Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh – Priority Questions

Child and Family Agency Services

Good morning to the Minister, Deputies and officials of the House. I welcome you to another day and wish you a productive day's work on behalf of our citizens.

Our questions this morning are to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I wish to point out that Deputies have 30 seconds to introduce a question and there will be two minutes for the Minister to respond. This will be followed by one supplementary question from the Deputy and a reply from the Minister. Then there will be a final supplementary question and a final reply from the Minister. Yesterday we had some issues with time. Today I am going to strictly stick to the times.

Anne Rabbitte

Question:

1. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to set out the status of the implementation of action 1.4 of the corporate plan of Tusla; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [52613/18]

You can be assured, Acting Chairman, that all our questions will be on time. Leave it to the women and we will get through it quickly.

Will the Minister set out the status of the implementation of action 1.4 of the corporate plan of Tusla? Will she make a statement on the matter? This is to do with children and homelessness.

I imagine the Deputy will join me in welcoming the children and young people to the Gallery this morning.

Action 1.4 of the Tusla corporate plan concerns several commitments to address specific issues for children and families experiencing homelessness or who are in emergency accommodation. The particular initiatives include co-operation in multi-agency responses, linkage of Tusla child and family support networks with family hubs and the provision of facilities in family resource centres.

Tusla works in partnership with the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, and is a key partner on several inter-agency groups. Bilateral meetings between the DRHE and Tusla take place monthly. Tusla supports one-stop-shop assessment centres being led by the DRHE. Tusla staff participate as required on issues involving child protection and welfare, educational welfare as well as domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services. A key role in co-ordinating this multi-agency response is played by the Tusla homelessness liaison officer.

While homelessness is not a reason for a referral to child protection services, there may be child protection or welfare concerns for some children. Work is under way to ensure effective identification, referral, tracking and service response processes for children and families experiencing homelessness. Tusla also undertakes visits to family hubs and emergency accommodation providers to ensure they are aware of their requirements under children first legislation and to clarify referral queries. Tusla has progressed plans for the linkage of child and family support networks with family hubs and other homeless accommodation, and this work will continue in 2019. Tusla is liaising with family resource centres to provide facilities where children can do their homework, receive nutritious food, avail of laundry facilities and receive family support services and other relevant supports. This model operates in Mulhuddart, Ballyfermot and Ballymun. Tusla plans to extend this service in 2019.

I will extend you further time to further develop your points, Minister.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response. We are talking about 4,000 children who are in emergency accommodation and who fall under the homelessness category. It is a staggering number of children. Yet, we talk about the multi-agency approach.

I am interested in hearing more about the Tusla liaison officer, visits to the family hubs and the referral and tracking system. How does the Minister drill down with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy? What co-operation is in place between her Department and his Department in getting behind the county councils? How are we supporting the county councils and the social work teams within the county councils? I imagine the situation elsewhere is no different from my council. On Friday afternoon hard cases present to the staff there and they have to try to make decisions or put in place a pathway. I am keen to know more about this linkage with the office of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, the liaison person within Tusla and how many visits are taking place in hubs.

I acknowledge the number of children in emergency accommodation. I carry an awareness of that with me each day. I have visited several hubs not only in my constituency but in other places as well.

Deputy Rabbitte's question is important. It spurs me and provides motivation to have ongoing communication with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. Some of the things happening relating to children in emergency accommodation are because of our conversations and working together.

In line with the Tusla business plan for 2018 the agency has established the position of the homeless liaison officer. The position facilitates planning, co-ordination and integration of services with other bodies and agencies which are working with families. Since taking up the position in June of 2018, the officer has been involved in several initiatives, including meeting with several children and young people service committee co-ordinators to get an overview of their current work with homeless children and families. Tusla is also establishing an internal forum of senior child protection, harm prevention partnership and family support staff. The forum will be led by the homeless liaison officer to ensure effective identification, referral, tracking and service response, all of which Deputy Rabbitte asked about.

Recently, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, the special rapporteur on children, called for stronger action on child homelessness. He outlined several ways in which the rights of the child are being affected by the problem of homelessness. He referred to children's education being compromised, their ability to play being reduced and how their physical and emotional well-being is being damaged. I imagine the Minister would agree with all of that.

I am curious to know one thing. The Minister referred to the Tusla liaison officer. How many do we have in place nationally supporting the good work envisaged by the Tusla corporate plan? I am interesting in hearing about that. What measures is Tusla taking to ensure that children's education is not compromised? That is one point that comes across all briefings. The parent wants to keep the child either in the childcare facility or in education. I know the Minister provided bus passes to ensure that children could attend their local educational facility. It is really about Dr. Geoffrey Shannon.

I was pleased to present the excellent report of the special rapporteur, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, to the Cabinet in the past week.

Deputy Rabbitte asked about the homeless liaison officer. One is undertaking individual visits to family hubs and emergency accommodation providers to ensure they are aware of the requirements of the Children First legislation. The position involves networking, oversight, mapping and feeding in to the other work under way in supporting children in emergency accommodation.

Deputy Rabbitte asked about the educational aspect of this issue. Tusla is involved. The educational welfare service is involved specifically in supporting children in emergency accommodation. I have asked those responsible in Tusla to be specifically attentive to that. Tusla is providing several supports to children and families experiencing homelessness. The school completion programme is placing particular emphasis on children from homeless families to help them to continue with full participation in school. There is concerted effort in the context of the education and welfare service on programmes that operate in Tusla to ensure the agency is attentive to the children who are homeless.

Early Years Sector

Denise Mitchell

Question:

2. Deputy Denise Mitchell asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to outline her views on the Pobal early years sector profile report; her plans to tackle high fees in the childcare sector; her further plans to address low pay in the sector; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [52502/18]

What is the response of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to the Pobal early years sector profile report? What are the Minister's plans to tackle high fees in the childcare sector? What are her plans to address low pay in the sector? Will she make a statement on the matter?

I greatly welcome the recently published early years sector profile report. I commend Pobal on its work. Some 3,900 services participated in the survey, making its findings all the more credible.

The report shows that more children than ever are participating in State-funded childcare schemes, almost twice as many as three years ago. It also shows that fees for a full-time place have increased by approximately 2% per week compared to an increase of over 4% the previous year.

I was particularly encouraged by some significant inclusion measurements such as the reported 8% increase in the number of Traveller and Roma children participating in early learning and care and the fact that more than 3,000 children with disabilities benefitted from targeted measures under the access and inclusion model.

I recognise that childcare fees represent a significant burden for many families. To address affordability and quality, we have secured a 117% increase in funding over the past four budgets, which has doubled the number of children in receipt of various forms of subsidisation. I have repeatedly stated that much more needs to be done over successive budgets to meet our aims fully in this area.

I have been unequivocal in my support for better pay and conditions for childcare workers and the need for the sector to bring forward a sectoral employment order. I have also introduced practical steps to improve the conditions of staff. These have included an increase to ECCE capitation of 7% intended to improve pay rates in the sector. Furthermore, by the end of 2019, my Department will have paid more than €55 million to childcare providers in recognition of the administrative role they play in delivering the current childcare schemes. Finally, First 5, a whole-of-Government ten year strategy for babies young children and their families that I launched in recent weeks sets out important commitments to further address the cost of childcare and to improve working conditions for staff.

I thank the Minister for her response. The major thing that emerged from the Pobal report is that fees are too high and wages are too low despite the Minister's efforts. I accept that she has made some major efforts in this area. Despite that, the cost of childcare continues to rise. The average cost has increased by 2.2%. A situation seems to have arisen where subsidies chase fees, which is unsustainable. While the targeted subsidies are welcome, the majority of families are still paying the equivalent of a second mortgage and there are major problems retaining staff. Another concern of mine is that 98% of people working in this sector are women. The Minister has said that she is committed to a new radical funding model. Can she tell us what this model is because at the moment, we are just getting more of the same? Will this model address wages and high fees?

I appreciate the concerns raised by Deputy Mitchell, which I share. What the report demonstrates is that the fees have increased but only by 2% this year compared to 4% the previous year so that demonstrates that we are monitoring it and asking the providers to pay attention to it. Second, as the Deputy knows, because of the lack of investment for so many years, given that costs are going up, childcare providers are allowed some reasonable increase in fees and I think a 2% increase is reasonable. The other thing the Pobal sector profile demonstrated is that the average rate of pay has gone up - not significantly but it is going up so it is important to attend to that. What we do not yet know is how the significant increase in ECCE capitation that I brought for this year will, hopefully, be passed on to staff. We will record and monitor that and, hopefully, we will see their pay go up.

I know the Minister shares my concerns but I do not see any real action on this. Unfortunately, the new funding model seems to be just a sticking plaster. The Minister agrees that pay in the sector is far too low. We are losing skilled workers, the turnover is very high and we cannot continue with this. Has the Minister sat down with unions to look at pay in the sector or discuss any of their proposals? Has her Department explored any alternative models to address pay and conditions?

What I am saying is that in the context of the model we have, I have done some significant things in order to encourage improvements in pay and conditions for childcare professionals and I need the co-operation of employers and providers. It is not that nothing is happening; things are happening. However, as Deputy Mitchell points out, we can only do so much within the context of that model. I have been doing two other things. Deputy Mitchell asked whether I have sat down with the unions. Yes, I have and I have also sat down with a working group on which unions are also represented in terms of the wider employment forum set up by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. In particular, we are looking at a sectoral employment order. We still do not have enough workers signed up with regard to the union to make that a possibility. I have been speaking with organisations representing the employers sector. They have not moved to the point where they can take part in that sectoral employment order but I have been encouraging and speaking to them. In regard to First 5, which I might get time to discuss in the context of another question, there is a description of the vision of the public funding model we want to move towards that brings us to a different type of model that I hope will do more to get us there than what we have done in the past.

Affordable Childcare Scheme Implementation

Anne Rabbitte

Question:

3. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the status of the affordable childcare scheme, in particular the efforts to build an information and communications technology infrastructure and make the scheme more accessible to parents using childminders. [52614/18]

I wish to ask the Minister about the status of the affordable childcare scheme, in particular her Department's efforts to build an information and communications technology, ICT, infrastructure and make the scheme more accessible to parents using childminders.

The new affordable childcare scheme will open to applications in October 2019 with payments flowing from November 2019. Its launch will mark a milestone in our quest to transform Ireland's childcare system from one of the most expensive in the world into one of the best. Positive progress continues to be made in the development of the legislative, administrative and ICT infrastructure for the scheme.

Under the auspices of the Childcare Support Act 2018, detailed secondary legislation and policy guidelines are being prepared. I also hope to sign regulations in the coming weeks which will provide for the first time for the registration of school-age childcare services. This will allow these services to participate in the new scheme from the start.

With regard to ICT, our IT development contractor, Codec, is busy working with officials from the Department and Pobal to develop the system on schedule and in advance of the scheme's October launch. A comprehensive awareness campaign for parents and the public will commence in the spring alongside training and information supports for childcare providers and other key stakeholders.

The affordable childcare scheme will be open to all registered childminders. I am committed to publishing a childminding action plan in the near future. The plan will contain short, medium and long-term goals for the sector setting out steps to move towards the wider regulation, support and professional development of childminders. In the short term, it will include actions to support childminders to register and participate in the affordable childcare scheme.

Budget 2019 allocated €0.5 million to create a team of childminding development officers to support the registration of childminders with Tusla and to help them upskill to the required regulatory standards to be introduced in the coming years. It also provided for significant enhancements to the affordable childcare scheme that will ensure that an even greater number of families will now benefit from the scheme once launched.

I could not keep writing because I have so many questions for the Minister. It was a great answer and I appreciate it but the Minister has left me with a number of questions that I ask her to expand on. Could she expand on the school-age commitments? Where is the legislation at the moment because my understanding is that we were to expect that before the end of the year - possibly in the House? When can we expect it? I assume it will be on next year's legislative programme but what stage is it at and how can we support it?

On the registered childminders and the sum of €0.5 million, where are we with regard to recruiting those development workers? The Minister mentioned the company that is delivering the ICT programme and the awareness programme. Are we on target to ensure this awareness programme will be up and running for the spring because it will take time for people to get involved in and understand it? There is no point in having it up and running in the last week in August.

I thank the Deputy for those questions. The information I have on the school-age process is that the regulations are being worked on. As I understand it, they are on target. The objective is that, when we fully launch the affordable childcare scheme, it will be possible to include the groups or providers that offer services in that context.

The Deputy asked about legislation. I indicated that secondary legislation is being developed. I need to come back to her on the exact timeframe in that regard. I will be very happy to do so. I just do not have the information in front of me.

With regard to the ICT programme, there is a strict formal project management methodology. There is an executive board, a project board, an ICT subgroup, a Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection subgroup and a project operating team. We have two dedicated full-time project managers in place, one in Pobal and one in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. They are working on the project. It is divided into 69 work streams. The project is moving forward on target and it is what we hope to pursue.

In the context of the €500,000 and the development officers, has the recruitment process started? If so, how many is it hoped to recruit? Will it be through the city and county childcare committees? If so, will it be nationwide? How many registered childminders are there? There are none in some counties, which does not truly reflect the reality. What is the honeypot to encourage as many childminders as possible to come into the fold? We can have a true reflection of the position on childcare only by bringing the childminders into the fold and encouraging them to participate as opposed to scaring them with bureaucracy, of which they are afraid.

Money for the creation of a team of childminding development officers has been allocated under budget 2019. As I understand it, recruitment of childminding development officers is on target. They will be available through the city and county childcare committees. I will revert to the Deputy on numbers. The intention is to have a nationwide system. As we have the city and county childcare committees, that is the way we connect in with our providers. That is an appropriate structure.

In the context of encouraging childminders to register in the short term and to be ready, we are providing additional moneys to support them in proceeding to level 5, if required. There is a fund for that. There are additional smaller funds to support the accommodation in the context of where they offer the childminding service.

Child and Family Agency

Mattie McGrath

Question:

4. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the status of the actions taken by her Department and Tusla on foot of the recommendations of the Charleton report; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [52601/18]

The Minister has accepted the absolutely horrendous indictment of the operational management of Tusla in the Charleton report. The report lays bare the seriously disconnected nature of the service and the lack of communication, which was staggering. Could the Minister make a statement on the matter?

I thank the Deputy for his important question. As the chairman of the tribunal, Mr. Justice Peter Charleton, noted in his report, this tribunal was about calling the Garda to account. The recommendations of the report are mainly a matter for An Garda Síochána. A relatively small portion of the report concerns Tusla. Although it does not make specific recommendations about Tusla, the report does identify some very serious issues that existed in a social work office in one area at the time.

Arising from the tribunal's report, I wrote to the chairperson of Tusla on 6 November last. In the letter, I noted the failures in the management of the referral made in respect of former Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe. I asked the board to consider what steps it would take in terms of a management response, including training, performance management and leadership, and in terms of changing the culture of the organisation to ensure it learns from previous mistakes.

I received a response from the board on Tuesday last, 11 December. It addresses the issues raised in my letter, notes actions under way and provides the basis for further consideration of these serious matters.

The Deputy will be aware that a number of the issues were also identified in HIQA's statutory investigation into Tusla's management of allegations sexual abuse, which I established in 2017 and whose report I published in June of this year. These issues included poor record-keeping and management, and an inconsistent approach to the implementation of national policies and procedures. Following the publication of the HIQA report, Tusla committed to a strategic action plan, approved by its board.

Many of the issues relevant to Tusla that were raised in Mr. Justice Charleton's report are addressed in that plan. Others, which have not been covered to date, will be incorporated into the action plan, once agreed by the board. The strategic action plan has been submitted to my Department and to the expert assurance group I have established to monitor the implementation of the recommendations and advise Tusla and my Department. The group meets regularly to assess the status of the key actions under its remit and I expect that its first quarterly report will be submitted to me in the coming days.

It is fine to suggest there was but one social work office in one area at one time, as the Minister did, but Mr. Justice Peter Charleton lays bare what was happening. As he said, "The Tusla letter wrongly accusing Maurice McCabe was opened by his wife in January 2016." He also stated that, after all the issues that arose, "Tusla were slow to respond to the public request for cooperation by the tribunal. Statements made were laconic to the point of being mysterious." Imagine. The Minister stated that there was poor management and poor leadership. Do we know what we are dealing with here? Mr. Justice Charleton's report refers to Tusla's subsequent failure to face up to and admit its considerable failings and stupidity. This is absolutely damning stuff and must be treated with the utmost seriousness.

The agency has incredible power, as we all know. We now see it was grossly mismanaged and that a wholesale review of its entire operation is necessary. I accept the Minister has admitted she was extremely disappointed that the tribunal found Tusla slow to respond to public requests for co-operation. She stressed that things are changing for the better. She said she got a new report yesterday on how things will change. It is a number of years into the operation of the organisation. We warned at the time it was set up, when so many staff were hived off from the HSE, that there was no proper planning or management.

I appreciate the Deputy's passion regarding this matter. I share it. He is right to raise these questions. I am really struggling to find the right word. "Pleased" is not the right word but it is good that we have the tribunal's report in this regard. It complements the HIQA statutory investigation, to which I referred. These are serious matters. The first point the Deputy made was that one of the key criticisms was the slowness of Tusla to respond in co-operating with the tribunal. I raised those issues directly with the board when I met it prior to the exchange of letters to which I referred. Therefore, I share the concerns of the Deputy in that regard, and I have expressed them.

The Deputy referred to the report as "damning stuff". Indeed it is. It is clearly devastating in its assessment of the poor management, supervision and record management and Tusla's Cavan–Monaghan area. In response to the letter that the board wrote back to me, I asked it to articulate the ways in which the practice on the ground is being improved. I might elaborate on that in my next comment.

Poor record-keeping and bad management might be fine in a GAA club or similar organisation but Tusla is a national organisation with incredible powers. It is devastating if those powers are mishandled, as in the case of the letter. After all that occurred, there were no positive replies and no rush to sort this out and make it better. The culture is the issue. Many of the officials were good officials - do not get me wrong - but so many of them were hived off from the HSE to set up Tusla. When the legislation was passed here, it was regarded as a great day and the job was regarded as done. The officials were then left to their own devices, with no proper management structures in place. As stated, there were poor management structures and poor record-keeping practices.

How are things changing? What is happening today to reassure us there is change? We really need reassurance that this can never happen again because, as I stated, Tusla is not a GAA club or small company that gets fined by the Revenue Commissioners for poor record-keeping; it is a national organisation with incredible powers.

These are serious issues. I share the Deputy's concerns. How Tusla will assure itself, and me, that the practice on the ground is being improved is an important question. A key aspect of Tusla's management team is quality assurance. It is responsible for conducting internal monitoring and audit exercises of the different aspects of the agency's work. That includes monitoring, auditing, child protection practices to check for consistency of policy, application in social work practice and measuring the quality of services being delivered. The people doing the quality assurance activity, including analysing data received from all the 17 areas, are independent of the chief operations officer and report directly to the CEO. As I understand it, Tusla has been provided with additional resources to strengthen its role and is continuing to implement that.

Early Years Sector

Eamon Ryan

Question:

5. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she has given consideration to re-evaluating the way in which public subsidies are given to private facilities in view of the fact that pay remains low and crèche fees have increased by an average of €4 a week in 2018, and in further view of the fact the Pobal report found that there is no correlation between fees and the wages paid to staff. [52615/18]

Following on from the previous question, the Minister might use this as an opportunity to give us some of her views. Following the First 5 strategy, which was of fundamental importance in looking at how our children are raised in the early years, and the recent Pobal report, my question is to indicate that what is happening is not leading to some of the desired outcomes. Some of the subsidies being given seem to be going to the private crèche services - in a sense it is being eaten up in that way - rather than to higher wages for staff. The Minister indicated in her press release and in the First 5 strategy that she is looking at making changes. I am keen to know what the changes might be.

I thank the Deputy. My Department provides public subsidies through both private and community services to facilitate access to early learning and care and school age childcare services throughout the country.

The 117% increase in investment in early learning and care and school age childcare since 2015 has doubled the number of children accessing the subsidies.

The 2017-8 annual early years sector profile survey reported a 2.2% or €3.76 increase to the average cost of early learning and care. This is half of the increase from the previous year and there is evidence to suggest that costs are stabilising.

The survey also provided some evidence of small increases in wages for early learning and care staff, although wages remain unacceptably low, whether staff are employed by private or community services.

I have always been unequivocal in my support for better working conditions for early learning and care staff, while acknowledging the limitations of what my Department can do given that it is not the employer.

I have called on the sector to bring forward a sectoral employment order and I have introduced initiatives to improve working conditions. These include, for example, a 7% increase in the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme capitation from September and €55 million to support services with their administrative role over a three-year period.

The model of service provision is divided between three quarters private, for profit, and one quarter community, not-for-profit, providers.  The most appropriate means of funding these services, and the overall model that should operate into the future, is obviously a matter for debate and further examination.

With that in mind, I launched First 5, A Whole of Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families. It articulates an action to develop and introduce a new funding model for early learning and care to support improved quality of provision, while also improving affordability for parents. It will mechanisms to fund quality, especially supporting employers to offer favourable working conditions to staff. It will examine potential ways for promoting a link between fees, supports and wages, subject to any legal and practical considerations.

I have two suggestions on this review, which I believe the Minister will conduct in the first quarter of next year. The first is that, in that mix, State-provided early childcare crèche facility services could be examined, in addition to community or private services. That State option could set the rates and change the nature of the way the entire service works.

Second, and fundamentally, the First 5 strategy was welcome in recognising that there are a variety of provisions of early childcare. During a child's first year, particularly in the home, the parents have a key role. Should it not be left up to the parents to make some of these decisions by transferring the nature of the subsidy from the crèche institution to the parents to give them the flexibility to decide the best approach? The recent 2016 census showed that 83% of parents were satisfied with their arrangements. I believe they are satisfied typically because they make the arrangements. It might be a crèche, a childminder or care at home. Surely it would be better in this review to trust parents and support them rather than the current system, which is funding one particular area and may not be delivering some of the objectives being sought.

I share the Deputy's commitment to trusting parents and I hope that is implicit as a principle underneath all we are doing. He asked about establishing effectively a State model of provision. It is something we investigated significantly in the process of preparing for the First 5 strategy. Ultimately, we made a decision that in terms of the kind of model we have now, we would be able to achieve the objectives the Deputy and I share regarding quality, affordability and sustainability for the professionals if we shift something of our model as distinct from going to a State model, which would flow better in the context of what we are doing. The vision of that kind of model is described in the strategy. My Department will establish a team early in the new year bringing together international as well as national experts to work through how we can develop a better, more effective public funding model for the provision of community not-for-profit and for-profit services for children.

I welcome that and we would probably support it. People in our party have been working closely on research in this regard. Trusting parents is the sensible way to go, but I welcomed the First 5 strategy because for the time it recognised that we need to support a variety of different options. As well as examining State-run services, should the mechanisms be reviewed, not only parental leave but other ways? The best way of trusting parents is to give them supports and then let them decide how to proceed. As the strategy states, a variety of approaches should be taken, not a one-size-fits-all approach. Is the best way of achieving that not to switch the funding to the parent rather than to the institution?

No. I will come back to that in a moment, and I think the Deputy knows my answer to that. As he said, in the context of the First 5 strategy, we are laying out, using a whole-of-Government approach, the various Departments responsible to support parents in the raising of their children. There will be a new parental leave and benefits scheme for 2019 available to both parents; additional unpaid parental leave; development of supports for family friendly working; and improved information and services for all parents on various aspects of child development. We are establishing a specific unit in my Department to support parents in many different ways. All of that is going on, and it is not insignificant.

On the other side, we have developed a model that subsidises the providers because that is the way we can ensure the control of quality, which I have described previously. As the Deputy also knows, most parents choose to put their children into the free preschool. It is not that parents are not accessing or making that choice. They are, but in addition to all of those we are trying to offer a holistic way of supporting parents largely in the way they describe.