Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Childcare Services

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

1. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if his attention has been drawn to the official complaint by an association (details supplied) to the United Nations and the Ombudsman for Children regarding the systemic discrimination against children and families by his Department in the context of its childcare policy under the national childcare scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28588/21]

Is the Minister aware of the official complaint by the Association of Childhood Professionals to the United Nations and the Ombudsman for Children regarding the systemic discrimination against children and families by his Department in the context of its childcare policy under the national childcare scheme? Will he make a statement on the matter?

I am aware of the complaint and of the concerns raised. I am strongly committed to supporting all children to develop to their full potential, especially those who are most disadvantaged. There will always be some debate about how best to do this, but I do not believe that the national childcare scheme, NCS, discriminates in the way that is stated. The NCS represents the first ever statutory entitlement to financial support for early learning and care. It marks a shift away from previous schemes, which were based on medical card and social protection entitlements. We now have a progressive system of universal and income-based subsidies. Thanks to the NCS, significantly more families are eligible for support.

The scheme is designed so that those on lowest incomes receive the greatest support. It is also designed to ensure that access provided is at a level necessary to support positive child development outcomes regardless of whether parents are in work or study. This approach is taken in other jurisdictions, and there is strong international evidence that it is to the benefit of children. The definition of work or study is broad, covering all forms of work or study arrangements. This makes the scheme as flexible as possible. Indeed, the minimum hours required to engage in work or study to qualify for enhanced hours is very low, at just two hours per week.

Officials in my Department have engaged with Solas to increase awareness of supports available through NCS for parents considering further study. There is a link to the NCS website on the further education and training course hub. The NCS also includes sponsorship arrangements that allows for additional support for vulnerable families where there is an identifiable need for early learning and childcare. I have directed Tusla to take a broad interpretation of the sponsorship referral criteria.

On the complaint, I recently contracted Frontier Economics to undertake a review of the NCS and have asked that this review specifically considers the concerns raised. Separately, my officials have brought the complaint to the attention of the expert group convened by my Department to develop a new funding model for early learning and childcare. This group is reviewing the effectiveness of current approaches to funding and will submit recommendations later this year on how additional funding could be structured to deliver for children and families including the most vulnerable.

My issue with this, which I have raised previously, relates to after-school and children who are being shut out of that scheme. A whole cohort of children is falling through the cracks. I thought that there was a commitment given to review the scheme last year. A parent working outside the home or in education can avail of this but we should be looking at the needs of children. When we talk about childcare people automatically think about fees and parents but we need to think about what is best for children. There are children whose parents are not working outside the home who are at very high risk and very vulnerable. They may not be in the Tusla system or brought to its attention because things may not be that bad but they rely on childcare service for hot meals for a safe and secure place, to help them and maybe bring them on to a homework club or other supports. Those children are very limited under this scheme. I see the point the Minister is making around medical cards but these children are falling through the cracks. There will be difficulties about that in the future so we need to deal with this now.

The Deputy is right. We discussed this matter previously and I put in place a number of short-term measures to deal with some of the some of the issues around the NCS, particularly the issue of sponsorship, which will come up later today. When I began as Minister there were perhaps 30 children sponsored across the country, now it is 1,900 so there has been a very significant increase in identifying specific vulnerable children.

On the wider issue, the review has initiated. We had to let the NCS run for a full year. It was only introduced in 2019 and for this year, of all years, for it to have its initial roll-out, it has had all the additional issues. Before we make significant changes, we need the data and that is why this review is important. I did ask him to specifically look at this issue of disadvantage. The review will come back at the end of this year, that is the one-year review. There is also the expert funding model group which is also looking at this issue. It is not being ignored, it is being acknowledged and research has been done and how we address it.

I apologise if I missed it, but what does the Minister expect the timeframe for the review will be? I welcome the review and think it is vital. I really hope that it will be a genuine review and the issues will be taken on board. It is becoming a big difficulty particularly in areas of disadvantage where parents just need a little bit of extra support. They may not be working outside the home, they may not be involved in education but their children have been benefiting for years from after-schools in particular. That is such a vital time because if it is possible to help a child with their education and bring them on through homework that is crucial because it is around where the children start falling through the cracks. They stop doing the homework, they start slipping back, then everything starts going wrong for them all of a sudden and it becomes a question of confidence. Early years intervention should be at the heart of any scheme we do for children, whether childcare or education. We need much greater focus on the children and the benefits for them.

The Deputy's point about school-age childcare is well made. I recognise that there is a specific issue there in how the NCS has operated in the context of existing provision of school-age childcare.

There are two reviews. The first is the review of the first year of the implementation of the NCS. We expect that to be completed in the final quarter of this year and the information to come forward. The expert funding model group has been working for approximately two years. Its final report will be issued in November of this year but I hope to engage with it over the summer to get initial information from it, particularly in the context of the budget negotiations. Key research and data will be available at the end of this year and we will be responding appropriately.

Childcare Services

Bríd Smith

Question:

2. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his plans to deal with the increased fees charged by private crèches and early childhood care providers in light of the fact that some providers (details supplied) increased fees by 20% recently; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28749/21]

I want to pre-empt my question by acknowledging that childcare was one of the first industries to be severely hit by the coronavirus pandemic when services shut down on 12 March last year. Workers and parents were affected but there has also been an impact on the provision of care. My question is not getting at anyone; it is about the massive increase, by as much as 20%, in childcare fees for parents. In parts of Dublin 8, such as Islandbridge and Rialto, which are in the constituency I represent, one provider in the main, Safari Childcare, provides the care. It has increased fees by 20%, which is causing enormous problems for parents and depriving some children of the childcare needed.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I am concerned to hear about any individual provider proposing to increase charges to parents at a time when the Government continues to support early learning and childcare to a significant extent. In view of the amount of State support, increases of this nature are just not justified at this time.

One of my key priorities is to achieve affordability of early learning and childcare. The programme for Government commits to substantially reducing fees charged to parents while supporting quality service provision. The Government has been strongly supportive of the sector. Particularly since the onset of Covid-19, we have provided substantial additional supports to allow services to operate sustainably throughout the pandemic, acknowledging that there are higher delivery costs and that many additional practical and financial challenges need to be met by providers. In addition to their being able to participate in my Department's funding schemes, all services can currently participate in the employee wage subsidy scheme. On average, that is meeting 50% of the normal operating costs of services. That is at a cost of €35 million each month.

I recognise that early learning and childcare services are private businesses. They are free to set their own policies regarding the charging of fees and contract conditions. I am aware that the provider mentioned by the Deputy has notified parents of the substantial increase in fees. Given the substantial additional supports allocated by the sector that the provider has availed of and the assurance that there is not going to be any sudden cliff edge in terms of the withdrawal of supports, I do not believe there is any case for an increase of this level at this time.

Looking to the future, my Department will be developing a new funding model for early learning and childcare that provides additional resources for services, subject to quality but also affordability. The expert group has been progressing this work since late 2019. As I mentioned to Deputy Funchion, I expect its report to be finalised in November.

I accept all that. The problem is that despite the fact that it should not be happening, it is happening. That presents an immediate problem for parents. They have been saying to me that Covid has made it obvious that childcare needs to be a priority and that while inflation sits at 1.6%, childcare costs are being increased by 20% by the provider in question. Ireland has the second lowest rate of expenditure on early childhood care and education in the OECD. Faced with having to choose between a career and caring for children due to lack of options, many parents have no alternatives or family supports. A very worthwhile point the parents make is that having a system with a pricing structure without any regulatory restrictions lies at the heart of this. We have constantly said in this House that while we welcome the attempts of the Department to provide childcare with universal supports, it is really only a start. It does not address the key problem, which is the fragmented, privatised nature of the care of children and the lack of genuine State involvement in ensuring it is of high quality, accessible and affordable to all. I would like the Minister to address that.

Affordable and high-quality childcare is an absolute priority for me and my Department. We have gone to great lengths throughout the pandemic to keep services open across the country. In the lockdown in January, we kept services open for the most vulnerable children and the children of essential workers. We also made it clear that we will be increasing the level of investment in childcare up to 2028, under the First 5 programme. We have to know how we can target that money and we have to understand how it and the additional investment the State is making will secure affordability for parents. That is what the expert group on the funding model has been working on. It will be bringing forward its proposals in its final report in November of this year but, as I said to Deputy Funchion, we will be considering some of its initial proposals in respect of the budget allocation this year. Additional investment from the State will be predicated on guarantees from providers on a set of issues, including affordability and fees.

I want to repeat my question. Why is it that our system, which we accept, involves a patchwork of providers at this level of care and education? We should not accept a patchwork of providers, some public and some private - and without proper regulation - and a system whereby prices can be increased and workers can be paid and treated so badly in many cases. I accept they are not treated badly in all cases. There is a great benefit to a publicly funded and run system. The international evidence is jumping out at the Minister, as he will see if he cares to read any of the studies. I am sure he has. The evidence suggests there is a massive social benefit to having a properly funded, publicly run, regularised and controlled service at early childhood level. The patchwork nature of childcare provision is not acceptable or good enough.

In areas such as Clancy Quay and elsewhere in Dublin 8, parents are genuinely struggling to work and to have their children minded in a professional manner. The cost of childcare is becoming much greater than what it is possible to pay. People often compare the cost of childcare to the cost of a mortgage. It is true, particularly if there are a few children who need minding. We have to end this and reach OECD levels of care for children and a level of provision that is secure, dependable and does the best for the children and their parents.

I absolutely accept that parents are struggling with the cost of childcare, and that is why my commitment is to ensure the additional State investment in childcare is tied to conditions, including reductions in fees. The Deputy spoke about the lack of regulation. She is correct about fees but it is important to state the quality of childcare is significantly regulated by Tusla. The system is strongly regulated to monitor quality and how children are being treated.

Workers' payments are a key priority for my Department. The Deputy will know that we recently started a joint labour committee process, which will be important in providing the 30,000 people in the sector, almost all of whom are women, with a living wage.

I absolutely accept that there is patchwork provision but key to deciding how we will make advancements in the sector is the research my Department is undertaking. It will be published later this year and guide future investment and regulatory decisions that the Government will make.

Youth Services

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

3. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the actions he is taking to address the shortfall in volunteers in the youth sector given that the sector relies heavily on volunteer hours and that many services are now facing closure due to a serious shortfall in properly trained volunteers. [28589/21]

This question is on the youth sector. There has been a shortfall in the number of volunteers in the sector. It relies heavily on volunteer hours. Many services are now facing closure due to a serious shortfall of properly trained volunteers.

I cannot overstate the significance and value of the contributions made by volunteers to the community life of our country and to supporting our most vulnerable. In the youth sector, the work of some 40,000 volunteers was key to maintaining the ability of youth work organisations to function effectively prior to the pandemic.

I provided an increase of €5 million in funding for youth services in 2021, bringing the total from my Department to €66.8 million this year. In 2020, I provided once-off funding of more than €1.3 million to assist youth services with Covid and ICT-related costs.

Each year, my Department funds universally focused volunteer-led youth work through the youth service grant scheme. A number of national youth organisations will benefit from over €12 million in funding under this scheme in 2021. This represents a 6% increase on the funding provided in 2020. I really believe the youth work carried out by these volunteer groups is transformative for young people.

In addition, the local youth club grant scheme supports volunteer-led youth work activities at a local level. The funding for this scheme increased by 7% to €2.3 million in 2021. This scheme supports 1,400 clubs or groups nationwide.

I have consistently recognised the significant role the youth sector plays in the lives of young people today and the highly valuable role that volunteers play. Given the strong commitment of our volunteers, I am hopeful that as public health matters improve, more people are vaccinated and youth organisations are better positioned to support volunteers again, we will see volunteers returning.

The Deputy will be aware that youth funding was maintained through the Covid-19 restrictions and many supports were provided. As Ireland's phased reopening progresses, it is of the utmost importance that youth work organisations are supported to restore their volunteer positions. My officials are considering proposals to redistribute some time-related savings in the youth budget to assist services on a once-off basis in this financial year.

I welcome the increase made last year, which everyone in the youth sector also welcomed. The Minister is relatively new in his role. The people in the sector maintain that funding has been significantly reduced since 2008 and they have not seen any increase since then. Much of the money provided is simply to play catch-up and the sector has not yet caught up. I had meetings recently with some of the youth organisations, including the National Youth Council of Ireland and Foróige. The representatives I met made the point that they need acknowledgement of the cuts made over many years and the need for additional funding to play catch-up.

I was surprised to find out that these organisations are struggling to attract volunteers. Given the situation with the pandemic and everything that has happened, it is really important that they are given every help and opportunity. I fully agree that this is an important sector and those involved play a vital role in many aspects of the lives of young people. The work they do often goes unnoticed or under the radar. It is only when a service is gone that people say what an excellent service it was. It is important that we can sustain all these services for young people.

I assure Deputy Funchion that the extraordinary role of this sector does not go unnoticed by me or my Department. We feel passionately about supporting youth services.

The Deputy is right. During the economic crisis, funding was cut back dramatically and this had a major impact. I know we are playing catch-up. This year, I was able to show my good faith and that of my Department by giving a substantial increase in funding. It was more than the organisations involved were looking for. I will do my best in future budgets to continue to increase the amount of funding. I cannot say that will happen at every stage but it is certainly my intention.

Like Deputy Funchion, I have met regularly with the national advocacy groups, individual groups and local groups in my area. I met our local Foróige group only last Friday. There is good engagement between the Department and the sector. I expect the groups in question recognise that as well. We have continued to support them during Covid-19 and we will also support them coming out of Covid-19.

I acknowledge that work has been done. It is about getting a word in for the groups at this stage because budget negotiations are upcoming. I understand the Minister and others acknowledge the work these groups do but it is important that we keep a focus on this.

One thing I love about the various youth groups is the range of activities they undertake. They are involved in sport and many other areas. I speak regularly to representatives of the Young Irish Film Makers programme, for which I am a great advocate. It is an excellent group, which provides a wide range of activities for young people. Some people would be a little lost in their communities if these groups did not offer the activities that are so important for young people. I like that there is a wide range of activities. I know sport is important but these groups do not only focus on that area. This makes their role inclusive and makes it feel as if there is something for everyone. That is important. I would love to see all of that continue. Obviously, the groups are under pressure so any extra money they can get is catch-up money. It is important that we continue that.

We did research with SpunOut.ie last year, which indicated that those young people who were engaging with youth services during the pandemic did better and their mental health and optimism were increased. I am aware of that and we have the research to prove the impact.

For many of these groups, fundraising, fees and capitation have been badly impacted. Even though we have been putting in more, they have been getting less from other areas. We have a small amount of money that was unspent in the Department for time-related reasons. We are looking to see if we can give, on a once-off basis, a little additional support to some of these groups in recognition of the major role they play. Although it is a once-off arrangement for this year, it is further acknowledgement by me and my Department of the major role these groups play and the importance of supporting them. It is not simply a matter of saying it but of delivering important resources as well.

Special Educational Needs

Matt Shanahan

Question:

4. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to outline details of the funding programme to increase access to sensory rooms and special needs assistant supports being considered over the life of the 33rd Dáil for preschool children; and the amount of funding that has been allocated under capital plans to date. [28744/21]

My question relates to the funding of sensory rooms and special needs assistants in the disability sector, especially at preschool and school levels. I know it is a Government commitment but will the Minister outline his plans for the life of the 33rd Dáil and any capital allocations that have been approved to date?

While my Department does not provide any specific funding for sensory rooms or SNA supports, a wide range of supports is available through the access and inclusion model, AIM, to support children with disabilities to access and fully participate in the universal preschool programme, ECCE. The allocation of targeted AIM supports is based on the needs of the child and the context of the preschool setting rather than a wider diagnosis.

The Deputy specifically referred to capital funding. Level 5 of the AIM involves funding for specialised equipment appliances or small capital grants towards minor building alteration. A short report from a designated professional is required confirming that the specialised equipment or minor building alterations are necessary to allow the participation of a child in preschool.

In line with emerging best practice to support the integration and interdependence of children with a disability, AIM does not fund SNAs. Rather, AIM level 7 support provides financial support to the preschool provider where it is needed for the participation of a child. This funding is used either to reduce the adult to child ratio in the preschool room or to buy in additional assistance.

AIM also provides several training programmes for preschool practitioners, including specific training on sensory processing through the sensory processing e-learning programme, SPEL. SPEL helps practitioners understand how best to support children with sensory processing difficulties to participate fully in preschool.

In 2020, the total AIM budget was €43 million. Of this, €850,000 was allocated under level 5 and €26 million was allocated under AIM level 7, which is the additional assistance. I have been able to increase the budget in 2021. It is up to €48 million this year, of which €850,000 has been allocated under level 5. Currently, some €29.5 million is allocated under AIM level 7.

I know the Minister is more than aware of the challenges being faced every day in the education sector. I point out again the significant delays in getting psychological evaluations for children. Large schools might have only two slots in a year. These are schools with up to 600 students. I have no wish to ascribe a proportion to this as there are teachers who can do that, but it is a significant problem.

I highlight to the Minister the difficulties schools experience trying to accommodate sensory rooms where they do not have space. This is a significant issue and addressing it requires capital allocations.

There is great merit in what we are trying to achieve. We have to tie in all the community services to address the significant problems with occupational health outreach services in schools.

I agree with the Deputy absolutely. My colleagues, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, are very focused on schools and on addressing the issues the Deputy has raised. In particular, as Minister of State with special responsibility for special education, Deputy Madigan has placed a real focus on these issues. With regard to those wider community supports, I am joined today by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. We are working very hard in our Department to bring all of those services together and to achieve better integration. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has had real successes in tackling some of those waiting lists but we all acknowledge that there is more work to be done in this area. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter.

May I flag one more project with the Minister? I refer to a new disability centre at John's Hill, Waterford. It has been developed in conjunction with a support group, Touching Hearts. It was announced some months ago that this project was going to be approved under the capital allocations. Families in Waterford who are, at present, accessing services in John Street in Waterford are being told that they now have to travel to Dungarvan, including some who receive occupational therapy up to three times a week. That service is 30 miles away from the population of approximately 40,000 who live in this area. We need this centre developed. Can the Minister of State provide any clarity as to the status of the funding programme? When can we expect to see boots on the ground to deliver this new disability centre in John's Hill? It has been promised for a long time and parent groups and active supporters have fought very hard for it.

I thank the Deputy very much. I will be honest; I do not have the full information for him as I stand here. I know the Deputy has mentioned the importance of this centre for the wider community before. It sounds like a great project. I ask the Deputy to write to me. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and I will commit to getting back to him and letting him know where we are with the project. We will confirm the funding streams and set out the timelines for planning and other matters with regard to the delivery of the physical infrastructure and the services to be provided, if that is all right with the Deputy.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

Thomas Pringle

Question:

5. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the discussions his officials are undertaking with officials in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage regarding the importance of preserving possible burial grounds related to mother and baby homes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29011/21]

This question relates to the designation of mother and baby home burial sites in county development plans, which is a vitally important issue. I have been writing to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, in this regard but I believe it also comes under the remit of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and that he needs to address it. In light of the decision of An Bord Pleanála with regard to Bessborough, it is even more important that this is done in every county right across the country.

I know from my own engagement with survivors over the past months that respectful treatment of burial grounds is an issue of great sensitivity. In response to the final report of the commission on mother and baby homes, the Government has committed to a strategic action plan encompassing a wide-ranging suite of 22 actions. These actions include advancing legislation to support the excavation, exhumation and dignified reburial of remains where interments are manifestly inappropriate and where their preservation in their current location would not be the right policy response. It has also committed to engaging with former residents and their advocacy groups on the question of appropriate, dignified local memorialisation of burial sites. These actions reflect the complexity of the issue and the need to respond carefully according to the specific circumstances of each case. My officials consulted with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage when we were preparing the action plan in response to the final report of the commission and will continue to engage with the Department in respect of the development and implementation of the strategic action plan.

My officials also engaged with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage with regard to preparing the recent legislation on burials. These consultations were primarily focused on the interaction of the general scheme with the relevant planning legislation. The Deputy will be aware that, where development is proposed at a site, it is subject to the full rigours of the planning code. Planning authorities are independent in the performance of their functions and look at issues and applications on a case-by-case basis. As the Deputy made reference to, I made a submission in respect of two planning applications on the lands of the Bessborough mother and baby institution. These applications were rejected by Cork City Council and An Bord Pleanála respectively. I will continue to engage with all relevant Departments with regard to this question. I was not aware that the Deputy's question specifically related to the issue of development plans but that is absolutely appropriate and I will engage further with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

The Minister is outlining a long-term plan and the actions that will take place. That is welcome and will protect many of the sites. The problem is that many of the sites may be gone by the time that long-term plan is in place. At the moment, every county is renewing its county development plan. Now is the time for the Minister and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to intervene. Obviously, the local authorities are independent in their actions, which is fair enough, but a letter from a Government Minister to the chief executive of the local authority, which would be put on record in the renewal of the county development plan, would carry a lot of weight and would put an onus on local authorities to identify the sites within their functional areas which could be earmarked and protected in the interim while the long-term work is being done. While this work needs to be done, there is a danger that many of these sites could be gone by the time the legislation is put in place. It is not fair to expect families to protect these sites and to keep an eye on them.

I absolutely agree. I am not suggesting for a moment that we should place that obligation on families. I did not see a reference to development plans in the Deputy's question so I apologise if my answer was more on the national level that the specific level. The Deputy is absolutely right. We have seen a number of local authorities respond to the report of the commission quite proactively through the issuing of apologies. Many of the mother and baby institutions, particularly the county home institutions, were directly linked to the local authorities. As we know, local authorities were fully involved. Galway County Council actually met in the building of the mother and baby institution in Tuam, so there was a very close link there. I will absolutely consider what the Deputy is saying with regard to specific engagement with local authorities in respect of development plans. I will also continue to engage with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on this point.

I know some local authorities have engaged and have issued apologies and so on. These were the ones mentioned in the report but I do not need to tell the Minister that the report only picked a sample of mother and baby homes while they existed right across the country in every local authority area. That engagement needs to take place to ensure that as much as can be done to protect these sites is done in the meantime as we wait for the legislation to be drafted and put in place. That is important. I know the Minister recognises the importance of this. I ask that he and his Department engage with each local authority so that they can take the appropriate actions.

The Deputy is absolutely correct. Particularly in the context of county homes, a sample of four county homes was looked at specifically but all of the county homes are referenced in the appendix to the commission's report. We are clear that they are all included when it comes to the commission's recommendations. As the Deputy will know, among the 22 action points there is a specific recommendation with regard to local memorialisation. We will be working in conjunction with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to support local authorities to engage in local memorialisation. Some of that will undoubtedly take place on the sites of burials, if that is where relatives feel memorialisation is most appropriate. The Deputy is correct that we have to make sure those sites are protected. As I have said, I am happy to look into direct engagement with the Department and local authorities and to discuss it further with the Deputy.