deputy's suggestion regarding the initiation of access to AIM in circumstances in which the direction that needs to be taken is known. I will be happy to take that back as a recommendation. Maybe some of the numbers have reduced for the reasons suggested by the Deputy. I have identified that the turnaround times which apply to the levels at which the applications are coming through are very efficient. As this is just the second year of the roll-out of the AIM model itself, it is open to improvement. We will take the Deputy's recommendation on board.