Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Guardian Status

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

44. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the legislative actions he plans to take in cases in which there is a question or doubt concerning a child’s guardianship status that their rights are ensured from the perspective of the best interests of the child; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36448/21]

I thank the Minister for taking this question. I understand and appreciate that it does not fall solely within his Department's remit. It concerns the guardianship status of children and ensuring their rights in the best interests of the child. Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

The issue of guardianship is a matter for the courts in the first instance, under the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964. However, I have a continuing interest in ensuring that the legal and practical arrangements for the welfare of children are well-founded and appropriately applied at all times. As Minister in this Department, I have no formal or defined role in the determination of cases where there is a legal issue about the guardianship of a child. That is, and must be, a matter for the courts. However, there are guardianship matters to consider relating to children in the care of Tusla. Children are received into Tusla's care either through a voluntary agreement or by way of a care order issued by the courts, each of which are provided for under the Child Care Act 1991. My responsibilities in this area relate to care orders under the Child Care Act 1991 rather than the Guardianship of Infants Act, which relates to the courts and the Minister for Justice.

Regarding the actions under the remit of the Department of Justice, under section 6(c) of the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964, a person can apply to court to be appointed as a child's guardian if he or she is married to or in a civil partnership with the child's parent, or has cohabited with the child's parent for over three years, and if the person has shared responsibility for the child's day-to-day care for more than two years. As issues relating to surrogacy concern areas of law that intersect across the remits of several Departments, the Minister for Health, the Minister for Justice, the Attorney General and I are working together on these matters. The provisions of section 6 of the Guardianship of Infants Act are being examined in that context. I have met with the Ministers on three occasions to address the issue and we have also met with the Attorney General on one occasion. Work is ongoing among our officials about how to address the relevant and very complex legal issues in a manner that vindicates the rights of the child.

Surrogacy was the reason behind me raising this. I understand that other Ministers are involved. The Department of Health is limited with regard to questions due to the cyberattack and it is important that I can raise this in the Chamber to keep children's rights on the agenda. Dr. Conor O'Mahony produced an excellent report on this.

It is important that the recommendations in his report are looked at. It makes some excellent recommendations and Dr. O'Mahony is very well placed to look at this issue. There are difficulties around the issue of international surrogacy and these are not accounted for in the proposed Bill. International surrogacy is a big part of it and we all have to be very honest about that. It is important that is considered. Families are also very concerned about the issue of retrospection and whether a Bill passed in 2021 will apply from this year onwards or will apply to other families. I will ask a supplementary question shortly.

Some of these matters fall within the remit of the Department of Health. The drafting of a Bill on assisted human reproduction and associated research was based on the published general scheme of the assisted human reproduction Bill, which was published in the previous Dáil. Work on the Bill, including drafting, is ongoing by officials in the Department of Health. There is a commitment in the programme for Government that this legislation will be passed. The legislation is comprehensive. It encompasses the regulation, for the first time in Ireland, of a range of practices, including domestic altruistic surrogacy. The provisions related to surrogacy are dealt with in Part 6 of the Bill. The Bill sets out a court-based mechanism through which the parentage of a child born through surrogacy may be transferred from the surrogate and her husband, if applicable, to the intended parent.

As the Deputy stated, the Bill does not deal with commercial surrogacy on an international basis. Dr. O'Mahony has produced a report with recommendations in that regard. The report is being examined by the three Ministers and the Attorney General.

I am very glad to hear that. It will be welcome news for families who have gone through surrogacy or are facing surrogacy in the near future. It is welcome that surrogacy is an option and I am sure we will see much more of it in the near future.

On the report, the Minister has met with some of the families and advocacy groups. They are open to meeting with him, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and any other Minister they need to meet. They get their stories across very well and I commend them on all their work.

Parental leave, maternity leave, maternity benefit and many other areas that some of us probably take for granted are also very important. I am glad to hear the Minister's comments so far and I appreciate, as I said, that it is not his area only. However, the crux of the matter is Dr. O'Mahony's report.

This issue extends across a number of Departments. The three Ministers are working together and meeting regularly, which is important. We hope to meet again in the near future to continue our discussions. We are getting support from the Attorney General on the issue. I have met some of the groups and there is an alliance formed in this particular area. It is important that provision is made for children in Ireland who were conceived through surrogacy and are deeply loved by their parents.

In all of this, when a child is conceived through surrogacy a number of individuals and adults are involved. As we know from our experience in the area of adoption, it is important that a child has full access to knowledge about all parties involved. One of the points I will be bringing from my Department to the discussion on this legislation is that a child has to know all parties involved in his or her conception.

Question No. 45 replied to with Written Answers.

Departmental Schemes

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

46. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if he requested his departmental officials to conduct a review specifically into the continual discrimination of disadvantaged children through the under allocation of hours under the national childcare scheme, NCS, given comments he made during parliamentary questions in May 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36216/21]

This question relates to the review of the national childcare scheme, an issue I have raised a few times. Deputies are coming across continual discrimination against disadvantaged children under the allocation of hours through this programme. I ask the Minister to make a statement on the matter.

I have discussed this matter with the Deputy on a number of occasions. As she is probably aware, I recently contracted Frontier Economics to undertake a review of the national childcare scheme in line with section 26 of the Childcare Support Act. In conducting that review, I asked the company to give consideration to a complaint made against the NCS, as we discussed during oral questions previously, concerning the application of a work-study test, which determines the number of subsidised hours of early learning and childcare a child may be eligible for under the scheme. I do not believe the NCS and, in particular, the work-study test gives rise to discrimination in the way the Deputy suggests.

Under the NCS, children are provided with access to subsidised early learning and childcare that is at a level necessary to support positive child development outcomes regardless of whether parents are in work or study. Where parents are not engaged in work or study, the NCS subsidises up to 20 hours per week. Where parents are engaged in work or study, the NCS subsidises up to 45 hours per week. The definition of work or study is broad and covers all forms of work or study arrangements, including full-time, part-time, week-on, week-off contracts and zero-hour contracts. Moreover, the minimum hours required to engage in work or study to qualify for up to 45 hours per week is very low at just two hours per week.

The NCS also includes sponsorship arrangements that allow for additional support for vulnerable families where there is an identified need for early learning in childcare on the grounds of child development or child welfare. Already, external assessment by the OECD and the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, points to a range of benefits of the national childcare scheme, including a reduction for families in the cost of early learning and childcare and an increase in family incomes, with the most disadvantaged families experiencing the greatest gain. However, I have asked Frontier Economics to extend its research to review the activity test, which I know to be a feature of early learning and childcare schemes in other jurisdictions. I have also asked the expert group convened to look at the new funding model to consider the issue of childcare services in areas of disadvantage.

I am glad to hear the Minister's comments because they address the crux of the matter. We raised this issue in May, and I have raised it a number of times since. Following that, some services that had brought it to our attention tried to get in contact about the review. They were led to believe it was a one-year review of the whole NCS, which was not looking at the issue of potential disadvantage. I reiterate that the cohort of children we are talking about are those who will not necessarily come to the attention of Tusla. They are in an in-between category, for want of better words, of children who rely on childcare and early years services for a hot meal and security. It particularly relates to after-school care. We have had that conversation. A lot can be teased out through a review and if the Minister is now clarifying that this issue is being included in it, I welcome that.

Yes. I specifically asked for this issue to be included in the review. Although I am confident the NCS is designed in a way to lessen disadvantage, I am also cognisant, having listened to the Deputy and having met childcare providers, especially from areas of geographic disadvantage, that they have raised concerns, which I want to address. As the Deputy knows, I have done a number of things. We have engaged with Tusla to enhance the application of the sponsorship arrangements and I spoke directly to the chief executive to make sure sponsorship would be provided in a broad manner.

On information about how parents can access the higher number of hours, SOLAS, in conjunction with the education and training boards, ETBs, is providing better information on how parents can access various courses that will allow them to access the full 45 hours per week. I have made a commitment to review this particular issue in the context of the Frontier Economics review of the NCS. However, as regards the bigger piece, the funding group is also looking at the issue of disadvantage in childcare facilities and how funding can be targeted to address that.

This is the point I was trying to get to. I believed the issue had been clarified in May but question marks arose again afterwards. However, the Minister has made it very clear that the issue of disadvantage will be part of the review and I welcome that. As I said, it is about the children who will, potentially, fall through the cracks, which is what we are always trying to avoid. I say this regularly, but this is particularly the case with early year and childcare settings. It is not just about parents. We are all guilty of sometimes thinking that childcare equals parents working, but it is also about the children and all the various benefits to them from socialisation to security and everything they learn. I welcome that and I look forward to the review. Our next question will probably be about when we will get the results of the review, but I welcome it for now.

As the Deputy will know, it is early learning and care, with the emphasis on the early learning. On the review, I would expect it in the last quarter of the year. The review of the Child Care Act 1991 and, as significant, the report of the expert group are expected in the final quarter of this year. This is something I have been speaking about a great deal, although I did not initiate it. It was initiated by the former Minister, Katherine Zappone. The expert group is a really important group, comprised of eminent experts in the area of childcare from within Ireland and internationally as well. It will bring its report to the Government in light of its commitment to double investment in early learning and care in school-age childcare by 2028, as contained in the First 5 strategy. This is the body that will show us how we can ensure that the extra money we are investing gives us more services, better quality and can ensure that the workers in these services are paid appropriately and that parents are not paying so much as well. I look forward to publishing the expert group report. I am sure that once published, the Deputy and I will engage further on it.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

Holly Cairns

Question:

47. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the steps he is taking to ensure that the experiences of the 550 persons who gave evidence before the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters confidential committee are recognised and officially reflected. [36297/21]

What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the experiences of the 550 people who appeared before the confidential committee of the Commission of Investigation on Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related matters are officially reflected? The Minister has committed to formally recognising these testimonies. The lived experiences of 550 survivors were not reflected in the final report and the Minister now proposes to commission a new report, which means we face the prospect of two contradictory documents. Which report will form the basis for the redress scheme, especially in regard to forced adoptions, discrimination and the avoidance of direct and actionable attribution of responsibility to the State and religious orders?

I thank the Deputy. I have reflected deeply on many aspects of the commission's report since its publication and the survivors' response to it. I understand that some survivors are disappointed with how their personal testimonies were reported. People expected to see their full narrative as they told it, rather than abbreviated sections. It has become apparent that many did not know that the twin processes were in operation during the investigation. Much of the frustration is as a direct consequence of this. The process has not fulfilled their expectations and I deeply regret that.

The intention of establishing any inquiry under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 is to provide an effective mechanism to investigate complex and sensitive matters, while also respecting fair procedures and natural justice. That was undoubtedly the intention of the Oireachtas when it approved the establishment of this commission. In recognising the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of so many, the commission was required to produce a report of a general nature. This is what it was tasked to do in its terms of reference.

While it has been widely reported that the testimonies were discounted or discarded, I do not believe that is correct. In its correspondence to the Oireachtas joint committee, the former chair of the commission confirmed that they were taken into account and relied upon by the commission in making its determination on crucial questions. However, I am conscious of the need for the lived experiences of those who attended the confidential committee to be more clearly heard, understood and officially recognised as part of our history.

Over the past year, I have met many survivors and their advocates and I have sought to understand directly from them their diverse and valid responses to the publication of the report and the Government's action plan. Their views are paramount. I have worked to listen to them and to try to rebuild trust. I have always been clear that the commission's report does not represent the end point of the State's response to the mother and baby institutions. Survivors are telling me that they want the historical record of these institutions to reflect their experiences and they want them recounted. I am currently exploring mechanisms to achieve this. I will continue to engage with survivors, professional archivists and historians to determine how best to preserve these important oral histories.

To say that people were disappointed that the full narrative was not in the report is not an accurate description. The Minister spoke about how the survivors spoke before the academic committee and they were disregarded. He also spoke about the statutory instrument at that time. If he does not think it is correct that they were disregarded, why is he commissioning a new report so that they are reflected? The confusion and contradictions contribute to the increasing distress for everyone affected. The Minister says he believes survivors and simultaneously the Chief State Solicitor is opposing judicial reviews by survivors who say their testimonies were misrepresented in the report. This is deeply callous hypocrisy. The Minister cannot commit to officially recognising their evidence and then oppose that same evidence in the courts.

Survivors expressed entirely justified scepticism around any State response to the abuses and silence they experienced but 550 of them took the incredibly brave step of testifying before the commission. When they found that their testimonies had been misrepresented or disregarded, they were forced to seek a judicial review to enter another potentially re-traumatising process.

Thank you Deputy. We are over time.

Why is the State forcing them down this route? As ageing survivors of some of the worst atrocities, the least the Government could do is support them in seeking justice instead of obstructing them.

I agree with the Deputy in terms of the bravery of the 500 individuals who appeared before the confidential committee to give their personal accounts of their experiences in these institutions. I have always said that that chapter and the extracts from their stories have had a huge impact on me, but I am aware that they are just extracts. I know from my engagement with survivors that they wanted their entire stories, not part of them, reflected on the historical record. Survivors can obtain their testimonies from the archive through a subject access request but they just become their personal documents. It is that element that I am seeking to address. I want to ensure that for those who so choose, their full testimonies can form part of the historical record of what happened in these institutions. I do not have the full answer just yet on how to do that. I spoke with Deputy Cairns and colleagues on the joint Oireachtas committee about the issue. I have some more work to do, but that is what I am seeking to achieve.

The Minister says that he knows from speaking to people that they want their entire stories in the report. That is not what the rest of us are hearing. People have very considerable and legitimate concerns around findings such as that there was no evidence of forced adoption. That is not someone saying that she wants her entire story represented in the report; it is saying that she wants an historical fact represented in the findings of the report. The long overdue redress scheme is at the heart of this issue. If the commission links its findings to the potentially flawed report - who knows what the new report will find, although the Minister may be reneging on that now because he has not mentioned it but he did say previously that he was going to commission a report to look into the 550 testimonies that were disregarded - then which report do we work off in terms of redress? How do you square that? I do not think anybody understands that. It is a blatant contradiction. Anyone who was forced into the institutions, who was separated from his or her family, or lost a family, in the system, is entitled to the fullest possible redress as a matter of justice.

I am absolutely committed to providing a comprehensive redress scheme. When the parameters of the interdepartmental group were being established, the Government made clear that we would not be bound solely by the recommendations contained with the commission's report. That is an important step. It allows us-----

Is the Minister speaking about the old report or the new report? Will the redress be based on forced adoption or not?

Allow the Minister to answer.

It allows us to go past the commission's report and to publish a scheme of redress that is comprehensive. I have always said it should recognise the time spent within these institutions, across both the mother and baby institutions and the county institutions. That is what the Government has committed to do and that is what we will deliver. I accept that we are a little behind in terms of publishing the scheme of the redress. I hope to have that soon. I believe it will be comprehensive in terms of the range of the survivor body that it will cover and provide redress to.

Early Childhood Care and Education

Pauline Tully

Question:

48. Deputy Pauline Tully asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the steps he is taking in relation to assessing the childcare needs of parents in County Cavan where service providers are indicating that they are no longer taking children under two years of age due to the financial strain in meeting the Child Care Act 1991 (Early Years Services) Regulations 2016; the consideration that is being given in this regard to forward planning of the provision of places or services or both at both local level in County Cavan and national level; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36217/21]

What steps is the Minister taking in regard to assessing the childcare needs of parents in County Cavan, where many service providers are indicating they are no longer taking children under two years of age? They are claiming that this is due to the financial strain of meeting early years services regulations under the Child Care Act 1991. What consideration is being given to forward planning for childcare places and service provision in County Cavan and at national level?

I thank the Deputy. Officials in my Department closely monitor developments in relation to early learning and childcare capacity, including the supply of and demand for places.

Before the onset of Covid-19, data gathered through the annual early years sector profile survey revealed that the sector was running at near capacity, with evidence of undersupply for certain cohorts, including children under the age of three, and in certain areas, including Cavan. This evidence informed the allocation of funding under the Department's annual capital programmes. We have been able to increase capacity by 27,433 places nationally since 2015, with 494 of these additional funded places in County Cavan.

Since the onset of Covid-19, there has been evidence of some depressed demand for early learning and childcare due to changes in parental working arrangements. The very substantial Covid supports we have put in place for the childcare sector have ensured that we have not seen a loss of services. We maintained the same number of services in 2020 that we had in 2019. Ensuring that supply is sufficient to meet demand, particularly once work patterns stabilise after the Covid pandemic, is a key priority for my Department. We are doing the fieldwork for the annual early years sector profile survey at the moment. This will allow us to update our data on capacity, which will inform capital investment plans and the prioritisation of future capital funding.

The cost of delivering early learning and childcare is higher for children aged under two years. This is because of the lower adult-child ratios. However, we also give higher subventions for younger children under the national childcare scheme, NCS. The maximum weekly subsidy rate for children under one is €229.50 and for children aged one and two years it is €195.75. These rates exceed the average full-time fee for children under one and aged one and two years in Cavan. The data the Department has gathered says that these fees are €166.33 and €165.36, respectively.

This year's early years sector profile survey will also include an income and cost module. Data from this module will form a key input into the setting of future funding rates and will also be considered by the expert group I spoke about earlier.

Constituents have been contacting me. One lady told me that when her maternity leave finished and she tried to find a place for her little baby, she could not because no crèches in her area would take a child under one. She ended up being forced to take 16 weeks of additional unpaid maternity leave even though this had not been her intention and was not what she wanted to do. She was worried about what she would do when she had to return to work because she was finding it extremely difficult. She had even tried to source a childminder to work in her own home but they were charging exorbitant rates.

Another mother recently told me that she had one child aged two in a crèche and when she attempted to enrol her ten-month-old child in the same crèche she was told it was not taking any babies under two. She tried six other crèches and they all refused. They were either not taking babies or were full and did not have a waiting list. She is a civil servant and was able to work from home while trying to mind a ten-month-old. Trying to work with a ten-month-old in the house is practically impossible. What is the timeframe for the review about which the Minister was talking?

The Deputy made a point about childminders. The Government is advancing plans to allow childminders to be paid through the national childcare scheme. The subvention that many parents get for centre-based childcare will also be available to childminders following registration. That was discussed at the Oireachtas joint committee earlier today. That is an important step forward. I absolutely take the point. There can be increases in demand both in geographical areas and in specific demographics. The Deputy pointed out that it is often harder for parents to access services for children aged under two. We are gathering data at the moment and hope to have it in the third quarter of this year. That data will then guide my Department's capital allocations to support new services in 2022.

That is welcome and the sooner it is done, the better. The situation is at a crucial point at the moment. There is a lack of availability and affordability. It is difficult to retain staff and fees for parents are increasing. All of these things need to be dealt with. This applies in Cavan but I know it also applies elsewhere. There is a severe lack of crèche places in Cavan. I am also hearing about a severe lack of community crèche places. Many in the workforce can afford to pay these fees, which are quite high, but those who are not in that position do not have a choice. They either have a community place and supports offered to them or they have to stay at home and mind their children. There are no such places. There are a number of resource centres working with the Cavan County Childcare Committee and Tusla to try to source premises for a community crèche. Any support that can be given in this regard would be more than welcome.

Many staff in childcare facilities are highly trained professionals and yet they are paid basically the minimum wage or certainly under the living wage. Can something be done that would result in increased pay for the workers and decreased fees for parents?

No provider should be increasing fees at this time because the State is providing a great deal of support, offering the employment wage subsidy scheme at the upper rate to all childcare providers across the country regardless of the turnover rule. That is a decision we made and I know the vast majority of childcare providers really welcomed that additional support and have acted fairly. No provider should be increasing fees at this stage. I see no reason for that.

With regard to the wages and salaries paid to childcare professionals, I absolutely agree with the Deputy. I was delighted when the Minister of State, Deputy English, signed the commencement order for the joint labour committee a number of weeks ago. I initiated a process earlier this year to create a joint labour committee for the childcare sector. This will lead to an employment regulation order setting a salary scale for childcare professionals. That is very valuable and I am very pleased to have been able to lead on that.

Early Childhood Care and Education

Matt Carthy

Question:

49. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his proposals to improve the pay and conditions of professionals in the childcare sector. [36211/21]

I understand Deputy Funchion is taking the next question.

Yes, I am taking this question on behalf of Deputy Carthy. What are the Minister's proposals to improve the pay and conditions of professionals in the early years childcare sector?

I thank the Deputy. In answering this question, I will expand on what I said to Deputy Tully a moment ago. I am very conscious of the need for a significant improvement in pay and working conditions for staff in the early learning and childcare sector. The level of pay they receive does not reflect the value of the work they do for children, for families and for wider society and the economy. As the State does not employ staff in the early learning and childcare sector, the Deputy will appreciate that my Department cannot set pay or determine working conditions. However, my Department has, over a number of years, provided a range of supports to early learning and childcare employers to enable them to improve pay and working conditions.

There are also some important developments currently under way. In December of last year, I began a process to examine the possibility of regulating the pay and conditions of employment of staff in the early learning and childcare sector and to examine the suitability of establishing a joint labour committee for the sector, in line with a programme for Government commitment. Arising from this process, I am pleased to confirm that the Minister of State with responsibility for business, employment and retail has signed an establishment order for a joint labour committee. This order came into effect on 1 July and has been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Once established, a joint labour committee could lead to an employment regulation order, which would establish binding rates of pay and working conditions for the sector. I regard the establishment of that joint labour committee as a significant and welcome development. It will help to vindicate the position of those who work in the early learning and childcare sector and offers a way forward on an issue with which successive Ministers have been dealing for many years. The move to establish the committee was welcomed by both unions and employer representatives.

As I said earlier on, work is also progressing on a new funding model. The recommendations of a dedicated expert group are due later this year and will be central to addressing both affordability and quality issues. The expert group's draft guiding principles to underpin a new funding model recognise the importance of the workforce in delivering quality services. Finally, work on the workforce development plan continues. We expect the final outputs by the end of the year.

I thank the Minister. As users of Facebook will now, one has memories come up on the platform and, funnily enough, it was four years ago yesterday that the Dáil unanimously passed a motion I brought forward with regard to the pay and conditions of those working in the early years sector. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and some others who were here at the time will probably remember that. It would be good to see progress on this issue all these years later. Obviously, the workers were waiting for this long before I ever tabled that motion.

With regard to the joint labour committee, does the Minister have any updates on timeframes or how it is progressing? Perhaps he does not. Is there a definite timeframe for it? It would be interesting to hear about that if the Minister has such information.

I thank the Deputy. It is good that we have been able to make this significant progress, particularly after a year in which childcare professionals have bravely and consistently stood up across the country, particularly in January when so many others were not working.

It is a fairly intricate process. The order to establish the joint labour committee, JLC, has been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Labour Court will establish the JLC. The parties to the JLC will then agree proposals for an employment regulation order, ERO, and submit those proposals to the Labour Court. There has to be at least a six-month gap between the ERO submissions. The Labour Court then publishes a draft employment order and a public consultation on that takes place. Where the JLC cannot agree a proposal and the chairperson feels the issue cannot be resolved, it is referred to the Labour Court. The Labour Court will then hold a hearing and make recommendations.

I reiterate that it is important to address the issue of pay and conditions in the early years sector. It is one of the most difficult jobs. One entrusts one's children to excellent people and I often wonder what their trick or skill is to get children to do certain tasks that I, as a parent, struggle to get my kids to do. It is an invaluable role. They do not want to hear sympathetic talk. One shows how somebody is valued in his or her wages. Having worked in a trade union, I believe one can offer claps and say "Well done" and "That is great", and sometimes there is a role for that, but showing the workforce that it is valued is done through wages and ensuring everyone has a decent wage. My next question is very similar to this one.

I fully agree with the Deputy. I am pleased we are in the position to start the process of giving that very justified recognition. As the Deputy says, praise is all well and good but we all accept that financial recognition is well deserved. A number of processes are coming together, including the JLC process I have established, the expert group on the funding model that the former Minister, Katherine Zappone, established, which will report later this year, the workforce development plan and the review of the operating model I initiated which looks at the infrastructure that oversees childcare across the country. That will also report later this year. I hope, with that vision of mind, the First 5 strategy will have doubled the amount we are spending on childcare by 2028. I hope these reports will give us the information and the database upon which to make some significant decisions on funding and structure for the future.

Early Childhood Care and Education

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

50. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth when he expects the survey on income and costs for the childcare sector being compiled by Pobal to be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36208/21]

This is quite similar to the previous question. Some of the points have probably been raised. The question relates to the survey on the childcare sector that is being compiled by Pobal. When will that be published? Is there an update?

The deadline for responses to the income and costs survey and the annual early years sector profile survey was 30 June. This date was extended from the original deadline in response to requests from providers, and in order to facilitate improved response rates. A significant amount of data has been collected through both surveys. These data will now be prepared for analysis. This involves a number of steps to clean and organise the data before they can be analysed, written up and reported on. Due to the volume and complexity of the data, these steps will take several months. I expect that the findings of the annual early years sector profile survey will be published in quarter 4 of this year followed by the publication of findings from the income and cost survey in early 2022.

This year's income and cost survey will help us to understand the nature of the additional costs that arise in delivering early learning and childcare in accordance with Covid-19 public health guidance. The survey will also help us consider the best means of supporting the sector as we move beyond Covid. The survey allows us to update the hourly unit costs of delivering services. It gives us valuable information on the costs of different types of service and updated assessments on the breakdown of providers' operating costs across services.

The data collected in this year's income and costs survey build on a previous survey undertaken in 2018 as part of the independent review of the cost of delivering quality early learning and childcare in Ireland. The findings of that review, published in November 2020, underpin the substantial Covid-19 supports secured for the sector, including the exemption to the employment wage subsidy scheme turnover rule. The findings of that review are informing work under way to develop a new funding model for the sector. Following the launch of the independent review in November, I requested additional data analysis to be undertaken to better understand profit in the sector and which services make significant profits. That analysis is almost complete and I hope to publish the findings shortly.

A number of reviews are ongoing. When does the Minister expect that this will filter down to the sector? A lot seems to be due at the end of this year. Does he imagine some of this will be implemented early next year?

In the context of this and the previous question, the workforce in the sector is primarily made up of women. Time and time again, we see that sectors dominated by women have inferior terms and conditions and lower wages.

Pobal launched its annual early years sector profile. It seemed to find that childcare fees are going up. Yet, in reply to Deputy Tully, the Minister said fees should not be going up. Is there something that needs to be looked at in that regard?

I take the Deputy's point on the gendered nature of the workforce. We passed the Gender Pay Gap Information Bill in Seanad Éireann last night. That Bill constitutes a significant step forward. It will provide us with the raw data about something we know already, namely, the fact that women do not receive the same pay as men for work of the same value. We need to address that as a Government and a society.

I will look at the data and information I already have in terms of my Department's ask in 2022. I hope to be in a position to implement some of these changes next year. This is a big change across childcare. It will not happen in one budget; it will be rolled out across a number of budgets. I hope to be in the position to do something in the budget but that is in the context of future negotiations.

I hope there will be something in the budget because I noticed that the early years childcare sector was very much forgotten in last year's budget, particularly those who work in it. I would welcome moves to include it. I do not think anyone expects all this to be done overnight or in one go but if the Minister wants the trust of the sector, he has to show he is doing something. It would be welcome to have some moves in this budget.

The fees are so high in many areas, probably particularly in Dublin, but everywhere, including my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny, they are going up. This is an issue. I tend to focus on the impact on women but I do not make an apology for that. There are not enough of us in here and we need to make sure our voices are heard. Women often get affected by the fact they cannot get childcare or they go back part-time, effecting career opportunities, pension and all those things.

We discussed our investment in childcare last year. The budget line that comes directly from my Department did not change. We have had enormous investment into the early years sector, however, initially in the specific scheme designed for that sector and, since November of last year, in the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. We have had millions every month going into the childcare sector. It has kept services open, even though the pod system means the staff-child ratio has had to be increased. I know from talking to childcare providers that they recognise it has kept their service open, enabled them to meet the public health requirements for pods and to take on more staff, such as, maybe, a floating member of staff to give additional support to children. If we say the budget line in my Department did not change, it is important to note a huge amount of investment came from the Exchequer in terms of the EWSS.

Direct Provision System

Holly Cairns

Question:

51. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the immediate steps he is taking to address the child safeguarding concerns raised in the report of the Ombudsman for Children, Safety and Welfare of Children in Direct Provision. [36288/21]

My question is about safeguarding concerns in respect of the direct provision system. In April, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children published its report entitled Safety and Welfare of Children in Direct Provision, which identified a range of child protection and welfare concerns, including that staff members working in centres had not been vetted to work with children and a failure to report a serious child protection concern. What assurances can the Minister give that these issues are being addressed?

I welcomed the report of the Ombudsman for Children and accepted its recommendations in full. I received the report soon after responsibility for the international protection accommodation service, IPAS, was transferred to my Department. Its content makes for difficult reading. IPAS has embarked upon a series of actions, planned for the short and medium term, that will build upon existing work to ensure the recommendations of the Ombudsman for Children are implemented as quickly as possible. I am encouraged by the comments of the ombudsman, Dr. Niall Muldoon, regarding the co-operation with his office by both IPAS and Tusla and the measures taken by them since they received the report. Both agencies and my Department will continue to work collaboratively with the ombudsman on this matter.

The key priority will be to move all remaining children and families still residing in congregated hotel-style living to own-door or independent living accommodation. With this in mind, a full public procurement process will take place in 2021 with the aim of securing the additional spaces required to end the use of emergency accommodation by IPAS. The procurement will have a specific focus on the provision of child-friendly accommodation that allows parents and children to enjoy a quiet and private family life.

A new resident welfare team has been established within IPAS to manage cases of individual families and single residents identified as having special reception needs and ensure such needs continue to be identified and addressed in the most appropriate way possible. The multidisciplinary team includes social workers and experts from the fields of education, health and childcare. IPAS is also committed to working with Tusla during 2021 to develop interagency protocols and operating procedures that will ensure both organisations are sharing information on relevant cases. All existing and new centres will be required to develop a child safeguarding statement. IPAS will work with Tusla to ensure that compliance with child safeguarding statements and Children First legislation is audited this year.

I see the ombudsman's report as a significant contribution to promoting dignified and appropriate accommodation for people seeking international protection. My Department will continue to work with IPAS and Tusla on these issues.

The ombudsman's report highlighted systematic faults in the direct provision system. The report was unambiguous in stating that the direct provision model "does not have the best interests of children, or the protection and promotion of the human rights of the child refugees at its core". We know many asylum seekers are vulnerable due to language barriers, lack of social supports and the traumas of forced migration. There is an inherent kind of power imbalance between staff and residents, which is made clear in the report, with one parent fearful of making legitimate complaints due to the risk of reprisals and weaponisation of child protection. While I really welcome the Minister's commitment to ending direct provision, we know it will take years to achieve. Can he guarantee that staff members in the centres will be vetted to work with children and trained in child protection?

The ombudsman is absolutely right to highlight the inappropriateness of the direct provision system to deal with the needs of anybody, particularly those of children. That is why we brought forward the White Paper proposing to end direct provision and replace it with a new international protection support service, with all the wrap-around supports it entails. As the Deputy notes, this will take a number of years to achieve, specifically, until the end of 2024. I have outlined some of the immediate actions both IPAS and Tusla are taking, individually within their own spheres but also together. This is important because one of the findings of the ombudsman's report was that the two bodies were not talking to each other. Both now come under my responsibility and that will help to ensure there is full co-operation between them. Our introduction of the vulnerability assessment is really important because it will ensure that when somebody new comes into the international protection system, we can immediately identify specific vulnerabilities they may have and make provision for them within the services we provide.

There has been a clear failure by previous Governments and State agencies to oversee direct provision. Is the Minister working with the Minister for Justice to address issues such as IPAS's failure to follow its own child protection and welfare policy? What is he doing in response to the failures on the part of Tusla that were identified in the report, including its failure to co-ordinate services to meet the needs of children in direct provision and identify a named social worker for a direct provision centre in one area? In light of this country's history of child abuse in State-sponsored institutions, we all hope the Department of Justice and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth will work together to ensure the highest standard of child protection practice. That is not the case at the moment, unfortunately, but I am glad the Minister is working towards it and we all support him in doing so. The ombudsman's report details a catalogue of failures to protect incredibly vulnerable young people.

I will give the Deputy some further information on what is happening in this area. Additional child safety training will be rolled out to all centre managers during 2021, as soon as the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. The child safeguarding statements will be translated into all relevant languages across all centres, which will enable people to understand them immediately. In terms of the wider issues, particularly issues that fall under the remit of the Department of Justice, such as the times for processing international protection applications, I will be engaging with the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, on them later this week. The point has been made by me, by NGOs and, in particular, by people living in direct provision that it is only by getting the processing times directly shortened that we can have real success in terms of the implementation of the White Paper. I will be working on that with both the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy McEntee, when she returns from leave.

Direct Provision System

Martin Browne

Question:

52. Deputy Martin Browne asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his views on the decision not to implement the recommendations in the McMahon report on direct provision; the reason those recommendations were not implemented; if the recommendations of the Ombudsman for Children in his report on the safety and welfare of children in direct provision will be implemented before the new system of direct provision is in place; his views on the report by the Ombudsman for Children; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35954/21]

My question follows up on the issues raised by Deputy Cairns. Why have the recommendations in the McMahon report on direct provision not been implemented? Will the recommendations of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children report, entitled Safety and Welfare of Children in Direct Provision, be implemented before the new system of direct provision is in place? What are the Minister's views on the ombudsman's report?

The Deputy has asked two quite broad questions and I will do my best to cover them. First, I have always stated my view that the current system of provision of accommodation for people in international protection is not fit for purpose. That is why we are replacing it and we have set out how we are going to do that in the White Paper. We are ending direct provision. In designing the White Paper, we had the opportunity to see the first draft of the report of the Ombudsman for Children. It was very much reflected in how we designed the White Paper, particularly the supports we are putting in place for children and ensuring Tusla is represented in the reception and integration centres that will be established.

The McMahon report was published in June 2015 and included a total of 173 recommendations for various Departments. The Department of Justice, which was then the lead Department, has indicated that 98% of those recommendations were either implemented or at least put in progress. It has been noted that the McMahon report resulted in substantial improvements in the direct provision system at that time. More than 70% of residents now have access to cooking facilities, for example, which was an important recommendation. It remains my Department's target that all centres will be capable of providing independent living facilities as soon as possible.

However, we know the McMahon report was coming from a low base. That is why we are not looking to tinker with direction provision; we are looking to end it and bring in a new system. I am also very conscious of the failings on the part of Tusla and IPAS that were illustrated in the report of the Ombudsman for Children. I covered several of them in my response to Deputy Cairns. The ombudsman recognised when he published that report the very substantial co-operation he received from both Tusla and IPAS, our full acceptance of the recommendations and our action to implement them as quickly as possible.

I appreciate that the situation has improved since the publication of the White Paper. However, as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Petitions, I was shocked when the ombudsman came before us recently to present his report. It highlights how children in the direct provision system are not deemed to be a vulnerable group. How that ever happened puzzles me. Inspections are not frequent enough and do not take account of the mental health and emotional needs of children.

In emergency response centres, they do not take place at all. The report also pointed out that the recommendations of the McMahon report have not been implemented. That is the point on which I want to focus because the Ombudsman told the Committee on Public Petitions when he appeared before it that there has never been a rationale behind the failure to implement the McMahon report or even the recommendations that came out of it. He suggested that political priorities and changes of Government may have contributed to that failure. As the Minister stated, the report of the Ombudsman for Children also pointed to the fact that IPAS failed to implement the recommendations. HIQA agreed to undertake inspections but the Ombudsman has noted that the legislative change that would be required could take years and we do not have that time. Does the Minister have proposals on the legislative change needed?

The Deputy is correct that implementation of the White Paper is key. We have to learn from the fact that parts of the McMahon report were not implemented. What we set out in the White Paper is a transition team. It is made up of new civil servants in my Department with the specific job of changing the system. I am not asking the people who are running the existing system and have their hands full with that to bring in the new system. Rather, I have set up a new team, the international protection support service, to do so. It is overseen by a programme board staffed by representatives of my Department and other Departments such as the Departments of Justice and Education and involving local authorities and the Housing Agency to bring in that wider degree of expertise because, as we know, dealing with the accommodation needs of international protection applicants will be very important. Finally, there is an advisory committee comprising three people who have an independent oversight role and a responsibility to, I suppose, hold my feet and those of the Government to the fire in terms of making sure we implement in a timely fashion.

I remind the Minister that the Ombudsman stated there is a lack of operational guidance between IPAS and Tusla. I appreciate he acknowledged that already. Those agencies both have responsibilities for children in direct provision, which has resulted in a situation in which children lack visibility in their systems. Direct provision is on the agenda of the Committee on Public Petitions again this Thursday. Representatives of Doras, an NGO, will attend the meeting alongside the Irish Refugee Council and are due to tell the committee that people in direct provision are 15 times more likely to be diagnosed with depression, anxiety or post-traumatic disorder. Although I acknowledge that this country has failed for many years to have a fit-for-purpose mental health system, these are vulnerable children who have been in situations most of us cannot even imagine. Will the Minister give me a firm commitment that he will ensure, to the best of his ability, the changes in the White Paper will be implemented before the new system of direct provision is in place in a few years time?

In terms of the report by the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, many of those recommendations have been implemented or are in the process of being implemented in terms of the changes required of IPAS and Tusla. The Ombudsman has recognised the co-operation that both bodies have shown. I am sure he will continue to monitor our co-operation and our implementation of those measures and I absolutely appreciate that. The Ombudsman for Children and the Office of the Ombudsman both contributed to the process of establishing the White Paper and I think they both recognised what the Government is seeking to achieve in terms of the very significant change in how we accommodate persons seeking international protection and, in particular, how we accommodate their children. As I stated to Deputy Cairns, the introduction of the vulnerability assessment allows us to identify specific issues that each new applicant faces and make provision for those.

Childcare Services

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

53. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the steps he plans to take to fully address the devastating impacts that the national childcare scheme will have on the provision of care to disadvantaged children; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36034/21]

I have dealt with the Minister previously in respect of the national childcare scheme, NCS, and I welcome the interaction we have had in that regard. Much as we might welcome the national childcare scheme as a job activation scheme, the problem relates to funding for groups that deal with disadvantaged kids. The Minister has already answered questions relating to some of the review processes but, obviously, there is still a need to look at Tusla in the context of sponsorship and expanding sponsorship. I will deal with that at a later stage.

The Deputy and I have engaged in substantial discussion on this issue. I addressed similar issues with Deputy Funchion earlier today. I am strongly committed to supporting children to develop to their full potential, especially those who are most disadvantaged. The national childcare scheme has been designed specifically with the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in mind. It represents the first ever statutory entitlement to financial support for early learning and childcare. It marks a shift away from previous schemes, which were based on medical card and social protection entitlements, to a more progressive system of universal and income-based subsidies. Under the NCS, significantly more families are eligible for support, with families on the lowest incomes getting the most support.

Similar to schemes in other jurisdictions, the scheme is designed to ensure access to early learning and childcare is provided at a level necessary to support positive child development outcomes, regardless of whether parents are in work or study. Where parents are not engaged in work or study, the NCS subsidises up to 20 hours per week. Where parents are engaged in work or study, the scheme subsidises up to 45 hours of per week. As Members know, the definition of work or study is broad and covers all forms of work or study arrangements. The minimum number of hours required to activate the full amount is small, at just two hours per week.

As we have discussed, the NCS includes sponsorship arrangements that allow for additional support for vulnerable families where there is a need for early learning and childcare on the grounds of child development or child welfare. I have engaged with the sponsorship bodies, particularly Tusla, to encourage them to take a wide definition of children’s vulnerability and this has seen an increase in the number of sponsorships being provided.

In line with the Childcare Support Act, I recently commissioned a review of the national childcare scheme. This will assess how well the scheme is serving the needs of children, among other issues. As the Deputy is aware, I specifically asked that the review deal with the issue of disadvantage.

I very much welcome the review process and the fact that the Minister wants it to look specifically at disadvantage. The problem is that the facility at Moneymore in Drogheda now has 12 children but capacity for 26. The number in The House in Cox's Demesne is 24, down from 32, while in Lios na nÓg it is 45 although the facility had capacity for 72. In Toberona, it is 14, down from 22, and in Muirhevnamor it is 17, down from 26. Those services are interacting with Tusla. The House in Cox's Demesne might have a bit more interaction because it has a service-level agreement, SLA. There is a possibility that the others may enter a meitheal-type scenario but none of this is guaranteed. These groups are going to contact the Minister soon to seek a meeting. That would be useful, particularly in dealing with those specific issues relating to disadvantage.

I continue to listen to providers on the ground with regard to issues they are experiencing because that is one of the best sources of information. I have set out the measures I have taken in the short term in terms of broadening the applicability of sponsorship. I have also made reference to the sustainability fund, which is open. Any service across the country that is facing a challenge in terms of its overall sustainability can apply for the sustainability fund. We opened it up for Covid sustainability challenges in particular, but also for wider sustainability challenges.

As regards the short term, we have taken the action on sponsorship, have provided the sustainability fund and are undertaking the specific review of the NCS and its impact on services working in disadvantaged areas. As I discussed earlier, we have the bigger piece, that is, the expert group on the funding model, which is specifically looking at funding for disadvantaged services as part of its terms of reference.

I welcome the Minister's remarks. As regards Tusla, there are certain families that are incredibly frightened when they hear Tusla mentioned, which can create its own difficulties. However, there are specific issues which I will discuss later with the Minister relating to the interactions with some of these groups. We do not necessarily have it across the line in the context of meitheal or how exactly the process will work for some of these groups.

One of their asks will be to expand the sponsorship, particularly in the context of the Department of Education. Many referrals were made by home-school liaison teams and the school completion projects that were operating in DEIS areas and those are specific areas at which we can look. I have spoken to the Minister before about the fact that as much as we see the absolute necessity of the NCS in terms of job activation and, in particular, those at the lower end, but there are specific needs of disadvantaged families and children that need to be considered.

We might need to look at a separate pot of funding. I hope the review process will deal with that.

In its terms of reference, the expert group established by the former Minister, Dr. Katherine Zappone, was specifically asked to examine what I believe was described as "a DEIS-type model" of childcare. That is being looked at. We hope the expert group will report by November of this year. As I have said to the Deputy previously, the NCS is two years old. A significant change has been rolled out in the middle of the Covid pandemic. We must accept that there is an element of bedding the system down. However, I also recognise that a system that works very well on the macro level can sometimes have impacts on the micro level. I welcome the Deputy's engagement and that of other Deputies and Senators who have voiced concerns about impacts in certain areas. I will continue to listen. We have introduced some short-term measures. The safety net of the sustainability fund is available. We commit to continue to look at that issue and act on the data we receive.

Departmental Strategies

Violet-Anne Wynne

Question:

54. Deputy Violet-Anne Wynne asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his views on the development and implementation of a national autism strategy. [36231/21]

David Cullinane

Question:

56. Deputy David Cullinane asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his plans to advance an autism empowerment strategy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35503/21]

I ask the Minister of State for her views on the development and implementation of a national autism strategy.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 54 and 56 together. I recently announced my intention to establish a working group to develop an autism innovation strategy. I made the announcement at the AsIAm "What Autism Acceptance Means to Me" online event, celebrating World Autism Day. My intention is to launch the strategy in January 2022.

The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth currently co-ordinates the national disability inclusion strategy and the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities. Complementing these two major frameworks, the aim of the autism innovation strategy is to address the specific barriers that may be faced by individuals with autism and their families. The focus of the strategy in the short term will be to deliver real and tangible solutions to the challenges, needs and experiences of people with autism.

As an initial step, I intend to set up an autism innovation strategy working group. This group will develop and subsequently monitor the implementation of the strategy. I will personally chair the working group, once established. The intention is that the working group is to be formed in September of this year. It will be made up of officials from relevant Departments and agencies, as well as public stakeholders. The tasks of the working group will include pinpointing priorities within areas of education, employment, health and housing that the strategy will aim to address; working collaboratively to identify actions which support the effective implementation of the plan; and ensuring that the lived experience of people with autism is part of the design, implementation and monitoring of the strategy. The working group will also provide oversight and critical, constructive analysis that will help the autism innovation strategy achieve its goals. The strategy will be cross-departmental in nature, as autism is not solely an issue to be addressed with health supports, but one which requires a more holistic and rights-based approach to be taken, reflecting the entirety of a person's lived experience.

I appreciate the Minister of State's response. I have posed the question as a public representative and also as a parent of a child with special needs and a diagnosis of autism. Therefore, it is a matter that I will be following very closely. It is most important that there is an urgent commitment to undertake the development needed to recognise the diverse needs that people with autism have and attempt to level the playing field of access to services for those with autism.

There are major gaps in the current continuum of provision, of which I am sure the Minister of State is aware. I wish to mention a few of them, briefly. As diagnostic rates have increased, waiting lists for assessments and follow-up services continue to rise, with some families waiting 18 or 19 months for an assessment of need and, very often, between 30 and 36 months for full access to essential intervention. That amounts to a three-year wait. That is three essential years of formative and developmental growth that are stalled due to an inexcusable lack of resources.

In response to the Deputy's additional questions, as she is aware, the progressing disability services, PDS, for children and young people model is being rolled out. The problem the Deputy described in respect of people falling off a cliff when they reach certain ages as they go through the process has now been stalled. No longer will a child age out of services, particularly in the transition from the early years to the school age teams. Second, we are carrying out a comprehensive and ongoing review of waiting lists. There are primary care, disability and school inclusion waiting lists. I am trying to address the issues with waiting lists to ensure that people and family members know exactly which list they are on. With that, I hope we will also see a reduction in waiting times.

I wonder whether there is an opportunity for parents to join the working group to which the Minister of State referred. Perhaps she will consider that.

I highlight as a cause of concern the lack of opportunities to collate CSO data on the number of people with autism in the population. Let us be realistic, however. The lack of disaggregated data is not what is preventing a more concerted effort to provide equal access to services. There is a legal onus on the Irish Government to compile comprehensive disaggregated data under Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I am highlighting the issue to the Minister of State to hopefully spur further action on the part of the Government to follow the example of other countries such as Denmark, Hungary, the UK and Malta. These countries are setting a standard of international best practice and their governments have played a central role in the formation and implementation of a national autism strategy, much to be benefit of those with ASD.

I am aware that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has initiated a review of the Equality Acts, but it is a slightly redundant development as the Acts have not been fully commenced.

The autism innovation strategy will be cross-departmental in nature, as autism is not solely an issue to be addressed by health supports, as I stated. In order to ensure that we find the best possible independent individuals and organisations to participate in the working group, I will launch a public expression of interest process over the summer. Key criteria for the working group members will include knowledge, lived experience and expertise in autism, particularly in the areas of education, employment, health and housing.

In answer to the Deputy's question, applications to join the working group will be open to parents and advocacy groups. We will all be working together. We aspire to be like countries such as Malta.

Adoption Services

Holly Cairns

Question:

55. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if clarity will be given on the rights of mothers to access their own care or adoption file and the rights of siblings to information about each other in forthcoming birth information and tracing legislation. [36285/21]

My question concerns clarity on the rights of mothers and siblings to access information in the forthcoming birth information and tracing legislation. It is an opportunity to ensure that the law is victim and survivor-centred. That definition has to include mothers and siblings, as people impacted by the State's deeply problematic adoption system. The proposed legislation, as it currently stands, ignores the rights of natural mothers to their personal information and the rights of siblings to information about each other. I ask the Minister to address these deficiencies in the legislation.

The proposed birth information and tracing legislation will enshrine in law the right of a person to know his or her origins for the first time. The priority policy underpinning the scheme is to allow access to identity information, including unredacted birth certificates, birth and early life information to all adoptees, persons whose birth was illegally registered and those in care arrangements, for example, those who have been boarded out. The proposed legislation will empower these persons to access vital records related to their own identity.

Mothers can continue to avail of their existing rights under the GDPR, data protection and freedom of information legislation to access information pertaining to themselves. They can also avail of the right to rectification, which is enshrined in the GDPR and is a route for mothers to rectify personal data held about them in historical files which they consider to be inaccurate or incomplete. The issue of inaccurate or incomplete information is one about which mothers who have spoken to me are particularly concerned. As they can already obtain their own information and have it corrected under existing legal mechanisms, there is no provision for their rights under proposed legislation. However, mothers and other relatives will be able to avail of other important mechanisms under the birth information and tracing legislation, namely, the statutory contact preference register and a service to trace relatives for contact or information.

The contact preference register will be held by the Adoption Authority of Ireland. Persons, including mothers and siblings, can make applications to have their contact preference recorded or to lodge information. I have given very careful consideration to the issue of access to historical records by siblings where a relevant person is deceased. In this regard, I am conscious that GDPR can place significant restrictions on rights of access to personal data relating to third parties. This may constrain our proposals. However, I am also very much aware of the strong wish of people to access historical records relating to deceased relatives.

My Department is engaging with the Office of the Attorney General on the matter. It is complex because of GDPR but I have sought to explore all opportunities. We will discuss this as the legislation progresses.

If mothers can already exercise their rights under GDPR, why can adoptees not do the same? As the Minister says, the legislation is about access to one's own information. For adoptees, it is about access to their birth certificates, a right still denied to them by the State despite GDPR guidelines, and it is also about access to other early-life information. A mother should be able to gain access to her own care and adoption files. Even under current data protection law, they can gain access to some information, but the scheme provides no mechanism for adopted people and natural mothers to access the administrative files of institutions, agencies and individuals involved in forced family separation. Many adopted people and their siblings, whether adopted or not, are eager to learn about each other and to be in contact. They are entitled to this under GDPR so they must be facilitated in this regard. The Bill needs to provide all affected people, including relatives of the deceased, with a clear pathway for immediate access to their records and administrative files. The Minister just said there could be a barrier where an individual has a deceased relative but, according to the experts, there is no way the deceased person's GDPR rights override those of a living relative.

I was speaking in the context of the GDPR rights of the mother in circumstances where she is still alive. Where there is a mother, a child and a sibling of that child, the GDPR rights of the mother also have to be taken into account. A mother has a right to access her own file under GDPR. That is often the file the adopted person is also seeking to access. For the mother, the file is her own, whereas the adopted person is seeking access to third-party information. In the past, this has raised the issue of competing rights, that is, the right to privacy versus the right of access to information. We believe, in respect of the adoptee, that we have been able to resolve the issue of the balancing of rights by the mechanism we have included in the Bill, which is the information meeting. That is a matter we will address as the legislation is debated.

It is just confusing that there is acknowledgment of some rights under GDPR but not others. Access to birth information has to be unconditional. The Bill currently proposes a compulsory information session with a social worker. This is another issue. Adoptees have rightly pointed out that this is a barrier, not to mention that it is also condescending. It would be more appropriate if the Bill ensured that all people seeking information were provided with medical and counselling support rather than a compulsory information session, which insinuates they do not understand what is occurring. The information session is to be conducted by a social worker employed by Tusla or the Adoption Authority of Ireland, two bodies adoptees have heavily criticised, understandably. Some campaigners have called for a new agency independent of both bodies to deal with the implementation of the legislation. That would make sense given the historical context. Can the Minister assure those who have raised concerns that any information session will be optional and that independent medical and counselling supports will be offered to everyone seeking access to personal data or data concerning a deceased relative?

The information session we have provided for is in no way meant to be condescending towards adopted people. It is described as an information session; it is not described as a counselling session, as it is in other jurisdictions. The session is modelled upon the social worker-led approach adopted in other jurisdictions but the key reason the session is included is to provide for the balancing of constitutional rights, namely, the right to information that we are recognising for the first in this Bill and the right to privacy of the natural mother, which is recognised in law. We have done this in such a way that the right to access information will always win out. That is the big change we have achieved in this legislation but, for the legislation to reflect a balancing of rights, we have provided for the information session. I am happy to engage with adoptees on how to frame the session. We are not closed on that. The mechanism is one we have used to resolve an issue with constitutional balance that has bedevilled legislation in this area for 20 years. We have taken an important step with this draft legislation.

Question No. 56 answered with Question No. 54.
Question No. 57 replied to with Written Answers.

Direct Provision System

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

58. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the number of persons admitted to direct provision since January 2020; the number who left direct provision in that time; the arrangements being made to provide independent living units for all these residents; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35624/21]

This question relates to the number of people admitted to direct provision since January 2020, the number who have left it since then, and the independent living arrangements that have been made for those who remain in direct provision in line with the programme for Government. The Minister might let us know what is happening in this regard and whether the numbers are going down.

I thank the Deputy for the question. As of Sunday, 27 June 2021, there were 6,465 persons accommodated by the International Protection Accommodation Service, IPAS, of my Department across 70 accommodation centres. Of this number, 71%, or 4,564, are being accommodated in centres that provide independent living facilities that include cooking facilities at least. A majority of these enjoy the full suite of independent living requirements, and 33%, or 2,158, have own-door access to their accommodation. In the 46 permanent centres, some 74% of the 7,719 bed spaces allow the resident full access to independent living, with 31% of total bed-space capacity being in own-door units where residents have private cooking facilities in self-contained units, such as apartments. Of the 24 emergency centres, nine provide independent living in the form of cooking facilities.

Regarding the numbers arriving and leaving, I can confirm that 1,007 persons entered IPAS accommodation in 2020 and that 465 persons had entered up to the end of June 2021. Between January 2020 and May 2021, 1,486 persons formally left IPAS accommodation. We do not have the numbers for the period up to the end of June just yet.

My officials are currently developing a tender process to secure additional accommodation for families with children, couples and single people seeking international protection. This is to ensure my Department has adequate capacity and can respond flexibly to increases in demand as they arise and move away from reliance on emergency accommodation. The aim of this process is to improve the quality of the accommodation and services offered to international protection applicants and to align more closely with the aims of the White Paper and with national standards. As the Deputy will be aware, independent living is central to the national standards.

Would I be right in believing that the number who entered in the past year and a half is lower than in previous years? Am I correct that the number leaving has been matched by the number coming in? I would have believed that there was an opportunity in the past year and a half to radically reduce the number in direct provision, no matter how good that provision is. I recognise the progress being made, particularly on independent living but not so much on own-door facilities, although I acknowledge 33% have own-door accommodation. What discussions has the Minister had with the Department of Justice on how to expedite the reduction in the number of people in direct provision?

The Deputy touched on an important point in that the success of the Government's White Paper is predicated on the ability to process claims for international protection in a far more speedy manner than is currently the case. There is a commitment in this regard by the Department of Justice in terms of its response to the report of Dr. Catherine Day. It is a matter on which I have engaged extensively with the Minister, Deputy McEntee. The Minister of State in the Department of Justice, Deputy James Browne, is currently taking responsibility for this. I am to meet him in the near future to discuss it.

Deputy Ó Cuív is correct that there was a significant drop in the number entering in the past 16 months and that approximately the same number left as entered. During the worst period of the Covid pandemic, it was not possible for the Department of Justice to process international protection applications in the same manner as it was before it but that Department is considering a more online and satellite-type approach, including in its initial engagements with applicants. I hope to see its approach maintained after Covid.

I am very disappointed to hear the Department of Justice could not do what the rest of us had to do and continue processing the applications. Most of these processes lend themselves to being completed online.

All sorts of services have been provided very effectively during this period. It seems cruel that people are being retained in direct provision because of the inability of the service to deal with the applications. I wish the Minister all the best in his meeting.

When will the Minister have the number or what is the target for increasing the number of own-door or independent living accommodation? He gave figures of 71% and 33%, respectively. What does the Minister hope to achieve between now and the end of next year, that is in the next year and a half, by way of percentages in independent living and in own-door accommodation?

I thank the Deputy for his support for the process. In respect of the White Paper, we are currently setting out the transition team and the programme board. They will set out a clear set of goals as to what we expect to achieve in 2022, 2023 and by the end of 2024. A procurement process is about to be commenced right now in order that we can move away from those 24 emergency direct provision centres, which are the ones that are least likely to have own-door accommodation or cooking facilities. That tender process will insist upon an independent living model. My goal this year is to end the reliance on emergency accommodation and bring in this new set of direct provision centres that meet the national standards while at the same time working towards the wider vision of ending direct provision by the end of 2024.

Questions Nos. 59 to 67, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

International Protection

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

68. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the accommodation arrangements made for applicants for international protection in Galway city and county who are working as front-line workers during the Covid-19 pandemic; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35625/21]

I ask the Minister, in respect of the accommodation arrangements made for applicants for international protection in Galway City and county who are working as front-line workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, whether he will make a statement on the matter. This is a matter which lies somewhere between the IPAS and the HSE but it is the ultimate responsibility of the international protection system.

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic presented challenges to maintaining the health and safety of residents living in accommodation within the International Protection Accommodation Service, IPAS, as it did for the country as a whole.

In order to safeguard our residents, specific measures were put in place by IPAS in close collaboration with the HSE from the outset of the pandemic. These measures were first implemented at the same time as country-wide restrictions were imposed in March and April 2020. IPAS continues to work closely with the HSE to ensure that all appropriate measures are taken for the safeguarding of IPAS residents.

One of the measures introduced was a HSE-operated accommodation scheme for all healthcare workers, which can be availed of by IPAS residents. Queries in relation to any premises currently being operated by the HSE for the housing of front-line healthcare workers are matters for the HSE.

A number of other measures were taken as part of the pandemic response which include: provision for self-isolation facilities centres and off-site self-isolation; increased capacity to support physical and social distancing to ensuring no more than three non-related persons share a bedroom, which is now a permanent policy in IPAS; enhanced cleaning regimes and provision of PPE to all accommodation centres; regular communications and information on public health advice to residents and centre managers, both on the IPAS website and through resident newsletters; and the cocooning of all medically vulnerable and over 65-year-old residents.

My officials in IPAS have at all times co-operated fully with the HSE in respect of any testing that public health may decide to undertake. Any resident who tests positive is moved off-site for self-isolation along with their close contacts in the centre, until such time as the HSE considers that they can safely return to their centre. The HSE operates two off-site facilities and IPAS has also provided one isolation centre.

The Minister seems to be saying that these applicants for international protection, because they have become front-line workers, are no longer the responsibility of his Department and are purely the responsibility of the HSE but has the Minister insisted that the HSE provide these applicants with suitable accommodation because I have received complaints as to their accommodation, particularly taking into account that these are front-line workers providing front-line services in our country?

I thank the Deputy. I am not saying that they are not the responsibility of my Department. They continue to be IPAS applicants and their IPAS space within the direct provision centre is reserved. What I am saying is that in order to take up this particular scheme, it is the HSE which supplies and oversees it and in particular, the HSE oversees the accommodation that is provided.

If the Deputy is happy to so do, I ask him to refer to me the complaints about the specific type of accommodation he has come across. I would be happy to engage with him and with the HSE about that particular matter. I appreciate his drawing it to my attention.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.