Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

School Attendance

Denis Naughten


27. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration his plans to provide alternatives to prosecution for parents who fail to ensure their children attend school; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22327/20]

Every year, more than 700 families are threatened with prosecution because their son or daughter has failed to attend school for well in excess of 20 days with no legitimate reason and where these parents have declined support and are unwilling to co-operate with the education welfare officer. However, after numerous contacts, one in four of these families are actually prosecuted. I question whether court, or the threat of court action, is the most appropriate way to deal with these families.

The Tusla Education Support Service, TESS, operates under the Education (Welfare) Act 2000. It emphasises the promotion of school attendance, participation and retention. TESS has three key strands, namely, the statutory educational welfare service, the home school community liaison scheme and the school completion programme.

I recognise that returning to school is challenging for students. As schools reopen, TESS will continue to engage with families to provide advice, support and encouragement to students. TESS will work to support students in returning to school, particularly students who have been identified as having difficulties returning. It will engage with all schools to identify any students who have not returned and might require additional support. The approach to such students and their families will be entirely supportive.

The Deputy makes the point that a number of school attendance notices are issued and a number of prosecutions brought forward every year. In this context, only 6.5% of cases result in a school attendance notice and of those, only 1.5% result in a case going to court. On the basis of those figures, it is my sense that the vast majority of the work done by TESS is very much on the supportive side and to try to bring parents to get their children into school. There must be some element of sanction in the most egregious cases where, for whatever reason, parents fail to engage with the supports provided. It is important to note the small proportion of cases that go to court, which stands at 1.5%.

The law states that if a child is absent for more than 20 days without a legitimate reason such as illness, the case should be referred to Tusla. Sadly, however, due to the limited staffing resources, children have to miss multiples of the 20 days before a referral is made in the first place. Having said that, more than 6,000 children are referred each year to the Tusla Education Support Service. That is an average of 33 children referred every single school day. Would it not be better use of the 98 staff working within the service to work with the families in a supportive manner to address the underlying issues causing school attendance problems, rather than preparing legal files, attending court on numerous occasions and fining vulnerable families up to €2,000?

The Deputy raised a number of points, one of which is related to the number of social workers in Tusla. We have questions coming up on that issue later when we will talk about increasing the number of social workers.

Based on how the legislation is being implemented I believe the Tusla staff and those in TESS are very much focused on that element of support and encouraging parents. That is why in addition to Tusla we have the home-school community liaison officer who is based in the school. I am sure the Deputy has been on a few school boards as I have also. I know the real work they undertake with parents in trying to learn the family-specific circumstances so that by building up that relationship with parents, they might be able to bring that child back into the school system.

One primary school child in eight misses more than 20 days in school each year. This number is increasing rather than decreasing. In many cases it leads to disruption for the entire class and not just the child concerned. Three Government databases are involved in school attendance, namely, those of the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs through Tusla; and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, but they do not communicate with each other. Will the Minister sit down with his two colleagues and use a technology tool rather than a 140-year-old legal tool to deal with these 700 families in a way that benefits the child in the first instance, the family and our education and legal systems?

The Deputy's point on technology is important. Tusla has been recognised across Europe as being one of the social worker agencies that was quickest to move to work online during the Covid pandemic. I wish to recognise the work Tusla has done there. The Deputy may not be aware that TESS is moving out of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and moving over to the Department of Education and Skills. I think the Deputy may regard that as a good thing. Two of the three partners in this regard are being amalgamated. That is one of the changes in function that will take place quite soon.

Two-legged stools do not work.

In the future this matter will be addressed by the Department of Education and Skills.

After-School Support Services

Pádraig O'Sullivan


28. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration his plans to increase the range of after-school services in schools and community hubs in County Cork. [22362/20]

Cormac Devlin


53. Deputy Cormac Devlin asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration his plans to increase the range of after-school services in schools and community hubs in Dublin. [22366/20]

My question relates to the firm programme for Government commitment to increase the range of supports for after-school services and community hubs. In County Cork and my constituency of Cork North-Central, what plans does the Minister have to deliver these much-needed services?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 28 and 53 together.

I thank Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan for his question. There is a large demand for high-quality, accessible and affordable school-age childcare services. This demand is seen in all areas of the country, including in my constituency and I have no doubt in Cork city.

To help meet this demand, the programme for Government commits to increasing the range of after-school services in schools and community hubs.

My Department has provided support for the development of school-age childcare places through dedicated capital grant funding. Between 2017 and 2019, over €6 million was awarded in capital funding to assist the creation of new school-age childcare places nationally and to ensure that the quality of care was raised.

Key to supporting this will be the national childcare scheme, NCS, which since 2019 has been open to school-age childcare services.

School-age childcare services registered with Tusla can now encourage parents to apply for NCS subsidies of up to €3.75 per hour for each school-age child.

My Department published an action plan in 2017 which set out a range of actions to strengthen the provision of school-age childcare. The action plan recognised that some parents cannot care for their children outside school hours particularly where they are working.

The action plan included a commitment to maximise the use of schools and community facilities for school-age childcare, where the environments are suitable, and where there is an agreement with the school patron or trustees.

To this end, the Department of Education and Skills is engaging with schools and encouraging patrons to make their buildings available for this purpose.

The national development plan recognises childcare as a strategic priority for Ireland. I look forward to working further on this to ensure that funding is made available to expand capacity where demand exists.

The return of schools is very welcome for many parents who spent the last six months caring for children and continuing to work. It builds on previous work in reopening the early-years and childcare sectors. While this will allow more people to return to work should they wish to do so, many gaps in provision remain to be addressed in the provision of after-school and community services. This is particularly the case for single parents. By their nature, many of these after-school and community places are created on an ad hoc basis with individual facilities offering them when they become available.

With this in mind, ensuring that parents can afford this service will be vital in increasing the provision of these places. What supports is the Minister developing to help parents access these services when they become available?

There is significant demand for school-age childcare services. I just did some calculations and I believe the vacancy rate in Cork city is about 4% which is obviously very tight. That is a clear indication of the need to provide more places. The Deputy spoke about the ad hoc development of these services, which is right to a degree. The previous Minister introduced the action plan to get a higher-level view of where these services were needed and to identify how we could take the available capital funding, which will continue for the duration of the national development plan, and direct it to those places, be it for brand new facilities or by ensuring that after the school day the school hall or some other facility in the school could be used for school-age childcare. We need schools to be a bit more flexible because sometimes schools are not entirely happy with that use and we should put in some supports there.

There is a concern with schools which needs to be addressed in the short to medium term. While the Minister for Education and Skills has confirmed that this opening is intended to support the reopening of after-school services, it is likely that many schools which might provide space for such a facility may not do so this year given public health concerns. Is the Department actively engaging with schools, which have previously provided after-school services, to ensure that these schools, where safe to do so, are providing places which have previously been available and encouraging them to increase the number of available spaces where appropriate?

Where it is safe to do so, there is no reason for a school not to give permission for the use of their facilities for school-age childcare after school provided all public health guidelines are maintained. The availability of that childcare is really important. Over the summer we have been very successful in reopening childcare facilities and got to about 94% of what was normally open. With the reopening of schools, we are at the wider opening of childcare and ECCE services. I commit to keeping a close eye on this. If it is a phenomenon that builds up, we will definitely act on it. If the Deputy is aware of specific instances, I would be happy for him to bring them to my attention.

Deputy Whitmore has conveyed her apologies for not being present for Question No. 29.

Question No. 29 replied to with Written Answers.

Early Childhood Care and Education

Éamon Ó Cuív


30. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the policy he has to promote all Irish language and bilingual crèches in and outside the Gaeltacht to ensure all parents have a choice between an English-language crèche, a bilingual crèche and an Irish-language crèche in view of the ability of very young children to easily learn a second language. [22329/20]

Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Aire as a cheapachán.

What is the Department's policy to ensure that all children nationally have a choice between Irish-language crèches, bilingual crèches and English-language crèches? We know that children absorb languages and the younger they are, the easier they find it to learn two languages or three if they are exposed to those languages.

What is the Department's policy on this issue and on providing that basic service to our people?

I thank the Deputy for his kind words. I believe there is strong value in supporting the provision of services in the Irish language to children at an early age because, as the Deputy has said, they are able to pick up languages much more quickly at that age. Preschools and crèches can play a really important role in promoting Irish as a living language.

I note that early learning and care services are private businesses and they determine the medium through which they provide their service. My Department provides funding to providers through various schemes to subsidise early learning and childcare costs and for various quality initiatives. We are particularly keen to support providers who wish to operate through Irish.

There are currently 247 childcare services that identify as naíonraí with Pobal and my Department. Of these, 237 provide the ECCE scheme. For the 2019-20 programme year, my Department provided these services with €25 million worth of supports.

Tusla, the early years regulator, and the Better Start quality development service offer services to the sector through Irish and continue their efforts to improve the Irish language service. My Department also ensures that resources are made available through Irish.

Collaboration between officials in my Department and in the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has resulted in a set of actions under the five-year Action Plan for the Irish Language 2018-2022. These actions are in support of the overarching 20-year strategy for the Irish language and are designed to affirm the importance of early learning and care in encouraging the development and revitalisation of the Irish language.

First 5, the whole-of-government strategy for children and families contains two actions specifically aimed at supporting the development of the Irish language within the early learning and care sector. These involve ensuring that children in Gaeltacht areas have access to early learning services through Irish and developing mechanisms to provide Irish language supports to services where there are high proportions of children learning through the medium of Irish.

My Department remains committed to supporting growth in the number of Irish language early years services.

I accept that there are a large number of naíonraí but a naíonra is a preschool whereas a naíolann is a crèche. There is a world of difference between the two. Getting to children at the crèche stage presents great advantages as against getting to them at the ECCE stage. For one, the service has them all day. There are naíolanna in the country operating through Irish. I am sure the Minister would agree that there is a privatisation drive in this country and an idea that everything should be market driven. The first sentence of his answer was that these are private businesses which we fund. Of course, he who pays the piper calls the tune. Is there an overarching positive policy in the Minister's Department which aims to promote to concept of diversity of choice of language between the two official languages or a mixture of both? Is there a policy to introduce a small amount of Irish in English-speaking crèches? The Minister is correct that this was part of the 20-year strategy. Is there a big policy which the Department's money could be used to implement?

My understanding is that the two points I listed from our overarching strategy for dealing with the early years sector, First 5, act on elements of the 20-year strategy. The overarching strategy for the Irish language is being enacted in our sector through these points in First 5. They are carrying on down. That is my understanding of the link. It is important to note that, acting on those commitments in First 5, we are working on the creation of two Irish language early years posts to further develop Irish language services. Unfortunately, the hiring process for these posts was delayed because of Covid but I will see where we are with the hiring of these officers as their duties will focus directly on the Irish language in the early years sector and on supporting developments in that area.

The State has a constitutional duty to promote the Irish language, which is also its clear policy. When it comes to delivering, it always seems to be a case of listing what we are doing while not really doing anything. There are many Gaelscoileanna in this city. In many cases, and with great difficulty, the communities behind these Gaelscoileanna have provided naíonraí. One would have thought that the Department would have a positive policy to make sure that there was a naíolann or crèche connected with every Gaelscoil and naíonra. It should not be a matter of whether the market wants it, in which case it would be delivered, but a positive policy driven by the Minister's Department as part of the national policy on the promotion of the Irish language. When one gives two languages to children of one, two or three years, one gives them a lifetime present for free which will give them a huge advantage throughout the rest of their lives while also making it easier to learn a third, fourth or fifth language, as has been well proven.

I absolutely accept the Deputy's wider point on the learning of languages. I take on board his point regarding Irish language provision from the youngest ages. I am ten weeks in the job but I will endeavour to get a better sense of how these various elements interact because I accept its importance.

Direct Provision System

Pa Daly


31. Deputy Pa Daly asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the preparatory work that has taken place with respect to responsibility for direct provision transferring under his remit. [22370/20]

Cén obair atá déanta ag Roinn an Aire chun freagracht as soláthar díreach a aistriú ón Roinn Dlí agus Cirt agus Comhionannais? What preparatory work has taken place with respect to responsibility for direct provision being transferred to his Department?

I thank Deputy Daly. My officials and I met the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Helen McEntee, and her officials early in the process to prepare for the transfer of functions to my Department, including those relating to direct provision. We have maintained regular contact on the matter since then. In addition, I have made contact with some officials who will be transferring from the Department of Justice and Equality to my Department for initial discussions on a range of equality matters, direct provision and the preparation of a White Paper on direct provision. Since my meeting with the Minister, Deputy McEntee, detailed discussions between officials of our two Departments have been continuing.

The entire process is underpinned by a set of guidelines that all Departments use when arranging for the transfer of functions. A good co-operative relationship has developed between my officials and those in the Department of Justice and Equality. We feel that all elements are progressing smoothly.

A great deal is transferring between the Departments, including substantial policy areas and, particularly in respect of direct provision, many operational matters. I want to ensure that the transfer takes place in an effective and timely manner. In order to achieve this, officials are examining the relevant functions, legislation, funding and staffing involved. It is important that all elements, particularly funding, follow. My intention is for this business to be concluded very shortly and for the transfer of functions order to be completed at that stage.

I very much look forward to taking on responsibility for a large range of areas in the equality sphere and in the area of direct provision and integration.

I congratulate the Minister. A lot of pressure was put on him and the Minister for Justice and Equality with regard to dealing with the situation in Cahersiveen. I understand the last few residents have now been transferred from that centre. The whole area of direct provision was, however, thrown into focus again recently in connection with the Covid outbreaks in Kildare. This will continue to happen as long as the State continues to use accommodation centres which are clearly not fit for purpose. The Minister said a White Paper is due.

There are also regulations which were approved of in August of last year and which, almost unbelievably, will not have legal force until January of next year. As such, there is much work to be done on it. The only way that work can be done is by it coming onto the Minister's table. I ask also what alternative accommodation will be provided.

I thank the Deputy. I want to recognise his engagement with me on Cahersiveen. On the very day I became a Minister, he tracked me down and had a word in my ear about it. He was instrumental in helping to get a good outcome there. Colleagues like the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, were engaging with me significantly on the issue as well and we did get a good outcome there. However the Deputy is absolutely right that Cahersiveen is one example of the wider failings of the direct provision process that have been brought to light in the context of Covid. What the Government is seeking to do is set out clearly in the programme for Government. We are going to end direct provision over the lifetime of this Government and replace it with a new method of accommodation for those in the international protection process, one which properly recognises their dignity but one which is not focused on private provision, which is one of the key issues with direct provision. I have been very clear that this is not going to happen swiftly. This will be a process and the White Paper that the Government will publish by the end of the year will set out how that process will work.

I am glad the Minister raised that side of the matter with regard to NGOs. Has he spoken to any NGO that might be involved in providing accommodation when the transfer is done? Has a date been identified for the transfer, as it is going to fall on the Minister's desk? As the Minister already has the Oireachtas report which was carried out over the last Dáil term, is there really any need for another White Paper when the regulations are already in place? Is that not going to confuse the issue and prolong it further?

I do not have a specific date but a matter of weeks is the timeframe which has been discussed with my officials. I very much hope that the transfer of function will have taken place by the end of this month. There is a need for a White Paper because it is an overarching issue and the solutions are across a wide range of issues. The programme for Government does not discuss the accommodation side of direct provision alone. It looks at the entire international protection process and how that might be speeded up, it looks at the conditions residents are living in, it looks at the provision of vulnerability assessments and it looks at the inspection, which is very relevant to the regulations on what direct provision accommodation should look like. It is an overarching element and all elements need to be looked at in the context of a new White Paper.

Did the Minister speak to the NGOs already?

On the housing side of this issue, I have spoken to a number of housing NGOs. As it is not yet within my remit, I have not started engaging with the NGOs representing those within direct provision but I will do so as soon as I get those functions.

Question No. 32 is from Deputy Sean Sherlock. We will move on to Question No. 33, to be introduced by Deputy Kathleen Funchion.

Question No. 32 replied to with Written Answers.

Childcare Services

Kathleen Funchion


33. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the supports afforded to childcare facilities to enable them to remain open and viable in view of the fact that in the first six months of 2020 Tusla was notified of 123 closures of childcare settings (details supplied); and the steps he is taking to improve issues regarding sustainability and capacity in the sector. [22323/20]

This question concerns the supports afforded to childcare facilities to enable them to reopen and to remain viable. In view of the fact that in the first six months of this year, Tusla was notified of 123 closures of childcare settings, what steps are being taken to ensure sustainability and capacity in the sector?

Each year a number of early learning and school-age childcare services close for a variety of reasons. Services intending to close must notify Tusla, the childcare regulator, of that fact. The most recent available data for the year to date show that 123 services, as the Deputy noted, have notified that they will not be reopening. A total of 39 new services have also notified Tusla that they will be opening this year. The number of services closing this year to date is slightly lower than the same number last year. In total, 200 services shut last year whereas in 2017 and 2018 about 150 shut in each year.

On supports, in the July stimulus package announced on 25 July, I provided a very substantial stimulus package for the childcare sector. It included the resumption of all my Department's childcare schemes and access to the employee wage subsidy scheme. We estimate that at present, the employee wage subsidy scheme funds about 38% of childcare providers' costs on average. That is obviously a highly significant direct State support. In June, my Department previously announced both a capital and a reopening support grant and about 3,800 services signed up for these. In total, 94% of services which normally open over the summer resumed their service. This illustrates the success of the measures the Government took to support the childcare sector. I want to commend the sector on the hard work of both the providers and the childcare professionals and the real commitment they demonstrated, particularly to the children in their care, in undertaking that very major reopening. I am conscious that some services may struggle to remain viable in the coming months. Consequently, I have ensured that €2 million is available in a Covid stability fund and I believe the Deputy may have a question for me about that later on as well.

Yes, I believe one of the other questions I have tabled concerns sustainability. The Minister will not be surprised at this stage by my saying that the sector probably has been undervalued and underfunded for years. Hopefully the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, will be the Minister to change this and to ensure the sector is funded correctly. There will always be a certain amount of closures as it is natural for that to happen but there were 42 in County Dublin, 16 in County Cork and 13 in County Kildare. What supports are available for parents in those areas? Are they perhaps being given support through the city and county childcare committees to access other childcare places? That does not even take into account the workers in that sector. There have been job losses, which we do not want to see given the amount of job losses that we are going to see anyway due to Covid. This is a sector in which we want to hang on to those valuable and highly-trained staff. What supports are there for them when a facility closes?

The Deputy is absolutely right about the need for that element of wider support. When she put down a motion on this in the last term, we had a good discussion about some of the key things that are happening in the Department around workforce planning, looking at building real careers for childcare professionals, as well as the operational model which I brought through Cabinet and in terms of the expert group looking at the overall funding of childcare, how it is funded in other countries and drawing useful comparisons. As such a large body of work is being done at the moment, some of which was begun by my predecessor and some of it by me. By the middle of next year, we hope to have substantive pieces of research done upon which we can look to build the future vision of childcare.

On the Deputy's specific question, the city and county childcare committees can engage with parents and give them advice about other services which have vacancies in situations where a childcare service has ceased to operate.

I am not sure if this is part of a further question but I will take the opportunity to ask it now. I refer to after-school services. I have come across a number of after-school services which are running their normal day service but cannot seem to run the after-school part or the collection part. The transport may be an issue or there is some issue around the after-schools. In the instances that I have come across, parents are being told it is to do with Covid guidelines. I do not see how that can be the case. Does the Minister have any information specifically relating to after-school services and the situation with them?

Like the Deputy herself, I do not initially see how the guidelines would impact on the after-school element more than any other element. They apply generally and I am not sure if it is the rules themselves or is it a financial concern about staffing to monitor that in and out process. Again, there are financial supports specifically provided in the context of the reopening grants and it is a significant payment. If the Deputy has more specific details I am happy to touch base with her subsequently on that.

Special Educational Needs

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire


34. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the steps being taken to re-engage students with education including students with special educational needs and other vulnerable categories; and if there will be increased investment in home school community liaison officers and school completion programmes to help ease this transition back to school buildings. [19305/20]

This question is peculiar in that I submitted it to the Minister for Education and Skills and it was referred to the Minister present but were I to submit it to him in a few weeks' time, it would be transferred across to the Department of Education and Skills.

The primary concerns involved are educational and I have listened to a lot of discussion on very legitimate concerns about the application of the 20 day rule where there is illness, as raised by Deputy Funchion and others, and it is right and valid. I also have a concern at the other end of the equation. Tusla has a difficult job to do to try to keep an eye on it but there is the danger that in the midst of all this there will be children who become disengaged with education and with whom contact will be lost. I am looking for an update on this.

Research the Department has undertaken on the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the risk of a particular impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds and students with special educational needs. This is one of the reasons I have been very committed as part of the Government to the reopening of schools generally.

As the Deputy knows, the Tusla Education Support Service, TESS, operates under the Education (Welfare) Act 2000 and has an emphasis on the promotion of school attendance, participation and retention. TESS has three strands, namely the educational welfare service, the home school community liaison scheme and the school completion programme. All three of these are working at present and Tusla has been engaging on this point to ensure engagement with all students, in particular students with those additional needs, so they are brought back into education.

As we discussed in debate on earlier questions, to ensure this is happening we have the special September return being made by all schools to indicate whether students have returned after the extensive gap forced on them by Covid. TESS staff will examine these returns to see whether particular issues need to be addressed.

TESS has planned a universal response to support the return to school for all students and has reorganised the focus and capacity of the service to achieve this, including by temporarily seconding additional support staff from other areas of Tusla to support the initiative.

The 122 school completion projects are funded in line with the academic term and approximately €24.7 million is provided to them each year.

The home school community liaison scheme is supported by the Department of Education and Skills and falls directly within the remit of the Minister of Education and Skills.

This section is on the way out of the Minister's Department and perhaps he will give us a timescale on it because I am not sure. In the meantime, the Minister has an opportunity to shape it. I have a view that there is a cohort of students who could and should have benefited from access to the school completion programme and particularly from access to the home school liaison scheme in recent years but have not done so because there has been no expansion of DEIS band 2 for more than ten years. An awful lot of schools would have qualified for it and many children could have benefited from the home school liaison scheme and the school completion programme. There was no real movement on DEIS in recent years. This is a crossover area and the Minister should engage with the Minister for Education and Skills to lobby for a review of DEIS with a view to expanding the number of people who can avail of these two schemes in particular.

Will the Minister also come back to me on redeployment? What staff are being redeployed and what work are they doing now that they have been redeployed? I presume the home school liaison teachers are still attached to schools and they are not being redeployed.

In case there is any confusion about redeployment, the idea is that Tusla staff from other areas would be redeployed to support this particular project, particularly in September, to make sure young people come back to school. It is about resources coming in rather than resources going out.

On the transfer of functions, we are talking about a number of weeks. I can get back to the Deputy on this. We are looking at a number of weeks with regard to when the TESS function will be moved to the Department of Education and Skills.

With regard to DEIS schools, I have been the chair of the board of management of a DEIS school for the past three years. As it happens, our home school community liaison officer is also the staff representative on the board and we have had a real insight into the work she does, particularly advancing elements of our DEIS plan, which looks at issues such as attendance. I am fully supportive of the idea of expanding DEIS access throughout the country.

I understood the point on redeployment. Is it with regard to this particular return exercise that is being worked on? Perhaps it is additional work. In general, I am in favour of the expansion of the home school liaison scheme and school completion programme. The expansion of DEIS to another cohort of schools is an important part of this, not just DEIS band 1, which is important, but also DEIS band 2.

Some of the very important work done by school completion officers includes breakfast clubs. From the Department's point of view is it full steam ahead? Can breakfast clubs and other such activity resume? Have they resumed?

My understanding is that in terms of breakfast clubs and the use of school facilities, there is no barrier to doing this so long as public health guidelines are fully followed. I might touch base with the Deputy on this again so I have a completely clear answer for him.

Question No. 35 replied to with Written Answers.

Departmental Funding

Kathleen Funchion


36. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the budget for the new sustainability fund of his Department; the breakdown of funds spent to date from same; the funds that have been allocated, by county; the number of facilities that have applied, by county; and the marketing undertaken by his Department to promote the new fund to providers. [22322/20]

This question is from Deputy Funchion, who is getting great mileage here today.

It seems to be just myself and the Minister for the most part. I feel like much of this question was addressed in the discussion on the previous question because it is about the sustainability fund but I am interested in the breakdown detailed in the question. Is it possible to get it in written format? I would be happy to leave it at that rather than repeating the information.

Will the Minister produce a written answer?

Yes. I did not quite get into too much detail on the sustainability fund in the previous reply, if the Deputy would like me to say a little bit more about it. It might be worthwhile for those listening to hear it.

The Covid-19 sustainability support grant will be available to early learning and childcare services where there is a demonstrated decline in occupancy or a verified increase in costs due to Covid-19 that is not addressed by the significant financial measures already put in place, which we have discussed.

I have allocated €2 million for the scheme. This is in addition to resumed funding for the Department’s childcare schemes and the employment wage subsidy scheme, which funds an average of 38% of providers' costs as well as the capital grant scheme and the reopening support grant.

In the interest of preserving capacity in the sector, and as announced as part of the July stimulus measures, it was decided to expand the criteria for access to the sustainability fund by services for profit and not-for-profit services experiencing or at risk of a cash flow crisis arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The success of Government measures to date are demonstrated by the fact that 94% of services were open over the summer. In the next two to three weeks, further details on eligibility for the sustainability scheme will be made available. I will be happy to update the Deputy on uptake of the scheme as it proceeds over the coming months.

As we await the final detail of the scheme, my officials and I will continue to meet regularly with sectoral representatives. These meetings are used to keep the sector updated on progress and to get feedback from the sector to inform future developments. I will meet the forum on Thursday morning and continue that element of engagement.

I welcome the fact it has been extended to the community, which is something I have been seeking for a long time. Is the €2 million on top of what already existed in the sustainability fund or is it a separate ring-fenced amount because of Covid?

The €2 million is the overall sustainability fund. It is not a ring-fenced Covid element.

It is for all sustainability matters.

Question No. 37 replied to with Written Answers.

Departmental Reports

Kathleen Funchion


38. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration when the Crowe Report will be published. [22325/20]

This question is very straight forward. I am asking about the Crowe report. When does the Minister believe it might be published?

Crowe was commissioned by my Department to undertake an independent review of the cost of providing quality early learning and care and school-age childcare in Ireland. Planning is under way to launch the report and I intend that this will occur before the end of this month.

Crowe's brief included analysing the current costs of providing early learning and care and school-age childcare and the factors that impact on these costs; the delivery of a model of the unit costs of providing early learning and care and school-age childcare that allows analysis of policy changes and variation in cost-drivers, and the provision of a high-level market analysis of the sector in Ireland.

The review was intended to provide a robust evidence base for the further development of high-quality early learning and care, ELC, and school-age childcare, SAC, in Ireland. The outputs, including the costs calculator developed through this project, were also intended to form a key input to the setting of capitation and subvention rates for ELC and SAC.

Final outputs were received in January of this year, and preparations were under way to launch the report in April 2020. The launch, however, like so many things, was postponed due to the Covid pandemic.

The findings from this review contributed to the evidence base that underpinned the temporary wage subsidy childcare scheme and was later used in looking at the employment wage subsidy scheme, which we have spoken about and which has provided so much support across the sector.

The findings also informed the development of funding packages for the phased reopening of these services since late June.

The Minister expects the report to be done by the end of September then. That would be very welcome. I remember when it was first spoken about by the previous Minister. I would have welcomed the fact that we would have an independent report into the cost of providing childcare because it is very difficult. We know for a fact the workers are not paid enough. We know for a fact that many providers are struggling and find it difficult to keep their doors open. We also know that parents constantly face a battle, first to try to access places and, second, when it comes to the costs. Many people, therefore, in particular women, end up perhaps having to work part-time or to take parental leave on days when they would not have envisaged doing so. They find themselves in all sorts of situations just to try to juggle the costs. It is difficult to see who benefits from the high cost. It is certainly not the workers. The vast majority of providers, particularly in rural areas, are perhaps one or two-women operations.

I really welcome the fact that the report will be published and I look forward to getting a copy.

Absolutely. Obviously, I was not in this position when it was commissioned, but I know just from talking to officials in the Department the huge amount of work that has gone into it. The work has been refined and strengthened as it has been undertaken. As I said in reply to a question the Deputy asked earlier, this comes in the context of other very significant research work my Department is undertaking. Sometimes people give out about reports being undertaken etc., and on one hand I can understand there is always a degree of scepticism in that regard. On the other hand, however, and as the Deputy herself knows, we are dealing with a sector that has been built on a very ad hoc basis over the past ten years after virtually no investment prior to that period. If this is to work, and if we are not going to just act in an ad hoc way, I think it will be really important we have that sustained evidence base from which to work and to design that new vision for childcare.

That has been the difficulty for so many years. There has not really been a strategy. I always refer to the additional child benefit payment that used to be paid. At one point that was seen as the solution. Then it was decided to build purpose-built facilities. While they all had a role to play, there was no proper overall strategy, and at the end of all that paying the price were the providers, the workers, the parents and, ultimately, the children, which is what this is all about. Yes, I can be sceptical myself sometimes of reports and reviews. They can sometimes sound like an excuse, a talking shop or a way to push something down the road. In this case, however, we needed an independent report into the cost of providing childcare. It is long overdue and will be great to get when it is published, so I thank the Minister.

Absolutely. All the pieces of work the Department is undertaking at the moment are really valuable and will give us that evidence base to design that long-term future. Comparisons are often made with Nordic countries and other European countries where a much more substantial amount of State investment goes into the sector. Again, that is building on things that have been ongoing for decades. We are not starting from scratch, but after ten years that is the only context in which childcare is developing in Ireland. It has always been as a response to a problem for this sector or that sector. Perhaps we have not had the opportunity to take that step back and ask how this is operating. The operational model, which looks at the administrative infrastructure, interests very few people - let us be honest - but it is important we scrutinise the role of my Department and of the 30 city and county childcare committees around the country. There should be careful scrutiny of how the whole apparatus operates together. It is to be hoped that by the middle of next year, when we get this information, we will have a very significant evidence base around a wide range of areas on which to build that future vision.

Childcare Services

Ruairí Ó Murchú


39. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration his plans to put in place measures to ensure childcare providers servicing disadvantaged areas will not be forced into closure when transitioning from the community childcare subvention plus scheme to the national childcare scheme. [22373/20]

I think the Minister is aware of the issues I wish to deal with in this question. They relate to a number of childcare providers operating in Dundalk and Drogheda, namely, in Cox's Demesne, Muirhevnamor, Toberona and Moneymore. I know there is a short-term saver status - I am sorry if I have used the wrong terminology - but I do not think the referral solution the Minister was talking to me about will work in these cases because the sponsor body and the methodology of dealing with it will be just too complicated. The question is whether we can simplify this.

I acknowledge that the Deputy has been engaging with me and I know I am to come back to him with further information. I will continue to do so.

Moving on to the wider point, a key objective of all the measures being put in place by my Department is in the context of the national childcare scheme. When it was introduced last year it was agreed to extend the community childcare subvention plus scheme for as long as users preferred to use it over the new national childcare scheme. By retaining it, we provided income security of eligibility for children as "savers" from the previous scheme.

The intention behind the "savers" provision was to ensure that no one would lose out in the transition to the national childcare scheme. When it was introduced, families could remain on their current entitlements until they were no longer eligible or until they no longer required childcare services.

Many families, however, will be better off on the national childcare scheme and have already changed over to it, or will change over as they learn more about the supports the national childcare scheme provides. It will have advantages for providers as well. Additionally, the national childcare scheme will give subsidies to families who have never received any sorts of subsidies before, and that is important to acknowledge.

This will increase the demand for services. It will help parents with the cost of existing childcare services. Obviously, these developments are good for sustainability everywhere, but also for the sustainability of providers in disadvantaged areas.

Just last week, I think, another measure was introduced or finally applied as regards the income of providers using the national childcare scheme, NCS. The maximum number of hours on the scheme has been increased from 40 to 45, and for children with a parent or guardian available at home, the hours have increased by a third from 15 to 20.

In the event that a service is experiencing sustainability issues, I am also putting in place a new sustainability fund to provide additional support. It will be available to for-profit and not-for-profit systems, and I have discussed that in some detail already with Deputy Funchion.

I appreciate that. First and foremost, the saver status has meant that these services have managed to continue with the quotient of service users already using the service. The problem is that this set of kids, if they were to apply now, probably would not meet the criteria. While there was a workaround for the services, whether it was Tusla, Louth County Council or a number of other bodies that could make referrals, they thought this would be a simple enough process and that, let us say, Tusla would be able to facilitate, but Tusla is not doing so. We are talking about a low-intervention service that really helps families in really disadvantaged areas. The problem is that the people running these services are already talking about people coming to them and saying, "We know that people have left this service and we want our kid to get into the service." They do not necessarily understand the difficulties we are having at the minute. We need to sort out the referral service or a separate funding stream.

I take on board the point about the referral service. To take a step back and provide some context, this is the first year of the NCS. It was getting up and running and then, obviously, we had Covid. There were a lot of plans in place to let these sponsorship organisations know what their role was. There is the Department of Education and Skills, Tusla, the HSE, the Department of Justice and Equality in limited circumstances and local authorities.

I have a sense that some of those do not know the extent of their role and my Department is working at the moment and going through the various sponsors as regards who has the capacity to have an impact in better informing them about those situations. There is a tendency to blame everything on Covid but it has had an impact here. I will continue to engage with the Deputy on these services and revert with a written response on that.

I thank the Minister and I agree with him that there may be a possibility to short-circuit this and sort this problem. We were talking about sponsors and the people I have spoken to would say that if a problem could be circumvented without their having to deal with Tusla, that would be an advantage. I accept that parents can be iffy at times in dealing with Tusla and State agencies. We need something that is simple to use and is not a bureaucratic nightmare. I would appreciate it if the Minister came back to me. It is one of these issues that is capable of being sorted and we need to sort it so that the services that are necessary stay up and running and that we do not let down the kids that require these services.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.