Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Early Childhood Care and Education

Martin Heydon

Question:

52. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the actions she can take to address delays in the re-registration process for childcare providers as early years services which are causing concerns for the providers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [51548/19]

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

59. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the number of childcare facilities which will be affected by the extension of the deadline for the submission of certain documentation to Tusla until 30 June 2020; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [51555/19]

I am aware, on foot of information from some Kildare early years childcare providers, of delays in processing their re-registration, which needs to be completed by the end of the year. I ask the Minister to provide an update on the actions her Department is taking to address these delays.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 52 and 59 together.

The operation and maintenance of the register of early years services is a matter for Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, which is the independent statutory regulator. Since this is a regulatory issue, my Department does not have a direct role in the processing of registration applications or maintenance of the register. Tusla was given additional powers in 2016 which included the registration of services. The deadline for re-registration has been known to providers since then and indeed it appears on their registration certificate. Over the past 18 months, Tusla has been engaging with providers on requirements for re-registration, including through a consultative forum of stakeholders. Tusla issued further guidance to service providers in August 2019 on specific documentation required on planning permission as part of the re-registration process.

In order to be registered on 1 January 2020, providers must submit an application for re-registration by midnight on 12 December 2019. Providers were urged to submit their applications in advance of this date, given the large volume of applications expected. The deadline of 12 December was necessary in order to give Tusla time to process all applications. To minimise uncertainty for providers, last week, on 5 December, Tusla issued a further letter to all providers, offering assurance that any provider who submits a completed application with the specified essential documents by 12 December will be re-registered. All providers who submit a completed application will be issued a further individual confirmation of re-registration by 20 December and will be able to continue operation of their service in January.

I am informed by Tusla that the total number of early years services that are due to re-register by 31 December 2019 is 4,117. As of Monday morning, 3,752 services had commenced the application process on the Tusla portal. Of these, 3,081 applications had been submitted via the online portal for assessment. Therefore, 671 applications are commenced but not yet submitted and just 365 have yet to start the application process. I have a further update to add to that in the supplementary reply.

Submitted applications are currently being processed in batches through a series of specially convened registration panels. My Department has been working closely with Tusla to ensure there is adequate staffing in place to process applications on time, and to assist with effective communications with providers. In addition, my Department has supported city and county childcare committees to give advice and assistance to providers that need help with re-registration. In recognition of the difficulties many providers were experiencing in completing re-registration, as the Deputies know, Tusla decided to revise the timeline for submission of supporting documentation for re-registration. Under the revised arrangements, while providers must apply to Tusla by 12 December, they have until 30 June 2020 to provide some of the supporting documentation required, including on fire safety and planning requirements. On 27 November, my Department issued a letter informing providers that Tusla has revised the timeline for submission of supporting documentation for re-registration. That letter provided clear guidance on what is required by 12 December and what can be submitted up until 30 June.

I thank the Minister for a comprehensive response. She has touched on many of the issue's complexities. It is a concern that as of today, 365 childcare providers have yet to start the process. Are those figures right as of today or is there an update on them?

There is an update.

The Minister might consult with Tusla on communication. I take her point about the consultative forum with stakeholders. Is that with county childcare committees? Dealing with early years providers in Kildare, I find that there seems to be a disconnect in terms of communication. I presume it is because they are very busy running their facilities on a day-to-day basis. They are the backbone of our childcare system and provide a safe environment for our children to learn, play, grow and develop. It is really important. We should look at communication. There has been a lot of stress and concern and some of the information may not be getting down to the individual childcare providers.

I thank the Minister for the comprehensive response. I acknowledge the additional time that was notified recently on it, which gives an opportunity to childcare providers that are under pressure. It is a significant burden on many of them. They want to be compliant and have everything in order and are making every effort. The time and cost of bringing in a chartered surveyor and expensive skills are a burden on the childcare providers. Those skills may not be readily available. Of the 365 providers that are not engaged, which is a large number of people, how many of them are from Cork? On the 600 that started and did not follow through, almost a quarter is in question there. Can the Minister clarify how many of those are Cork-related? Will these operators be in a position to access further funding, given that they will not be fully registered and fully compliant? Parents applying for the new affordable childcare scheme will want to know that the provider and operator will be accessible to them. What is their status in that regard?

To be absolutely clear, as the Deputies probably understand, everyone who wants funding from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has to re-register by 12 December. They have to submit an application by 12 December. There is a certain set of documentation that is required for 12 December. Most of that documentation should be pretty much on hand, such as Garda vetting for the registered provider, two references for the registered provider, a certificate that it is registered, the registration number of companies from the Registration Office, a statement of the provider's purpose and function, a safety statement, signed declaration and so on. Those are pretty straightforward but they have to submit them by 12 December. Other documents on planning permission and fire safety that may be more complicated are not required until 30 June. They need to put in their application by 12 December in order to be re-registered.

I have just received a note today. Tusla put out a press release stating that more than 94% of the service providers have applied for re-registration ahead of the deadline. There are 230 remaining. That is a pretty strong and exceptional result. It is just a few days out and I urge the remaining 230 to put in to re-register because they cannot get funding if they are not re-registered. I do not know the number for Cork but I can see if I can get that information for the Deputy.

In response to the question about ongoing consultation, I hear that in respect of Kildare particularly. I think that is what the Deputy is raising and we can pass it on to Tusla. I have information on the consultative forum and ongoing engagement with the stakeholders, which I am happy to share with the Deputy. His general point is something I will take back to see if that can be improved.

I thank the Minister. I am not aware that there is a telephone line. Maybe if childcare providers had a direct line that they could use to call Tusla and ask specific questions, it would be most helpful and might take some confusion out of the process. I do not believe there is a helpline number for them. The Minister might follow up on that as well.

I am aware, from having talked to the childcare providers, that this potentially has knock-on impacts on their insurance, which is very serious, in addition to the need for them to get that application and the registration in for funding. On the re-registration, how long will it last and when will they have to renew it? Is it a once-off or an annual thing? Is the registration in any way linked to the national childcare scheme or is it completely different and only to do with the funding for the early years school providers?

I want to get an outline of where things stand with the Cork figures. If the Minister can get those and forward them to me, I would be pleased. What will be the position of the 230 who have not engaged next Friday? What will happen? Will funding be turned off if they are not registered and where do parents stand? Can the Minister clarify that? There is a real concern about what the status of the not-engaged people will be. Will the many families who use these services be made aware and what is their position going to be on Friday in the event that some or many of these 230 are not registered?

I will do my best in respect of the 230 in Cork who have not begun the process. I will put a request in for a dedicated phone line, to see if that is possible, especially for these last few days.

What I have been trying to outline in the answer to this question and at a couple of other points is that they were communicated with from the time that they registered initially about the requirement to be re-registered in a three-year period. I have outlined the ways that Tusla has had some ongoing communication with providers in that regard. I have run small organisations and businesses so I understand that one gets to that point when one needs to do something when there is very little time left as distinct from way ahead. There are some people who have not gone on to the portal and put in the registration process. I call on them to do that. If they are not registered, if they do not do that, the Department will not be able to provide funding. I think the time that people have been given is very reasonable. We have been communicating that it is important to do. If people are having real difficulty in finding paperwork or understanding how to do it they should phone my Department and ask for assistance.

Will the Minister extend the deadline?

It is part of the law. We cannot extend that deadline.

Childcare Services Provision

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

53. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to address the lack of crèche spaces and the unaffordability of the spaces nationwide and in south County Dublin in particular; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [51543/19]

I have raised with the Minister the plight of a crèche in my area where a significant number of parents faced a major hike in charges and some lost their places because of Tusla demands to change things in that crèche. Those parents are still asking to meet the Minister. I appreciate that she gave me a response recently but they are not happy with it. They are concerned not just about their plight but about the wider issue that has emerged that the highest childcare costs in this country, which are higher than in most of Europe, are in our area, and about the lack of places. They also do not accept Tusla’s contentions about the circumstances which led to 20 places effectively going in that facility.

This Government has delivered an unprecedented package of measures to improve access to high quality and affordable childcare. Investment in the sector has increased by 138% over the past five budgets. This investment has helped to bring about a doubling of capacity and a doubling of the number of children receiving State subsidies. However, I recognise that there are continuing capacity issues in parts of the country. Pobal data has shown a vacancy rate of 4% across all services, but these vacancies are not necessarily in the localities where parents are seeking childcare places.

Staff of 30 childcare committees across the country can provide practical assistance to any parents who have difficulty finding a service. Their contact details can be found at myccc.gov.ie. I am committed to further increasing the capacity of sector and I will be launching a capital grant programme for 2020 shortly. I will be inviting providers to apply for grants to expand capacity where demand exists. I also ensured that the national development plan committed €250 million for the expansion of high quality childcare. This funding will come on stream in 2023 and will provide a significant opportunity to develop further capacity.

Many parents opt for home-based or childminding provision. To this end, I have recently consulted on a draft action plan for childminders which, when finalised and implemented, will see increased capacity in that part of the sector also.

With regard to affordability, I am aware that this is a concern for many parents, particularly in the Deputy's constituency, which has the highest childcare costs in the State, as the Deputy has identified. I am very pleased that the national childcare scheme has now been commenced. It provides significant financial support to parents for childcare expenses. It provides subsidies on a sliding scale, so those who need most help will receive the highest subsidies.

In addition, I have recently established an expert group to examine the current model of funding for childcare, its effectiveness in delivering quality, affordable, sustainable and inclusive services. One of my key objectives since becoming Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has been to address the affordability and availability but I recognise that this is an ongoing agenda, with more to be done.

Two parents working on the average industrial wage will get €20 a week towards the cost of childcare. The increase in the cost for the crèche I mentioned, because of Tusla’s requirements for that crèche, is greater than that. The cost is now up to about €1,200 a month, which is mind-boggling. On that specific issue the parents would like to meet the Minister because that crèche was registered for 70 children in 2016. Now the parents have been told in the middle of the year that is too many. That is a specific problem.

They also want to discuss the wider issue of the cost which is not sustainable. The lack of places in our area is shocking. For example, as part of the planning permission for the huge residential development on the site of the old Dún Laoghaire golf club where there are thousands of new residences, there was to have been a major childcare facility. That never appeared. Crèches are full to capacity, too expensive and there are not enough places. We really need quite radical and urgent action to address that.

I agree with what Deputy Boyd Barrett said. It is exactly the same in my constituency. Only yesterday I met some residents, some of whom are commuting to Dublin with their 18 month old babies. There are buggies on the trains from Meath into Dublin because the parents cannot find a crèche. Several housing estates have been built and last week the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection said that all the facilities were in place. There are 250 houses occupied, 900 to go and no crèche. It is in the plans but there is nowhere for these children to go because the capacity is not there. I have raised this in previous questions about Dunshaughlin and Ashbourne. Another constituent cannot take up a job in Ashbourne because there is no childcare. There is no childcare in the commuter belt and it is not right that children have to go on the trains to Dublin. Parents stress out about this. It is a major failing of Government and it is time that a grip was got on it.

I am not questioning the couple Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned who get only €20 more a week but that €20 a week is a universal subsidy for any child under three years. If they are on an industrial wage they are entitled to further additional supports. Have they applied for the national childcare scheme which determines how much of a subsidy they will receive? They should be entitled to more, particularly on an industrial wage.

The Deputy raised the issue particularly of afterschool places. Is that correct?

He talked about the need to reduce the numbers because they needed more space, etc. I said that was because of the regulations. We have to follow the regulations. I refer to the Deputies' questions about plans for new housing developments, whether there are childcare plans and the fact there are no childcare facilities. That is a difficulty.

Difficulties arise when new housing developments include childcare facilities in their plans but such facilities are not made available. I will seek to examine the specific areas identified by the Deputy to determine why those facilities are not in place. The capacity issue is challenging but I have identified the different initiatives we are undertaking to try to increase capacity, although it is not always the case that such an increase will happen. It is too much of a charge to say that we just do not have the capacity and that this is a problem for Government. We are doing different things to address the capacity issue. That said, I hear what the Deputy is saying in terms of promises being made in the context of childcare places in new housing developments that did not materialise. I do not disagree with his point in that regard.

I welcome the Minister's acknowledgement of the issues. I will check if the people in question are availing fully of the subsidy-----

I cannot believe that they are only getting €20.

I will check that but, either way, the average cost in Dún Laoghaire Rathdown is off the Richter scale and I think the Minister would accept that point.

We need to address that but the national childcare scheme will barely scratch the surface-----

Indeed, there is nothing to stop the costs rising further as compliance requirements increase and the costs of same get passed on to parents, thus wiping out any benefit from the national childcare scheme. Costs are already unaffordable and there has been a failure to deliver new crèche places as part of major residential developments. The fact that those places were in the plans and were a condition of planning permission but were not provided is absolutely unacceptable.

I ask the Minister to consider meeting this group of parents. They are not looking for a fight with her. They want to explain the issues to her from their point of view. They want her to understand the question of affordability, the specifics of their case and the problems more generally being faced in the entire south Dublin area. They would appreciate the chance to engage with her. I am sure that Deputies from other areas would want to make the same case but south Dublin has the highest costs and the biggest capacity problem in the country.

We do not yet know or fully understand the impact of the funding model that has just been put in place under the national childcare scheme. There is a universal entitlement as well as a legal financial entitlement to a subsidy for childcare costs that is means-tested and based on the age of the child and how long the child will be in childcare. That is why I cannot believe that the people to whom the Deputy refers are only entitled to a subsidy of €20.

On the issue of fees, he is right to be exercised given the area he represents. I appreciate and understand that south Dublin has the highest childcare costs. However, under the scheme, it is not necessarily the case that costs or fees will increase. We will continue to monitor that. The expert group to which I referred is currently looking at ways in which we can link fee increases to improvements in quality. I have a list of vacant childcare places in Deputy Boyd Barrett's constituency. For children up to one year old, there are 13 vacant places; for children between one and two years of age, there are 14 places; while for children between two and three, there are 16 vacant places. This list, dated June 2019, shows that there are places available in his constituency. However, given the fact that he represents people from the area with the highest costs, I will meet the group of parents to whom he refers.

I thank the Minister for that.

I will try to meet them before Christmas.

Child and Family Agency Services

Bernard Durkan

Question:

54. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the extent to which a rapid response is available for children at risk or in distress with a view to ensuring a comprehensive and seamless programme to address the issues arising; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [51480/19]

This question seeks to ascertain the extent to which a rapid response is available to children deemed to be in distress and the extent to which a comprehensive follow-up is also available.

The numbers of unallocated cases, or children who do not have an allocated social worker remains of great concern to me. Tusla has identified significant numbers of unallocated cases in five of its 17 areas. In September 2019, these five areas accounted for 56% of all unallocated cases. I assure the Deputy that where a child has not been allocated a social worker, he or she is supported and monitored by the duty social work team until a social worker is allocated.

Tusla has advised my Department that special measures have been put in place to improve performance in the five areas. Staffing is the main reason unallocated cases are higher in these areas. There is an insufficient number of social workers on the teams carrying out the child welfare and protection tasks and this point has also been made by HIQA in its inspections of these areas. One of Tusla's specific initiatives is a bespoke recruitment campaign to fill the existing social work vacancies across these areas. Tusla has also put in place business support staff to free up social workers to focus on core child protection work.

With regard to rapid responses to urgent cases, Tusla operates an urgent system across all parts of the country. Section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991 permits An Garda Síochána to remove a child from a situation of acute risk. The child is then transferred to Tusla, which undertakes an assessment of the child's situation. Tusla may return the child home, if the environment is deemed safe, or apply for an emergency care order. Tusla also operates an out-of-hours social work service. This service provides access to an on-call social worker at regional or area level who can go the scene of an incident in specific cases of a serious nature.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. Is she satisfied that the supply of social workers can be addressed adequately to ensure the strength of the service is sufficient to meet the need, both now and into the future?

That question goes to the heart of a lot of the challenges being experienced by Tusla. I just indicated to the Deputy that a recruitment campaign is being run specifically for the five areas where there is the greatest problem of unallocated cases because of a lack of social workers. Tusla is also conducting a number of other campaigns to recruit the number of social workers required. It is also putting in place a number of new retention initiatives on foot of a survey of staff throughout the organisation. I believe that some of those initiatives are happening now. Tusla is trying new things to increase the number of social workers and in that context, I am satisfied. The Deputy will be aware that a shortage of social workers is not exclusive to Ireland but is also an issue in many other jurisdictions. I am satisfied that Tusla is being innovative in its efforts to increase the number of social workers in the agency.

There is a multiplicity of reasons for the shortage of social workers. It is difficult to retain social workers because the work is intensive, responsible and urgent. In that context and given the urgency of the situation, is the Minister satisfied that sufficient resources have been made available to her Department to deal with this issue? Our population is growing, with almost 500,000 more people living here than ten years ago. In those circumstances, is she satisfied that adequate provision is being made to address the issues that are arising and that are likely to arise in the future?

The shortage of social workers in Tusla is not a resource issue; instead it is an issue of recruitment difficulties as well as a shortage of social work graduates at university level. The next question deals with what we have been doing to change the latter. There have also been difficulties with retention which Tusla is attempting to address. It has a new workforce development strategy that it is beginning to implement. I am satisfied that this is not a resource issue. There are other issues at play here but Tusla is coming up with new ways of ensuring that it moves beyond the stasis of the recent past.

Child and Family Agency Staff

Anne Rabbitte

Question:

55. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the measures she is taking to increase the retention and recruitment of social workers in Tusla. [51522/19]

My question is in the same vein as that posed by Deputy Durkan. I would like the Minister to outline the measures being taken to increase the recruitment and improve the retention of social workers in Tusla. I would like her to specifically address the low numbers of social workers being trained in the country and to outline what can be done to increase the numbers entering the profession.

Tusla has taken a proactive approach to the recruitment of social workers in a difficult and challenging recruitment environment.

There is a shortage of social workers not only in Ireland but also in England, the US, Canada and Australia, as has been noted by HIQA. We made modest progress during 2019. Tusla has had a net increase of 65 social workers since the start of the year, and the turnover rate for social workers has fallen from nearly 9% in 2018 to 7.5% by 31 October this year.

It has been clear to me for some time that we must identify ways to increase the supply of social work graduates in Ireland. Our social workers are the linchpin of so many of our essential front-line services for the most vulnerable in our society.

For some time I have been encouraging Tusla to develop a strategic multi-annual workforce plan, which would reflect the realities of the labour market and the current limited supply of social workers. I am pleased that Tusla finalised a strategic workforce planning model in 2019 which I understand will be rolled out over the coming years. The model will seek to deliver on a strategic focus for Tusla, with a gradual transition to multidisciplinary teams consisting of the optimum mix of skills across social work, social care, therapeutic staff, family support, education welfare, and administrative support.

I welcome the focus on recruitment and retention as part of the roll-out of the strategic workforce implementation plan, assisting staff well-being through the assessment of workplace stressors and critical incident exposure in the workplace.

My Department has also taken the initiative to establish a social work education group which provides a forum for Tusla and other stakeholders, including the HSE and the Probation Service, to explore and take possible actions to influence the future supply of social workers.

A key initial priority identified by the group is the streamlining of student placements which does not happen at the moment. My Department has commissioned research to identify ways and alternative approaches to streamline this process through working with stakeholders. The final research report will be discussed at the next meeting of the group in January of next year.

I thank the Minister for her response.

We recently learned that since 2016, there has been a 125% increase in agency social workers being used by Tusla while at the same time it has actively recruited 3.8%. Tusla CEO, Mr. Bernard Gloster, appeared before the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs a few weeks ago and explained to us how it is going to try to transition some of the agency staff on to the payroll of Tusla. I advocate this because children need continuation and support. When one considers that there are 6,200 cases of unallocated social workers at the moment, there is an urgency to this.

What have we done with the universities? Mr. Gloster mentioned Maynooth at the time of his visit. What programmes are in place so that we can increase the intake from 250 upwards to meet the demand?

Tusla is undertaking a significant agency conversion across grades in front-line services, an initiative I very much welcome. The grades to be included are social work, social care, family support and administrative staff supporting front-line teams. Tusla has had productive discussions with Fórsa trade union on the proposed conversion which could potentially result involve up to 400 agency staff.

As Bernard Gloster said to the committee, 389 agency posts selected for conversion have now commenced offers from local Tusla management. The offers were started in recent days and are expected to be substantially completed by next week. A short turnaround is envisaged and subject to take-up rates by the workers, expected to be known to large degree by the week of 20 December, there will be a commencement of the conversions in January 2020. In the event that the offers are refused - some may be refused and worker choice is a big factor - by the same token 389 post are being offered, which is substantial progress.

This is really welcome and I compliment the CEO and his staff on the work they are doing on that. We cannot survive on agency staff as it is not good enough for the families or for the children. The figure of 389 conversions starting on 1 January 2020 is a great start for Tusla. May it continue because there are many more staff who hopefully we can bring on to the conversion programme.

Can the Minister address the issue of Maynooth or whatever other colleges may be involved? Has she worked with the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, or the Minister for Education and Skills on other courses where we can expand opportunities to recruit and to train and develop people in the sector? There are not enough spaces there, so how can we increase the figure of 250 upwards?

I thank the Deputy for her compliment for Mr. Gloster.

Tusla is exploring its sponsorship initiatives in an effort to increase the number of students studying social work, and thereby, increasing the supply of social workers available to the agency. This is happening and I expect this will produce some results as well.

We have been engaging directly with the Department of Education and Skills and there are officials from that Department on the working group established by my Department to look at how to increase the number of places at third level. The first thing that has to happen, as indicated in the first part of my response, is that we need to have a streamlined placement services for the students which has not happened yet. This makes it more difficult for universities to increase their supply of spaces unless it is easier for them to place students, as we do for doctors and nurses etc. That will happen.

There are some changes in the retention. The survey of workers identified that if they are supervised and supported by a stable management team, and, in particular, a team leader, they will want to stay. If they have a manageable caseload, they will want to stay even more. If they work alongside a fully-staffed, stable and experienced team, they will want to remain longer again. All those issues are being addressed.

Children and Family Services Provision

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

56. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her Department will work with organisations (details supplied), Tusla, the local authority and other State agencies to ensure that the supervised playground on Library Road, Dún Laoghaire remains supervised into the future; the steps she can take in this regard; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [51544/19]

I have raised with the Minister the fate of the supervised playground on Library Road in Dún Laoghaire before, and seeing as I am on a roll with her, I hope that there is something that can be done to save the supervision at this playground which is due to terminate. This amenity has been there for decades and has served a disadvantaged community and many children and parents. The supervision and the funding for it is going to be withdrawn shortly before Christmas unless something happens urgently.

I thank the Deputy for his question.

My Department has never funded the supervision of the playground in question. Funding provided by my Department for playgrounds is limited to capital spend, namely, the capital grant funding scheme for play and recreation. Applications for this scheme are made through the local authority play and recreation network. The funding of supervisory posts such as those referenced in the Deputy’s question would not meet the criteria for this funding scheme, or indeed any other funding scheme operated by my Department.

I understand that the supervision currently in place is being delivered by Crosscare until the end of the year and that the supervision relates to supervision of play equipment, rather than direct supervision of children or young people. I further understand that the playground is currently open and will remain open in the future. I can again assure the Deputy that I continue to place a very high priority on ensuring that our children and young people have access to the best possible play and recreation facilities as one way to promote their physical and social development. I am happy to hear that this particular playground facility in Dún Laoghaire will remain open to the public to this end.

The playground will-----

Can the Deputy allow the Minister to finish, please? Are you finished?

My apologies, Minister.

I will take Deputy Boyd Barrett's first supplementary question now.

I will take her time as well.

He could easily. It would not be a problem to him.

I am sure you would like your colleague to get a chance to come back in.

The playground in question is in an area where very few people have front or back gardens. These are old terraced council houses. It is an area with a DEIS school and is a pocket of disadvantage in Dún Laoghaire. Many of the children who go there, from the ages of three and four up to 13, are children who would frankly not go to the other open playgrounds. There are a number of children with special needs. This is a community amenity and facility which caters for children with special needs in an area of disadvantage. It is not unique to have such a thing. I talked to Barnardos, for example, which runs such a facility in Waterford city. This is a good thing that works and is a glue for the community. It is very good for children. We often talk about early intervention and this is a form of it. The people who are there are trained and have Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC, qualifications.

To remove the supervision would be retrograde and many of the children who go there will not return to it if there is no supervision.

We have been in direct contact with Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB and its development officer for youth and sports. The information I have in the email is that the supervision was never for the children. It was for the play equipment.

They are playing games.

The Deputy is stating that, but I have information directly from the ETB that says otherwise. If the Deputy is arguing that there are people who are supervising the children, that is not the information I have. Who should I ask if not the development officer for youth and sports in the ETB?

Their names are Pauline and Jill. They have worked there for more than a decade. In Pauline's case it is probably about 20 years. Many of the children who go there now will not go anymore if the supervision is removed. Some agenda is operating here. I believe somebody else wants the building that they partly use, to be honest. That is what is happening and it is wrong and retrograde. Crosscare runs it and employs them and before that it was run by Catholic Youth Care, CYC. That indicates there is a childcare component to it. Why else would Crosscare have employed them for the last ten years? Now Crosscare is saying the children are too young for it because it deals with teenagers. The playground caters for children who are between three and 14 years old. It is retrograde that Crosscare is pulling out; I am disappointed with Crosscare. It is also retrograde that the council seems to think it should get rid of something that is working. The community and the children in the area will suffer consequences if the supervision is removed. I am seeking proactive intervention with the council, Crosscare or the ETB so we do not lose a good facility that works for the community.

I completely understand that the Deputy wants the children to go to the playground. If it has worked in the past, it would be fantastic if it continues. What were the people's names?

The Deputy says they are currently supervising the children as distinct from my information that there is supervision of the play equipment. We can communicate to the development officer for youth and sports that the Deputy is claiming something different. I can ask Crosscare these questions. It could be raised with the county council as well to find out why this is happening. I have tried to answer as best I can with the information I have. I agree with the Deputy that we must support our young people.

Youth Services Funding

Anne Rabbitte

Question:

57. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she has considered reviewing the system through which youth groups and services access public funding. [51523/19]

Has the Minister considered reviewing the system through which youth groups and services can access public funding?

My Department administers a range of funding schemes to support the provision of youth services to young people throughout the country including those from disadvantaged communities.

Both the targeted and universal youth funding allocations for 2020 for organisations and services are currently being finalised in my Department.

These schemes have been subject to very significant review and reform.

I am currently working closely with officials in my Department to complete the final phase of preparation of the new targeted youth funding scheme, which will be launched before Christmas.  I believe the new scheme will be highly beneficial to the most vulnerable groups in society.

This scheme is designed to support young people who are marginalised, disadvantaged or vulnerable and aims to provide services which support young people to develop the personal and social skills required to improve their life chances.

The design of this scheme has been the subject of considerable collaboration with the youth sector.

The experience gained in reforming targeted youth funding schemes will also assist us in reviewing the funding scheme for universal services. In this regard my Department plans to commence a review of the youth services grant scheme next year.

This scheme makes funding available on an annual basis to 30 national and major regional youth organisations.

In 2019, I provided an additional 2.5% in funding to this scheme, bringing the total allocation to over €11 million.

The review of this scheme will aim to enhance accountability, transparency and outcome measurement.  It will also seek to ensure that the scheme responds as effectively as possible to the ever evolving needs of young people.  My Department is committed to consultation with the youth sector in this review.

We have a professional, constructive working relationship with the national youth organisations, which my Department works hard to maintain, and most recently I met with the national youth organisations on 2 December last.

The reason I tabled this question was to understand the sequence of when funding would be released. I welcome the Minister's commentary on the targeted youth funding scheme. How can one apply for it? Must one be a member of the major groups? What are the 30 other national groups? I am trying to understand this because there appear to be many groups and this follows up on where Deputy Boyd Barrett concluded. Who works with the Department? Is it the education and training board, the city and county childcare committees or the county councils? Who is submitting some of these funding applications and how can one get advance notice that one can access this funding so one might not be left behind? That might have been the case in Deputy Boyd Barrett's area. I am asking on behalf of Tuam and Ballinasloe. We are trying to get a bus that can be part of the Irish youth justice system. I see the Minister smiling at that-----

No, I think it is great.

-----but it would bring things together for vulnerable young people so they could have the same opportunities to engage throughout the county.

I am laughing at the Deputy's passion about one application, although I am sure it is for many. The targeted youth scheme was reviewed a couple of years ago. There were four types of schemes and different groups could apply to them to get grants and funding. The review recommended bringing it into one scheme as that would be more efficient and effective. Three years of consultation took place with the youth sector in many different ways. That is not to say that there was not some criticism and concern as to whether the groups currently getting funding would continue to get it. It is built into the scheme that they will be given time to reach the criteria for the scheme so they can continue to get funding, while new groups can also access it.

It will be administered through the ETB. I will launch it at the end of this year and the information will go out in the new year. If there are new groups that have not accessed funds, I expect that the information will be made known and available. If it is not, I ask the Deputy to refer back to me in that regard.

My understanding is that the funding applications will be made available in the new year and that the Minister will communicate that through the Department. Is that the full allocation of €11 million for the year? Will people know that is the pot of money and how to make an application to access the funding? What recommendations does the Minister think she will give to some of the groups? Some of them might never have applied previously. They might think they are too small or they might not be managed under a particular heading. Will it be driven through the ETBs, the county councils or other youth work organisations? I am trying to flag in advance for all the youth groups that there is funding coming and that this will be the main mechanism for accessing it for 2020.

Absolutely, they need to know. I anticipate that most youth organisations and services that are currently getting funding will continue to get it, but through a new vehicle. The Deputy's question about awareness raising and communications is a good one. To be straight, I am not sure if it is my Department that will do it or the ETB, but I will raise that question. As to whether the €11 million that is available is for the targeted youth scheme, we have moneys for the targeted youth scheme, which I am describing now, and for the national youth organisations. I do not have the figures with me regarding how much is for one and how much is for the other.

As I indicated, there has been an increase of an additional €8.5 million, or some 16%, for the targeted scheme since 2016, when I took over the Ministry, and a 10% increase for the universal scheme.

Foster Care

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

58. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her views on whether the background checks being carried out on potential foster carers by Tusla are robust enough to ensure the protection of vulnerable children and that concerns raised regarding the safety of children in foster care are being dealt with appropriately; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [51552/19]

The question concerns whether the background checks being carried out on potential foster carers by Tusla are robust enough to ensure the protection of vulnerable children, in particular given concerns have been raised regarding the safety of some children in foster care, and whether all of this is being dealt with appropriately.

Children in care are among the most vulnerable in our society, and it is the responsibility of Tusla to ensure they are placed in safe environments. While it is not possible to remove every risk, Tusla makes every effort to assess thoroughly all people who wish to be foster carers.

The approval process for general foster carers can take several months. The assessment is carried out by a qualified social worker under the supervision of a social work team leader. The assessment focuses on the capacity and suitability of the applicants to provide safe, secure care to a child. An essential part of the process is to undertake safeguarding checks on potential foster carers, to include references, medical assessments and Garda vetting. This information is included in the report prepared for the foster care committee to assist them in making a decision regarding approval. Children are not placed with the foster carers until they are approved. The process includes ongoing Garda vetting for foster carers and adult family members, including their own children when they reach 16 years of age. An important part of the assessment process is that potential foster carers attend at information and training sessions, which include sessions on how to keep children safe in foster care.

In the case of children placed with relative foster carers, the child care regulations state that for an emergency placement in foster care, the assessment must take place as soon as is practicable. This is in recognition of unanticipated situations for some children, where their best interests may be met, at least initially, by placing them with relatives. However, the standards are clear that safety checks, including Garda vetting, must take place before the child is placed.

As many of the children who are placed with foster carers have previously been neglected or abused, foster carers are advised on ways to be particularly mindful in how they care for the children in this respect. Foster carers have a link social worker, which is separate to the child’s social worker, who provides support and supervision and is attentive to the impact of the fostering situation on all members of the foster carer’s family. The protection of children in foster care from harm is of the utmost importance in all circumstances.

One reason I asked this question is that we have seen various cases recently - I would include Scouting Ireland - where it is clear vulnerable children were let down by various organisations and the State. We have a history in this regard in this country. A first ever national fostering week was recently organised by the Child and Family Agency. While I do not have a difficulty with this, it obviously led to a huge increase in the number of inquiries. This is a good thing, on the one hand, because we definitely need good foster parents, who do an excellent and difficult job, one I do not envy and I do not know how many of them do it. However, we need to ask the questions, not just about background checks, but also about supports for those foster parents and whether those supports are ongoing. Other Deputies also raised the question of resources. For example, if we do not have enough social workers and aftercare workers, are we really in a situation where we can monitor foster care on an ongoing basis and do we have the resources to do that? That is the crux of the matter.

The Deputy mentioned the recent campaign Tusla conducted to see if it could get more people interested in providing foster care. As the Deputy indicated, it resulted in some 350 inquiries, which are now being followed up. That is substantial and I congratulate Tusla for doing that, in particular as it was the first time.

One of the reasons it did that was in regard to resources and the best way to spend them. The Deputy and others have raised previously the difference in cost between private placements for children in care and the cost of public foster carers, who are supported by Tusla. Given that difference in cost, Tusla ran this campaign to see if it could get more people interested in becoming foster parents. While it was not necessarily just cost driven, it was conscious of that. Obviously, the more foster carers or parents there are who are providing that service with Tusla, the more resources will be better spent in supporting those providing foster care.

Part of the reason for this question is that foster parents contact us and say they do not feel there is a huge amount of support. Particularly when people have been foster parents for a long time and they are well known as a good placement, they get asked to take emergency cases with very little support, and an emergency case can then turn into months and the children are still with them. People are often left with a lot of unanswered questions. I am always conscious of our history and how much we have failed children in the past. I hope we are starting off on the right foot. If it is going to have these types of fostering weeks and information sessions, this would always need to be followed up robustly and it has to be ongoing, not based on one check. First, foster parents themselves need support and, second, we need to always ensure that the most vulnerable children in our society are in a totally safe environment. That is my concern.

As I have indicated, the child has a social worker and the foster carers have a link social worker, and those are considered to be forms of real direct support. I hear the Deputy's point that some foster carers may be making representations to her that they feel they could use more support. I will communicate that to Tusla. However, that should not stop Tusla from going out and looking for more. At the same time, it should be integral that if are increasing the numbers, we need to ensure there is additional support.

Question No. 59 answered with Question No. 52.

Insurance Costs

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

60. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she has raised or plans to raise the issue of insurance for childcare facilities with an organisation (details supplied); her views on whether increased costs of insurance for registered facilities are having a detrimental impact on the industry; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [51334/19]

My question relates to insurance issues for childcare facilities. It concerned a particular organisation but it is a general question relating to the increased cost of insurance for registered facilities and how this is having a detrimental effect on the industry.

Childcare services in this country are provided by more than 4,500 private or not-for-profit services. My Department engages with the services regularly through a number of organisations and representative groups.

Insurance costs and risks associated with this area for early learning and care and school age childcare services have very recently been flagged with my Department, and my officials are looking into this and engaging in a process. Information suggests that while insurance costs are a concern, to date they are not as significant an issue in this sector as in others. However, my officials have just been informed that one of the two underwriters currently in the Irish early learning and care sector insurance market has decided to withdraw from this jurisdiction. The broker involved has written to the services affected noting that, although the insurance market is at present restricted in this area, it is working hard to organise a smooth transfer to a new insurer. My officials are carefully examining the current situation and any challenges that may arise in the short to medium term. My Department has not entered discussions with the organisation mentioned, but will consider the suggestion of the Deputy as this work progresses.

Early Childhood Ireland, a national organisation representing about 80% of early learning and care and school age childcare services in the country, operates an insurance scheme for its members. Many avail of it, and my officials will be engaging with Early Childhood Ireland as this work progresses.

My Department oversees a case management system through which Pobal and local childcare committees offer assistance to services experiencing financial or governance difficulties. There have been some individual cases in which insurance costs have been a factor, but it has not been a primary focus to date. These services continue to be offered supports by my Department, tailored to their individual circumstances through a case management process. I will be happy to report back to the Deputy when my officials have completed their consideration of the issues raised.

I thank the Minister for the reply and it is good to know her Department is working on this. It is a reality that there is a higher cost of insurance, unless all of these issues just happen to be in the constituency I represent. This was raised on Leaders' Questions today. We know it concerns childcare, preschool, adventure centres and many other places that involve children and that have children moving and active, which we know is important.

None of these things happens overnight. Senator Ó Céidigh's Bill is being progressed, but other Bills could have been progressed before it. There is a link between spiralling claims and spiralling costs. Childcare is just so important, and the Minister knows that better than anyone. She knows the invaluable service it provides, not just for the children but also for the parents who can go back to work. It is certainly very important to those parents in Dublin Central who are in addiction and trying to get out of it and into recovery. As the Minister mentioned, the other insurance broker is pulling out now. If there will be only one insurance company left, it will have the market to itself. It is important that there is engagement with the remaining broker in order that it does not further increase prices.

As the Deputy said, the issue of insurance costs across a number of sectors is of great concern. As she will be aware, the Government is pursuing insurance reform, although perhaps not in the way in which Deputies opposite want it to. Another Minister is in charge of that.

I will add to my initial information further information specifically about the childcare sector. My understanding is that the broker that was working with the underwriter that has pulled out of the market has informed its clients that it is actively seeking a new underwriter with which to partner. I mentioned Early Childhood Ireland, which I commend on its work in this area. It has a group scheme for insurance and has worked with us very closely to ensure that is the case. I encourage any childcare organisations that may have been impacted by the pulling out of the other broker to contact Early Childhood Ireland to see whether this group scheme represents another way for them to move forward with their work, at least in the interim.

The reply from the Minister for Finance to the parliamentary question outlined how there are constitutional issues and then commercial issues. The cost of insurance working group and the Judicial Council Bill may have some effect, but in the meantime there are increasing costs for childcare facilities, particularly community facilities. The private ones have other resources they can use that community ones cannot. The ones I know have been told their commercial rates could increase by 3.5% this year. They have had insurance cost increases of several hundred euro. Those few hundred euro mean a lot to small community preschools. They are also complying with all the fire safety work, which, of course, they agree with, but, again, that is a further cost on them. The other cost issue is payment to the staff. The pay is very low. Someone who has done a degree in early childhood care will not get the wage commensurate with holding a degree. This is part of a picture of early childhood care.

I agree with the Deputy. This is putting the childcare organisations in her constituency to the pin of their collar in terms of sustainability. The Department is available to work with, and support, these organisations through some kind of sustainability plan. If they have not asked, they should reach out. I have indicated that we have not heard concerns from many providers. If, however, the Deputy has identified a number that have concerns, I could meet her later and we could look at them and some of the ones within her constituency and see what the challenges and difficulties are in moving forward. As I said, I do not know the fees or the numbers. If, however, Early Childhood Ireland is offering a group scheme, I encourage providers to move in that direction.

Domestic Violence Services Funding

Paul Murphy

Question:

61. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to support a network (details supplied) that includes the vital local service provided by an organisation in view of the 16 days of action to promote domestic violence awareness, which has highlighted that 60% of abuse starts before 25 years of age and that Ireland has only one third of the recommended number of refuge spaces; and her views on whether women's domestic abuse refuge centres are an important aspect of her Department. [51357/19]

Today is the last of 16 days of action to promote domestic violence awareness. I ask the Minister her and the Government's plans to support women's refuges and networks such as Women Together Tallaght Network in the context of some of the facts we have heard highlighted over these 16 days. One in two women murdered in Ireland is killed by her partner or ex-partner, but Ireland only has one third of the refuge space recommended by the Istanbul Convention.

Last Thursday I attended an event hosted by Saoirse Women's Refuge and Women Together Tallaght Network as part of the 16 days of activism campaign.

Before my time in government, I worked directly with the local communities in the greater Tallaght area. I strongly value the hard work and community spirit of the people of Tallaght.

I understand that the networks to which the Deputy refers receive funding from the Department of Justice and Equality.

Tusla has statutory responsibility for the care and protection of victims of domestic violence and provides funding for the provision of specialist front-line services. These networks do not currently fall under the remit of Tusla's funded services for domestic and sexual violence.

Younger people are particularly vulnerable to abuse. It is important that negative attitudes to women and girls are addressed early on. The National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020 is a cross-Government initiative in which many Departments, including my own, are involved.

Tusla has led on the delivery of the Manuela programme for 15 to 17 year olds. This six-week educational programme equips young people with the skills and behaviours to promote consent in personal relationships. More than 1,500 young people have participated in the programme to date.

The Deputy raised the issue of refuge accommodation. This is also important to me as part of the services and supports for victims of domestic violence. Refuge should be temporary. The Deputy will have heard the Taoiseach express in this House his views that the perpetrator, not the victim, should leave the home. I agree with that.

Responsibility for investment in new refuges falls under the remit of a number of Government bodies. The planning and resourcing of additional refuge accommodation requires cross-Government support. Future developments will be informed by Tusla's review of emergency refuge accommodation nationwide, which will be completed in early 2020, as well as the identified needs of service users throughout the country.

I am pleased to inform the Deputy that five additional refuge spaces will become available in south Dublin this month and three additional refuge spaces will be available in Galway in January 2020.

I also pay tribute to the work of local women's groups in Tallaght, where not only paid employees but also volunteers make up in some cases for the inadequacies of State provision. I am sure it is the same throughout the country. I welcome the fact that a new refuge is being opened, and I accept that this is not purely the Minister's responsibility. However, the fact that Saoirse Women's Refuge, for example, must do all this fundraising to fill the centre with furniture, equipment, etc., demonstrates a problem in that it is not sufficiently funded. Even with the opening of the new centre, does the Minister accept that compared with the Istanbul standards, for example, we still have significantly fewer spaces than we need? What long-term plans exist to keep refuge centres afloat in order that they not be forced to engage in all this fundraising from local communities as opposed to funding being provided by the State?

I am very much aware of the additional fundraising that domestic refuge shelters need to do because they talk to me too. I will answer the Deputy's questions in a couple of different ways. Regarding the ongoing resources they require, since the beginning of my Ministry, I have increased the resources to this sector by more than €5 million in recent years. I understand that is limited, but there has been an increase based on priority in the past year as well as this year, I expect. What is the best way to target the money? I have asked the sector and pulled together representatives of it to identify how best to use the resources to meet the greatest need.

I would like to address the issue of the standard of the Istanbul Convention in my final reply.

I wish to raise the question of the interaction between domestic violence or intimate partner violence and the housing crisis. Safe Ireland has reported that housing instability is four times more likely to affect women who have experienced domestic violence and that one in four homeless women cites intimate partner violence as a major contributor to her homelessness. This was illustrated by a woman who recently contacted me for assistance. This, again, does not directly relate to the question of refuges. This woman lives very close to her former partner, who is abusive and violent towards her. South Dublin County Council refuses to treat her as a priority for a transfer because she is a tenant of an approved housing body. The approved housing body has tried to assist but does not have appropriate alternative accommodation.

She is left in limbo between the council and the approved housing body because the approved housing body said it does not have anywhere appropriate and the council simply refuses to treat her as a priority despite letters from Saoirse Women's Refuge, the Garda etc.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I am aware of the interface between housing, homelessness and domestic and sexual violence. That is clearly an issue. Safe Ireland is one of our greatest organisations in this area and does excellent work. I am also aware of the issues that it raises and shares with the Deputy and I seek to address them. On the standards of the Istanbul Convention and how many refuge spaces we have, as the Deputy is aware, the Istanbul Convention recommends two standards. Tusla is following one. Safe Ireland and other organisations want us to follow the other, which would require us to increase the number of refuge spaces by significantly more than we have now. With the standard currently in use, we are almost providing the number of required refuge spaces. Space is available in five units in Rathcoole for five adults and 15 children. Nine units will be available in Rathmines in 2020 for nine adults and 27 children. There will also be additional spaces in Galway.

Tusla is reviewing what is required throughout the country. Those standards are going to be reviewed. I have indicated my preference for a standard that requires more refuge spaces.

The Minister is out of time.

I am aware that it would cost considerably more money. One reason that Tusla and others are going with the first standard is because of the argument that we ought to spend our money to provide community services and integrate them into the community.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.