Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Early Years Sector

Jennifer Whitmore

Question:

26. Deputy Jennifer Whitmore asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the reason the early years sector did not receive an increase in funding in budget 2021 compared with 2020 figures; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31350/20]

Paul Murphy

Question:

43. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration his views on the lack of increase in funding for childcare services in budget 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31315/20]

The big surprise in the budget last week was that funding for the early years sector was not increased. Why did the sector not receive an increase in funding in budget 2021 compared with the 2020 figures? Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 26 and 43 together.

I acknowledge the incredibly tough year that has been experienced across the sector by providers, childcare professionals, parents and teachers. The sector showed huge resilience in its initial reopening on 29 June and the subsequent reopening in September. It led the way for schools by showing how the public health guidance could be implemented, which gave real confidence that we could apply such guidance in schools.

In the budget this year, I have secured a total of €638 million for early learning and care programmes and initiatives next year. An additional €3.6 million in funding will be allocated to services participating in the action and inclusion model, AIM, in 2021 and this funding will allow for a further 10% increase in the number of children with disabilities who receive targeted supports under AIM, compared with the 2020 funding allocation. In addition, I have secured access for the sector to the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, with a critical exemption to the turnover rule that applies to all other participants in the scheme. This will be worth €60 million for the first three months of next year. It is important to note that the sector received a unique and extensive range of supports in 2020, which is estimated at a value of €180 million above and beyond the childcare budget that was originally in place for 2020. That is indicative of the value and importance that is placed on the sector by me, my Department and the whole Government.

In recent times, the primary focus of my Department has been on sustaining the early learning and school age childcare sector. We have kept services open by funding the additional costs associated with following the public health guidance and lower occupancy and through encouraging greater uptake of childcare places. The key new contributor to the early learning and care, ELC, and school age childcare, SAC, sectors in 2021 is the employment wage subsidy scheme which funds up to €200 per week per staff member. That funding is now secure until 23 March next year, at which point I will continue to work to ensure that the sector is adequately provided for in any successor to the EWSS.

A second key contributor to the sector in 2021 will be to encourage more parents to access safe and more affordable early learning and childcare services. We saw a reduction in demand in 2020 in both numbers and hours but despite that, I retained all funding for childcare in budget 2021, meaning there is funding available now for up to 20,000 new families to join the national childcare scheme and access subsidies of up to €200 per child. There will also be funding for higher subsidies in 2021 for families who avail of the national childcare scheme or other schemes but are now on lower incomes because of Covid-19.

My focus has been on the sustainability of services in the context of Covid-19 throughout the past year, and that will remain my focus in 2021. I will also focus on protecting jobs through supporting staff wages and continuing to invest in schemes that save money for parents.

The Minister acknowledged the great effort of people in the childcare sector and thanked them for the groundwork they put in prior to the opening of the schools. With all due respect, I imagine that would feel to them a little like the applause the healthcare workers got. They wanted to see significant investment in their services, as did families and parents.

I acknowledge that the Government was focused on ensuring services could stay open when the Covid pandemic hit. That brought home to us how important those service are because unless we have a fully functioning childcare and early years sector, our whole economy stops turning. It is a fundamental cog. It was mooted by the then Taoiseach that it was time to re-envisage our early years sector and use this year as an opportunity to see exactly what we wanted it to do and where we wanted to go, invest significantly in the sector and move more towards a public model of care. I would like to have seen that happen.

A childcare worker called "Today with Claire Byrne" after the budget was announced. She said that all those workers were asking was for a fund of €30 million to be put in place to bring the pay of the 60% of staff who were not earning the living wage up to €12.30 an hour and for a sick pay fund to be put in place. She also noted that the childcare sector was the only sector where staff do not wear personal protective equipment, PPE, and there is no social distancing. She said that if she gets sick, she will not get sick pay.

There was a pre-existing crisis in the childcare sector in advance of Covid. It was exposed by the pandemic and the Government was forced to take some action, which it did by effectively funding wages, as the Minister outlined. That does not deal with the underlying point that we have a privatised system which is overwhelmingly dependent on public funding. Some 58% of the income of the childcare sector comes from the State. Ireland's spending in the sector as a percentage of GDP is the lowest in the OECD. The consequences are unaffordable prices for many parents and poor wages for a big majority of workers in the sector.

Yesterday's announcement by the Government about the changes to the EWSS will obviously benefit the childcare sector. That is important to note. Childcare was the only sector of the economy where everyone automatically went on to the scheme. That was an exemption I negotiated as part of the July stimulus package.

As per the new EWSS figures, almost 82% of providers' staff costs will be met by the State. That is a significant figure at a time when childcare providers, along with teachers, are out there leading and experiencing the circumstances Deputy Paul Murphy outlined. We are supporting their incomes and recognising that fact.

I discussed the issue of sick pay with SIPTU and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU. As the Deputy knows, the Government is looking at a wider and much-needed sick pay scheme across the entire economy. I have been engaging with the Tánaiste's office to ensure that childcare workers are included in that.

I acknowledge the work that is being done but it is like putting sticking plasters over a broken system that does not work for children, parents or childcare workers. As my colleague mentioned, the rates of turnover in the sector are incredibly high. There are issues with sick pay and the wages paid to staff. That is not a long-term system because it will not deliver for us, as a country or society.

After the budget announcement, I found it interesting that not many parents contacted me to say they were worried or wanted to see further investment, the reason being that they are so used to paying the equivalent of a mortgage every month on childcare. Women, in particular, are used to saying they will work for two or three years and use all their earnings to pay for childcare in order that they will have a job when their children eventually go to school. That is not a system that we want in this country. Is it the Minister's intention to progressively move towards a more public model of childcare provision?

Does the Minister agree that the current system is broken and the privatised model which depends on inadequate public funding does not work from the points of view of childcare workers, parents or many small providers?

TASC produced a report last week which concluded that the single most important factor in knowing the pay and conditions of care work is the extent to which it is marketised and that for care work to be well paid, it needs to be publicly resourced and its wages set above what would be fetched in the market. That finding is particularly relevant now. There is no question but that childcare workers are very much on the front line. The positivity rates for Covid are twice as high in the childcare sector as in education for a range of different reasons. Does the Minister agree that, fundamentally, the privatised system is broken and we need a national childcare service, that is, State public provision of childcare that, I would argue, is free at the point of use and paid for through progressive taxation?

I thank the Deputies. Since I have come into this role I have been very clear that we need to change the way we operate childcare in this country. There are three major pieces of work going on at the moment which, when they conclude midway through next year, will give us the knowledge base to be able to, as the Deputy said, re-envisage how we look at childcare in this country.

One of the key problems is that we worked too much on an ad hoc basis. There has been response after response over the past ten years which is why the three pieces of work are ongoing. They involve the operating model and deciding what the infrastructure should be, which I will address in a question from Deputy Naughten later, the expert funding model, that is, how we target the money provided by the State to ensure we have good outcomes in terms of pay for childcare professionals and meeting the out-of-pocket costs for parents, and workforce planning make sure that childcare professionals have a long-term future in a career in this area. Those three pieces of research will be completed by the middle of next year and I hope to be able to start focusing investment in budget 2022 to be able to start focusing investment to achieve that new model of childcare.

Childcare Services

Denis Naughten

Question:

27. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the timeline for the establishment of childcare Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29743/20]

Denis Naughten

Question:

60. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the role and function of childcare Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29744/20]

Staff packing baby wipes on supermarket shelves can earn more than a staff member using those very same wipes who is responsible for the care of a baby and two other babies. That is fundamentally wrong. We need to ensure there are proper pay scales put in place for those providing vital childcare services across this country.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 27 and 60 together.

I agree with what the Deputy said. His questions asked about the establishment of childcare Ireland. It is a commitment in the programme for Government. It involves ensuring that childcare Ireland will expand high-quality early learning and care in school-age childcare and that we have best practice and innovation in community and private settings, develop career paths for early learning and care and school-age childcare and expand Síolta, which is the early years curriculum.

Before we set up any new agency, I want to undertake an operational review of the bodies working in the area, something that was called for under First 5, the whole-of-government strategy for babies, young children and their families. This review is now under way. Its objective is to ensure the operating system is fit for purpose and to implement departmental childcare policy related to quality, affordability and accessibility to the scale and standards required in an evolving and expanding sector.

Early learning and care in the school-age childcare sector has grown substantially over the past ten years. The review of the operating model will make recommendations to better support high-quality, accessible and affordable early learning and care and school-age childcare services for families and children and make sure the administration of all of these programmes is undertaken in an effective way. This new operating system will be designed to be transparent. There will be good standards of governance, and it will be accountable and will provide value to the Exchequer.

We want to be able to link what we are doing in my Department with what is happening in other Departments and agencies. The first meeting of the oversight group undertaking the review took place on 16 October and the review will conclude in May 2021. It will be led by my Department, in collaboration with other Departments. It wants to secure an outside consultant by tender before Christmas to assist in some of the research. It is important that we base the assumptions and any changes we undertake on properly completed research. The research will examine the variety of options for the administrative infrastructure of childcare in this country.

That work feeds into two other pieces of work which are relevant to the Deputy's question on wages in the childcare sector. I briefly mentioned the workforce planning model in response to Deputy Paul Murphy. It is all about ensuring that there is a long-term and viable career for childcare professionals, many of whom are undertaking lengthy training and education at levels 7 and 8 before leaving the sector after two or three years cause wages are so low. There is a retention problem. We know that where childcare workers are leaving and staff are not retained, the educational outcomes for children they look after are broken because the children do not have continuity of care with the childcare professional they know.

The funding model is the other element. We are putting a significant amount of money, some €638 million, into the system. We have to be sure that funding is going to the right areas and that staff have good wages, providers are sustainable and parents' out-of-pocket costs are met. Sometimes people give out about research and say it pushes back change by another year but, as I said to Deputy Whitmore, too often when it comes to childcare we just slap something down because it is necessary. We have had this approach for ten years. It is time to take a bigger step and ask how we are going to develop this sector in the long term. Once the three pieces of research to be undertaken next year are complete, we can use that information to make significant decisions.

On research, my colleague, the former Minister, Katherine Zappone, commissioned the consultancy, Crowe, to complete an independent review of the costs of providing childcare in the early years services in Ireland. The review was published by the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, this week. The former Minister commissioned that work because of staff turnover. As the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, said, this has a significant impact on continuity of service but also on individual children who build up relationships with childcare workers.

The sector lacks a sick pay system. At the same time, there are high costs for parents. One of the issues highlighted in the Crowe report published by the Minister is that there is evidence of higher costs for a higher quality of service, whereby staff who are more highly trained are providing a higher quality of service. Many of those staff are leaving the sector and are moving into much lower grade jobs that pay far better.

Did Deputy Whitmore wish to contribute?

Deputy Naughten is right. That is why we need the workforce planning model to make sure there is no disincentive to staff training and continuing their education in order that they can move to higher grades and provide a high standard of care to children. We need to ensure we support providers in paying staff who are achieving high levels of training. My Department has the ECCE scheme in place under which the provider gets a higher capitation rate when the ECCE room is led by someone with a level 7 qualification or higher. There are still problems in the sector. I absolutely accept that.

Deputy Funchion asked for the Crowe report to be published for a long time. The information on the unit cost is one piece of research that is valuable. My predecessor undertook that review. We have used that research in many arguments to secure the exemption for the employment wage subsidy scheme. It is already paying dividends to the sector.

In the Minister's comments following the publication of the report, he said the findings on unit cost provided some confidence in our current levels of subvention. He then offered the caveat that he was acutely aware that the unit cost is based on pay rates in the sector, which are unacceptably low. The difficulty is that if one focuses on that, as the Minister did in his press statement, it will be turned back on him by Merrion Street as a justification for not increasing the subsidy. The commitment in the programme for Government on childcare Ireland is to develop career paths for childcare staff. That is imperative. It cannot be done based on the terms and conditions under which staff currently work.

This is why we have this range of research which is being undertaken now. The funding model research is particularly important because it is looking at what happens in other European countries and how we can use State investment to target and reward providers and specifically reward staff who have higher levels of qualifications. This is essential. We are not just looking at the unit costs from the Crowe review in isolation. We are looking at that as one measure of unit cost but we are also looking at how we can target State spending to get good outcomes, both in terms of good wages for staff and in ensuring providers are sustainable, there is continued investment in the wider sector and childcare professionals are adequately resourced for the difficult and important work they do.

I have no difficulty with the Minister carrying out reviews. It is important that he does so. Another recommendation in the programme for Government is that the Government will progress a living wage over its term. We should use the childcare staff and sector as a pilot to roll out the living wage across the country. Regardless of what reports are produced, we all agree - the Minister agreed with me - that the current wages and terms of conditions of staff are completely unacceptable. No matter what recommendations come out of these reviews, we all accept that the wages staff get need to be increased. Let us start with the living wage and pilot it within the childcare sector. No other sector of society would disagree with that because it would unlock employment for many thousands of women across the country.

I fully agree with the Deputy on the wages and conditions in the sector. I made the point about one particular condition, namely, sick pay, which has been highlighted to me by both SIPTU and ICTU. Now that the Government is looking at a national solution to sick pay, which is very welcome, I will ensure that this solution addresses the childcare sector as well.

I also fully agree with the Deputy on wages. The purpose of the review is to ensure that the substantial amount of money we are investing in childcare finds its way to childcare workers. It is not solely a matter of additional money but also one of ensuring we have the mechanisms to reach childcare professionals. Everybody accepts that these mechanisms have not worked successfully thus far. The funding model work currently under way is very important for this reason.

The Minister’s own research published earlier this week shows that 70% of childcare costs are directly associated with wages. If we can take the wages aspect out of childcare subvention, we can look at whatever else the funding is being spent on to see if it is being delivered properly. We all accept that the current rates of pay are unacceptably low and that childcare workers need to be paid for the quality of service and education they provide and for the qualifications they have received. Let us ring-fence that and use it as a pilot for the living wage which could then be replicated across other sectors, thereby allowing women throughout the economy to return to the workforce, participate in it and access education with affordable childcare.

The Deputy is correct that wages account for 70% of costs on average. The wage subsidy scheme is meeting 82% of staff costs in this emergency. In this way, we have acted to ensure that even as numbers in childcare fall, as parents lose their jobs or work at home and no longer need childcare services as much or are just nervous about the current situation, we are continuing to support childcare providers across the country with this very significant package. We are doing that in the immediate term until 31 January on the new rates and also on an ongoing basis until 31 March 2021 to keep the sector sustainable.

Domestic Violence Services

Martin Browne

Question:

28. Deputy Martin Browne asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration his plans to improve the services for victims of domestic violence; his views on increasing the roll-out of these services in view of the increase in instances of this crime during the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22889/20]

What plans does the Minister have to improve services for victims of domestic violence? What are his views on rolling out these services in view of the increased incidence of this kind during the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown and will he make a statement on the matter?

I thank the Deputy for his question. Everyone is aware of the great importance of the domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services at any time but now, in light of the current circumstances, they are particularly important. I welcome the focus by a number of Deputies on this particular issue.

Improving services for victims of domestic violence is a key priority for the Government. The Deputy will have seen a very detailed section in the programme for Government on this particular area. This is reflected in my commitment and that of my colleague, the Minster for Justice and Equality, in undertaking an audit of responsibility for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence across Departments. I have engaged with service providers over the past few weeks on these issues. I am committed to ensuring that the audit identifies the required infrastructure for a better policy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and that services be dealt with in as effective a manner as possible.

Tusla is undertaking a strategic review of emergency accommodation for victims of domestic violence. This will provide insight into the current distribution of services but will also highlight unmet needs across the country.

Spending on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services has increased by €4.7 million since 2016. This has resulted in positive developments, including new refuges, which I referred to in response to an earlier question, in south Dublin and Galway city, the recruitment of additional outreach workers and the roll-out of support programmes for children affected by domestic violence.

My Department provided €25.3 million to Tusla for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services last year. This year, we will provide at least an additional €1.2 million for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services specifically relating to Covid-19. I prioritised funding for Tusla in the budget. In my engagement with Tusla I stated I wanted the agency to view domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services as a priority in the business plan it will submit to me for 2021. We will continue to work closely with Tusla on the provision of these important services to ensure people who are affected by domestic, sexual and gender-based violence are properly and fully supported.

I appreciate and welcome the increase in funding announced in the budget for child-focused supports. To put my question and the Minister's answer in context, I refer to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy McEntee, whom I contacted on the issue of domestic violence recently. She informed me that An Garda Síochána had told her of a 24% increase in the number of domestic abuse related cases so far this year. She also pointed out there had been a 10% increase in breaches of domestic violence orders and an 18% increase in notifications to Tusla in the same period. The Minister also informed me that Tusla had put in place a range of practical supports and was identifying additional accommodation capacity. Has the Department progressed matters in this area? Have additional accommodation units for children been acquired or funded at this stage? Has the Department studied where domestic violence emerges during a period of restrictions and how to deal with this additional complication?

The Deputy raised a number of big questions. When the Cabinet discussed the move to level 5, the Minister for Justice and Equality and I spent a significant part of the meeting discussing the specific issue of domestic violence and reactivating the various Garda and Tusla programmes that were in place to support the victims across this period.

During the original Covid-19 lockdown, it became clear that a significant number of existing refuges did not adequately provide for social distancing. As a result, a number of spaces in refuges were lost in the immediate term. Tusla, working with hotels and various non-governmental organisations, sourced an adequate number of additional new spaces to replace the places that had to be closed due to social distancing requirements. That is particularly important in the context of the strategic review that I spoke about earlier. We have to ensure that all new domestic violence services are Covid-proofed as we go forward.

We are facing into a long winter and, after yesterday, another round of restrictions is on the way.

Households will find them even more confining now that the evenings are getting longer. Our children are not used to what we faced in the past seven months. They often cannot tell what is abuse, even when it is happening in their homes. Will the Minister commit to bringing forward a stepped-up publicity campaign aimed at children this winter, especially in schools? It could outline the telltale signs of abuse they may see happening at home or, if something is not right, where they can get help. Also, does his Department have any plans to examine the impact the worry brought on by Covid-19 is having on our children, and the mental health consequences they may experience for some time? Is the Minister putting together a plan to roll out additional counselling services that will be catered for those children who may need them into the future?

My Department has undertaken research on the impact of the lockdown on young children. We carried out detailed research with SpunOut, How's your Head, which was both qualitative and quantitative in nature and by means of which we engaged with thousands of young people. The outcome of that influenced the Framework for Reopening and Operating Schools that was launched some months ago, obviously in a different context to the one we are in today. Research has been done and it is influencing what Government is doing. It influenced both the decision to reopen schools in September and our determination to keep schools open because we believe in the mental health benefits for children of meeting their friends.

The Deputy also spoke about the degree of observance. Children sit in front of a teacher and a teacher is often the first port of call as regards spotting telltale signs of potential domestic violence. That observance was not there during the three and a half months children were out of school. That is one of the reasons we are insisting on keeping schools open as much as possible. As regards information, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, will be working on a renewal of information campaigns about services available for victims of domestic violence.

Childcare Services

Jennifer Whitmore

Question:

29. Deputy Jennifer Whitmore asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the way in which he will address ongoing issues with the HIVE portal system for childcare providers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31353/20]

I ask the Minister to address the ongoing issues with the HIVE portal system for childcare providers. I have been contacted by very many providers who are having issues with this particular system, and if he would make a statement on the matter.

The HIVE is part of the new early years platform which Pobal uses to administer the various early learning and childcare schemes. It is a self-service portal which has been designed to be accessible, intuitive and meet the current and the future needs of service providers.

To date, for this programme year, September 2020 to August 2021, there are almost 130,000 children registered on the early years platform for the either the NCS or ECCE scheme so it is clear that a significant number of children have been successfully registered on the platform. However, it is a new platform and with any IT service there is a bedding in period. I am aware, particularly in early autumn, that it is taking time and energy for some providers to become familiar with the new requirements and that this came at a particularly challenging time as many of them were reopening in the Covid-19 context.

Pobal continues to provide support and assistance directly to childcare providers through its dedicated Early Years Provider Centre. It experienced a very high volume of calls. I accept there were delays and lengthy response times. I know Pobal has been actively trying to improve on that. I and my Department have been engaging with it on that particular issue. Some of the issues have been addressed. I am aware of that from correspondence I have received from childcare providers. My Department will continue to work with Pobal to enhance the system and ensure it becomes responsive to childcare providers' business needs. Pobal is continuing to engage with providers to determine the additional training it can provide to support them.

My officials will continue to engage with providers every time changes are made. I know from my own engagement with the sector that there were problems, particularly in September. My sense is that a significant number of those have been addressed and that Pobal was able to identify them but where specific issues arise I am always happy to engage directly with the Deputy.

As many parents will contest, when they find someone to look after their children, they want them to spend their time looking after their children and not dealing with administrative issues. Many people have come to me about problems with this system. One provider said she was discussing an issue where her bank details had been pulled, which made a particularly stressful period even more stressful. She said all of that would have been so much easier if someone had just answered the phone and that it could have been sorted out in real-time. She said that emails are taking five to six days for a reply and they may not even be able to help the issue when they do reply. She said that for weeks she kept getting emails saying the issue had been resolved when it had not. That is not acceptable. This issue has been raised over the past number of months with the Department. We need to support those providers, particularly at this time, and make sure that the systems we expect them to engage with are up to scratch and that they do the job they are meant to do.

I cannot disagree with anything the Deputy said. I am not making excuses but there is a context in terms of Covid-19 whereby a significant change is being made to a system. Training and significant online seminars were provided to providers but, understandably, many of the latter were focused on reopening, putting in place the Perspex screens and spending the capital grants we had given them to get their services ready for the return to childcare. There were delays in answering emails, and I am aware there was a definite issue with the phone. My sense from engagement with them is that many of those issues have been resolved at this stage. If Deputy Whitmore of any other Deputies know of situations where there are significant problems, they should let my officials know and we will try to address them. I know how stressful this period has been for childcare providers. They led the way back to reopening and we have to support them as much as possible.

I thank the Minister for that. If I get any more representations, I will certainly come to him. It was interesting that in the Crowe report this week the administrative issues and the requirements providers have to operate under were mentioned. The HIVE is just one example of that. I have spoken to providers who said that they spend a lot of time filling in documents and forms that then sit in a cupboard and no one ever looks at them again. That is not where we want our priorities, and those of the providers, to be. They should be caring for the children. Will the Minister examine the issue of the administrative load on those providers? He might review the amount of documentation they have to do, what happens to it, who uses it, its purpose and see whether some rationalisation can be introduced to make the system easier for them.

Part of the organisational review I spoke about earlier - the three pieces of work - is to look at the overall infrastructure, whether there are elements of duplication and how we can make the system better and more streamlined. Part of that work is ongoing and, in fairness, my Department identified that there are issues in that regard.

As regards the initial setting up in the HIVE, once a provider is established, they are established. There was a big piece of work to be done this year for many of them which will not need to be replicated because we have the system in place, but that is not to take from their distress. I have friends who are service providers who have been texting me to express their anger and frustration. I acknowledge the issues. Where they come up again I will be happy to do whatever we can to support Pobal while recognising that there are wider organisational issues that we are hoping to address through the current review.

Childcare Services

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

30. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration if his attention has been drawn to the fact that a gap in funding is causing significant difficulties for providers and families in the delay between an application being made to NCS and then Pobal processing this application and as the NCS does not backdate payments, this means that either the parents or services are paying the full price until the application is fully processed. [31309/20]

This question is to ask if the Minister's attention has been drawn to the fact that there is a gap in funding which is causing significant difficulties for providers and families and a delay between an application being made to the national childcare scheme and Pobal processing the application. As the national childcare scheme does not backdate payments this means that either the parents or services are paying the full price until the application is fully processed. It is a somewhat similar issue to that which Deputy Whitmore raised regarding administration issues.

The NCS was launched in November 2019. There are currently 33,700 children accessing NCS subsidies. In addition, there are children benefiting from the legacy schemes also.

The online application process was designed to be accessible and user-friendly, although I acknowledge that not everybody found it so. The flexibility of the NCS means that the scheme is designed to recognise that each family's childcare needs are different and, depending on the particular application type and family circumstances of an applicant, the processing time can vary between applications.

For income-based applications, the quickest way for a parent to have income assessed is to use the Fast Track option online. Fast Track assessment gathers information from the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection for the most recent year for which full income information is available. A parent can choose not to use the Fast Track assessment if he or she wants - for example, if his or her income decreased significantly in the previous tax year or if he or she wants to opt out of automatic assessment. This will require the parent to upload documents to support the application. The NCS advises parents choosing this option that the assessment will take longer to process than Fast Track assessments.

Applications take longer to process where the scheme administrator is awaiting further documents to be submitted by the applicant. Subsidies can only be paid when an application is successfully completed, a childcare identifier code key, CHICK, has been registered with a childcare provider and the parent has confirmed on the system that all the details are correct. It is a key aspect of the scheme that all claims are paid in arrears based on the attendance of a child. This is a key financial and governance control to ensure we are maximising the benefits of public moneys and that the investment is following the child. Once the process is completed, parents and providers can access subsidies of up to €200 per child, per week, for many years. The process being adopted is, in general, fair to parents and providers.

Maybe it is an administrative issue but when an application is received and it can be seen that a child has started with a service, it is verifiable. Providers and staff working in the sector will state there is no shortage of paperwork and forms to be filled in. In terms of accountability, they are certainly up to standard. Therefore, is there not some way of backdating? I am being told by providers, and parents in certain instances, that during the time it takes to deal with applications, parents are paying either the full fees or, in certain cases, the childcare provider is trying to take the hit. This is definitely not sustainable. I am aware that there is a sustainability fund but I do not believe its purpose is to address what I describe. There is a crazy situation and it relates to potential issues concerning the scheme. While we want to see an increase in funding, I have many questions about the funding in general. This matter definitely needs to be considered.

I thank the Deputy. The ECCE scheme involves a flat rate per child. The really good point about the NCS is that the subsidy can be tailored to the particular child. The NCS gives greater subsidies to those children who are most in need because of their familial circumstances. Therefore, the amount that each provider is getting has to be linked to the particular child, and that is done through the CHICK. It is a more complicated system than the one used under the ECCE scheme but this is because the result and support provided to each child are far more tailored. Under the ECCE scheme, every child has got the same irrespective of the income of the parent. This is probably related to what Deputy Whitmore mentioned. We did have problems this year, and we do accept that. I hope that, in future years when we do not have a pandemic and people are more familiar with the system, many of these problems can be addressed.

I have a question on CHICKs but we are not going to get to it. There seems to be an issue arising regarding the registration of the numbers. There are obviously issues and everybody accepts that any new system will have teething problems. It is good that the Minister has acknowledged that there is accountability in this regard but the key point concerns the question of what providers and parents should do in the interim if parents cannot afford to pay the fees. We do not want providers leaving themselves short because they are paying the fees. That is the crux of my question. What advice would the Minister give people in these circumstances? Who can they contact? They need to be able to contact somebody who will deal with the question of who will pay in the interim. What is happening is not fair to parents, nor is it fair to providers, who are hard pressed. The sustainability fund should not be used to address this. Who will take up responsibility while there are teething problems?

My Department has been providing a substantial amount of money to all childcare providers across the country this year though the employment wage subsidy scheme and predecessor schemes to reduce greatly the burden of paying staff. I hope that same system will not be needed next year, assuming we move away from the current Covid circumstances. Where there are problems, both Pobal and the city and county childcare committees, CCCs, are available to support parents to the extent that they can. It is a consequence of creating a very responsive and child and family-centred payment like the one under the NCS that there has to be a link to ensure the correct payment is going to the correct service based on the needs of child.

City and County Child Care Committees

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

31. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration if there is a timeline in place for the implementation of the Workplace Relations Commission's agreement of August 2019 between a union (details supplied) and CCCs. [29745/20]

I want to raise the issue of CCCs. As the Minister is no doubt aware, in August 2019 an agreement between SIPTU and the city and county childcare boards of management for the regrading of city and county childcare managers was reached. It was concluded after extensive negotiations in which it was conceded that the existing pay scale for local authority grade 6 does not reflect the role, responsibilities or competencies of the city and county childcare managers, which dramatically changed since CCCs were established in 2006. Can the Minister outline whether provision was made in budget 2021 for the implementation of the agreement of August 2019?

I thank the Deputy. Officials of my Department are reviewing the Workplace Relations Commission's consideration of the pay rates of the managers of the CCCs. The CCCs comprise one of the key support mechanisms of my Department. I acknowledge the important role they play in providing support and guidance to early learning and care and school-age childcare providers and parents. The CCCs act as my Department's local agents in every county.

I recently met with representatives from Childcare Committees Ireland and obtained a detailed explanation from them regarding the wide range of services the committees provide both to service providers and parents. These include everything from education and further education to advice. Most important, the committees have local knowledge that is incredibly beneficial to my Department so when issues crop up in an area, be they associated with a shortage of places or another matter, they can feed back the relevant information to my Department.

In 2005, the then Minister for Finance sanctioned the rates payable to CCC managers as comparable to the rates applicable in the local authorities for grade 6. Officials from my Department have been engaging with representatives from the CCCs, including both managers' and board of management representatives, and their union representatives, in regard to a proposal for a review of the grading of CCC managers. I do not have a firm timeframe for the completion of this work yet but I am happy to keep the Deputy and any other Deputies updated on the progress of the review and any conclusions from it as we go along.

The Minister said he cannot provide a timeline. I take him at his word that he will continue to engage with us. I thank him for his response. He mentioned that there have been numerous meetings with boards of management and the unions. Has the Minister met them or does he intend to do so in the days, weeks or months ahead? Could he give a commitment to meeting them in the near future?

I met with representatives from SIPTU once in respect of this matter. I have met with those representatives in the context of wider engagement with the childcare sector on a number of occasions. I met with representatives of ICTU once. This specific issue did not arise in those contexts. I am happy to address it if it does come up. There is a need for increased trade union representation within the professional childcare sector. I want to see more workers represented by a trade union because I believe that will help us achieve the goal of higher wages in the sector. I am happy to engage with SIPTU on this issue if requested to do so.

I thank the Minister for agreeing to engage with SIPTU. I appreciate that response. I am conscious that we are talking about 36 managers nationwide, which is a relatively small number. I take this opportunity to acknowledge that many people who work in this sector are among the lowest paid employees in the State. The Minister is probably aware that there is a fierce problem in retaining those staff as there is a high turnover of staff. I take this opportunity to raise with the Minister the urgent need to review pay and conditions for workers in this industry.

As regards the specific situation of the managers, there is a process in train and I am happy to update the Deputy on that and to engage with that process. On the wider issue of pay across the sector, we discussed this issue extensively during questions raised earlier by a number of Deputies. The funding model work is examining how we can target funding towards goals such as reducing out-of-pocket costs for parents and ensure that childcare professionals are adequately paid, representing the very significant education that has gone into their particular role and the intense nature of the job as well. The workforce planning work is also being undertaken to ensure that we can create those long-term career patterns for them. I have spoken about conditions, including sick pay, and my engagement with the Tánaiste's Department to ensure that childcare professionals are included in any national scheme of sick pay that is currently being examined by the Government.

Childcare Services

Bernard Durkan

Question:

32. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the degree to which he and his Department have monitored the issue of child welfare throughout the course of the pandemic; the issues arising and needing attention; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31248/20]

This question seeks to ascertain the extent to which the Minister and his Department have been able to focus on the welfare and well-being of children in the course of the pandemic.

I will focus on elements that Tusla has undertaken as the child and family agency and set out the work it has done.

During the first four weeks following the restrictions, there was a significant reduction of 36% in the number of referrals to Tusla. At that point, Tusla rolled out a significant information campaign across social media and traditional media as well, reminding the public that its child protection services were open, and encouraging referrals of children at risk. Over the past six months, the average number of weekly referrals has increased and is now 12% lower than the average rate in the weeks before the pandemic.

Tusla has a highly effective national childcare information system. This has allowed social workers to quickly adapt to remote working. Social workers continued to monitor referrals and information on the child protection notification system to identify the children who most needed close monitoring and to ensure they were visited directly by their social worker, even during the restrictions. The data on that system indicated to local managers where they should take direct steps in response to the drop-off in referrals. Tusla established a dedicated crisis management team to lead the organisation's response to the Covid-19 outbreak and to ensure continuity of critical services. Meetings were attended by a senior official from my Department to ensure there was ongoing communication between the Department and Tusla.

Tusla prioritised contact between children in care and family members in a range of innovative ways. It developed clear guidance for social workers in undertaking public health risk assessment before doing home visits. As discussed earlier, additional funding was provided to domestic and gender violence. My Department developed emergency regulations to allow for the assessment of foster carers in keeping with public health restrictions. To ensure the public was fully informed, my Department launched the supporting children information and media campaign in June. This campaign encourages everyone to be mindful of vulnerable children in these challenging times. There is also significant information available on the Government website gov.ie.

I thank the Minister for the reply. To what extent has Tusla been able to identify specific or particular issues that are salient at this particular time and to what extent has it addressed, or is in the course of addressing, such matters?

Tusla identified three core priorities during the lockdown, domestic violence, children in residential care and their ongoing interaction with their parents and children in foster care as well. It focused all its resources in those particular areas. We have had the opportunity to discuss the specific supports provided for domestic violence services to ensure that they had additional staff, that where a staff member was sick due to Covid or for any other reason, their position was not idle, that PPE was provided and that ICT support was provided so these services could make the movement online.

As regards, social workers, again, Tusla very quickly moved to online working. It was very innovative. Meetings between parents and children took place in car parks, with two cars parked close to each other, socially distant, to allow that really important contact between a parent and a child in care to be maintained, while at the same time adhering to public health requirements regarding social distancing.

Question No. 33 replied to with Written Answers.

Equality Issues

Bernard Durkan

Question:

34. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the extent to which he and his Department are in a position to address the issues of inequality in society; the areas in respect of which most concern has arisen; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31249/20]

This is a question on the issue of equality. In recent years, Ireland has taken some significant steps towards addressing inequality across the country. The programme for Government commits to building on this progress to ensure that everyone living in Ireland enjoys full equality.

Following the transfer last week to my Department of functions formerly in the Department of Justice and Equality, my Department now co-ordinates and oversees a suite of national strategies that aim to address inequality. The strategies include the national strategy for women and girls, the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy, the migrant integration strategy, the national LGBTI+ inclusion strategy, the national LGBTI+ strategy for youth and the national disability inclusion strategy. I intend to chair the meetings of the committees charged with the monitoring and oversight of the strategies, with the exception of the national disability inclusion strategy steering group, which will be chaired by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. As some of these strategies near their conclusion, I will work with stakeholders to examine what has been achieved over their term and how we can bring forth the next iterations of those strategies and ensure they are even more effective.

Alongside the strategies, I am pleased to have secured additional budget funding for a number of initiatives, in particular an additional €1 million allocation next year for Traveller and Roma projects and to support Roma community and Traveller organisations who have been, as we know, disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. There is also an additional €600,000 for refugee and migrant integration. This is a 10% increase in funding to assist with the Irish refugee resettlement programme, as well achieving wider integration goals.

I also plan to bring forward a number of legislative proposals in the area of equality. The programme for Government contains a commitment to examine the introduction of a new ground of discrimination based on socio-economic status in the employment equality and equal status Acts. Research is being undertaken, which I hope to take receipt in the next week or two, following which I hope to undertake a wider consultation on potentially amending the Equal Status Act 2000 to include the issue of socio-economic discrimination.

I thank the Minister. Regarding his early observations, has he identified any particular issues pertaining to the Traveller or Roma community, such as lack of education leading to ongoing equality later in life, asylum seekers and refugees awaiting status or in direct provision, related not to the standard of accommodation but to their particular status and does he foresee ways and means of intervening in a positive way?

There is not enough time to talk about the range of issues that fall within the equality brief and the range of challenges. I am incredibly excited to hold this brief. It is an area I am and have been very passionate about throughout all of my life, including prior to my involvement in politics. There is a very detailed section in the programme for Government on equality and all of these areas. The Deputy specifically mentioned Traveller and Roma integration. There are big challenges for both communities in the context of Covid and supports in that regard, particularly barriers around language with the Roma community and in regard to education and employment, with an 80% unemployment rate in the Traveller community. I look forward to being able to bring forward detailed strategies to address these issues in the new Traveller and Roma integration strategy.

National Childcare Scheme

Paul McAuliffe

Question:

35. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration to outline his plans to help childcare providers overcome the challenges arising from the hive registration and applications for a childcare identifier code key system (details supplied). [25972/20]

What might the Department and the Minister do to assist childcare providers, especially those in disadvantaged areas, to overcome the challenges they have experienced with the early years hive registration and application system brought under the national childcare scheme?

The Deputy is the third to raise issues with the hive system today. Again, I acknowledge there have been problems. I believe some of these problems are specific to the Covid-19 context we are in, but I also acknowledge that the response could have been better. We have to learn from that for the registration scheme next year.

The information technology system used to administer childcare schemes, the early years platform, is new. It was designed to meet the current and future needs of administering the various schemes in my Department. The hive was used for national childcare scheme applications from last year. Multiple stakeholder and interest groups were consulted in its development. We are seeing incremental improvements in it. Like any new system, there have been flaws. The fact that these flaws have arisen in a time when childcare providers were working to repurpose their facilities to deal with covid and the various issues created by a new registration amounted to the perfect storm. I understand and know it has created stress for providers. Where Deputy McAuliffe or any other Deputy see specific issues brought to their attention by providers, my Department and I will be happy to act to address them.

One parliamentary question might be an early warning system, but three might be an alarm. While I accept the response with regard to the bedding-in period, no amount of bedding-in will help to tackle the issue of the way the scheme is being applied in disadvantaged areas. Representatives from the Aisling Project, an after-school project in Ballymun, and the Poppintree Early Education Centre have told me they are having real issues. Previously they would have been able to deal directly with Pobal for children of parents who were having difficulties securing a place but now they are unable to do that. The parents in these cases are often in crisis. They face real issues and they are unable to manage and negotiate the literacy and digital literacy issues.

I accept the sponsorship scheme outlined by the Minister is in place, but public health nurses are unable to negotiate it. They are not getting the necessary resources from the HSE. Perhaps he might reflect on the questions today and look specifically at how the scheme applies in places such as Ballymun. I would appreciate it if he would come back to us on the matter.

We will leave it like that as we have run out of time. The Deputy is happy for the Minister to go back to him.