Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Childcare Services

I thank the Office of the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter and the Minister for being here to respond to the debate. It is fair to say the title that has been given to the matter raised is an abbreviated version of the question that was asked. It was prompted by the publication last week by HIQA of the overview report of statutory foster care services 2019-2020. On its publication last week, the report got some coverage. It was very critical in places of the services that are provided in parts of the country, in particular in the community healthcare organisation, CHO, that covers my home area of Carlow, Kilkenny and south Tipperary, in terms of access to social workers for children in foster care and families providing foster care in the region.

Some of the statistics were very stark. The initial part of the report from 2019 described how more than one fifth of children in care in Carlow, Kilkenny and south Tipperary were not allocated social workers for long-term charge of their case. The number of children in 2019 was 72, which is an incredibly high figure, behind which is hidden 72 young lives that are placed in the charge of the State, in this case under the supervision of Tusla and social workers employed by it. The report went on to describe the provision of services in Carlow, Kilkenny and south Tipperary as "chaotic", with frequent changes in allocated social workers to individual cases.

The figures for 2020 were better, in that the number of children without an allocated social worker for their long-term care in Carlow, Kilkenny and south Tipperary was reduced to 30, but that still hides the fact we are talking about 30 young lives that need to be protected. In many circumstances, most of the children who find themselves in foster care are in the most vulnerable category of children you could possibly deal with, and 30 is still an unacceptably high figure.

What was possibly even more disturbing about the report is that while one in five children in 2019 in the Carlow, Kilkenny and south Tipperary area did not have an allocated long-term social worker, the figures for south Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare were 19%, in the mid-west, 18% and for the midlands, 17%. It is fair to say the report was critical of Tusla. The report indicated that in the change between 2019 and 2020, the figures were moving in a downward direction but were still alarmingly high. I know there are ongoing challenges for Tusla in workforce recruitment and retention, in this case of social workers to deal with children in foster care.

I welcome the Minister's views and direction as to ensuring that figure of 30 can be reduced as soon as possible to zero for Carlow, Kilkenny, and south Tipperary, as well as the other regions of the country.

I thank the Deputy for this Topical Issue and welcome the opportunity to speak on what is an extremely important matter. There are approximately 6,000 children in care in the State today. The majority of these children live with foster carers and a small number live in residential care. Appropriate oversight of foster care placements is important to ensure that the needs of children are met and that foster carers are supported.

Under the National Standards for Foster Care 2003 and the Placement of Children in Care Regulations 1995, children in care are required to have a written care plan and an allocated social worker, while foster carers are required to have a dedicated link worker. These dedicated staff members have a key role to play in placement stability and ensuring that the evolving needs of children are met. In addition, regular contact with social workers is a protective factor for vulnerable children. Children should feel that their social worker knows and understands them and takes their concerns seriously. Where a child does not have a social worker, it can end up causing frustration for the child, and it puts additional pressure on the social work area to ensure that planning and child in care reviews happen in a timely manner.

The Deputy specifically refers to the Carlow, Kilkenny and south Tipperary area. HIQA's inspections of services in this Tulsa area. including most recently in October 2020, clearly demonstrate pressures within the service, including staffing shortages and unallocated cases. Over recent years, this area has been one of five with a disproportionately high number of unallocated cases when compared to the remaining 12 Tusla regions, and the Deputy made reference to these five regions. Issues in the most recent HIQA inspections were specifically linked to vacancies in the area at the time the inspections took place. Since then, Tusla has worked intensively to address issues within this area. It is important to note that HIQA has accepted the action plan Tusla has provided in response to these inspections. Among the key actions were the prioritising of recruitment of social workers for the children in care team and assigning a social care worker and a link worker to every child in care who was unallocated. These cases are monitored on a weekly basis by the principal social worker, and children's statutory care plans are kept up to date.

The cyberattack has impacted on Tusla's performance reporting. I am going to follow up with Tusla on the matter and will write to the Deputy directly to give the most up-to-date account in terms of meeting the action plan.

It is encouraging to note that the inspections also found evidence of highly-dedicated social workers and other Tusla staff who are clearly committed to providing quality services to children and families. Inspectors also found that most children are happy with their foster carers and the vast majority of foster care placements are stable, which is so important for these young people. HIQA, as the regulatory body, plays a key role in ensuring that services are accountable.

The recruitment and retention of social workers is a priority for Tusla, requiring investment now and into the future. In some areas, including the area to which the Deputy refers, there are staff shortages on social work teams. It is clear from Tusla's own performance reporting and regulatory inspections that these staffing shortages are impacting service delivery in a minority of Tusla’s regions.

It is important to note that children whose care is unallocated still receive a social work service. These children are looked after by social work team leaders and duty teams, and are reallocated to a named social worker as soon as possible. It is Tusla policy that no child without an allocated social worker should be placed with foster carers who do not have a link worker.

In terms of the measures Tusla has taken to improve recruitment, it now has its own in-house recruitment service and actively engages with third-level institutions to attract new graduates. Almost two thirds of social work graduates this year were recruited directly by Tusla. In addition, Tusla has had success in turning agency staff into full-time staff.

I thank the Minister. On that last point, I would be interested to know if Tusla is actively engaged in trying to recruit Irish graduates who are overseas. We are all public representatives and we are all social workers with a small s and w, and we deal with people who are often at the most difficult times in their lives. I understand it when the Minister says that unallocated cases still receive social work support. I know he understands the point. In his comments, he spoke about the link that can be established between a long-term social worker who is attached to a specific case and a child or a foster family. That leads to good relationships and, I would argue, probably also to better outcomes for children and foster families.

In conclusion, I acknowledge that Tusla has taken remedial action but the figure of 30 unallocated cases in Carlow, Kilkenny and south Tipperary is way too high. I thank the Minister for stating he is going to respond directly and follow up on some of the points that have been raised. I also ask him to ask Tusla, when it is dealing with recruitment, to identify graduates in different parts of the sciences who left the country in the last number of years, before Covid and before travel restrictions were implemented. I am sure some, though not all, would be very interested in a long-term career in social work and employment with Tusla in the State.

I thank the Deputy. He is right that there are a significant number of Irish social work graduates in the UK, Australia and other jurisdictions. Tusla has been particularly targeting those in the UK, using professional journals and so on as part of its advertising campaign. Tusla has had real success and 2020 was the first year for a long time that the net number of incoming social workers was greater than the number of those exiting, which is because of that conversion. It was taking a lot of agency staff and giving them permanent or full-time contracts, which was obviously very attractive to many graduates. The scheme it has brought in this year, directly targeting fresh graduates coming out of the universities and offering them a contract immediately, again, even if it is only for a number of years, is very attractive to get that initial element of experience.

Of course, we have been happy to support Tusla. The Government gave Tusla very significant support last year, with an additional €66 million in funding, the biggest bump in funding it had received since the organisation’s foundation. That was a recognition, particularly last year, that Tusla needed support because it is dealing with the most vulnerable children, whether it is children in residential care or children in foster care, as the Deputy has identified.

The Deputy is right to raise this issue. Whether it is 72 children in 2019 or 30 in 2020, it is still too many, although it is good to see the numbers are coming down. HIQA has accepted Tusla's action plan in respect of Carlow, Kilkenny and south Tipperary. We will get direct responses to the Deputy on those issue issues so we can, hopefully, see a continuing fall in the number of unallocated cases.

Coroners Service

A year ago, sadly, Andrew Gearns passed away. I want to take this opportunity to express my condolences to the Gearns family. One year on, his family are still waiting for an inquest and they feel it would help them to move forward with their grief. Andrew's brother Evan contacted me, very upset and frustrated at the length of time the family are waiting for an inquest.

Unfortunately, there are too many families like the Gearns family in Cork. This is not the fault of the coroner or his staff, who do Trojan work despite being under-resourced and understaffed. Cork Coroners Court deals with a quarter of the cases that the Dublin City Coroner deals with yet has only two staff compared to Dublin's 24. The courtroom they used pre-Covid is now an office to facilitate social distancing and the coroner has to fit in inquests where he can. Without proper funding, the coroner cannot do his job and families like the Gearns are left waiting. Surely, the Minister of State can recognise the role she has to play in this.

When somebody dies in tragic circumstances or other circumstances that require an inquest, that inquest is part of the process of healing, recovering afterwards and grieving. Obviously, it is complex and it is not possible to do it straight away.

It is not reasonable to expect families to wait a year and more for such an inquest, particularly when there may be unanswered questions and when there may be so much that they want to know, or where there is a need for closure. That is what the inquest is about.

I have been contacted by families who have been waiting for a significant period, including the Gearns, whose situation Deputy Gould eloquently outlined. It is heartbreaking.

It also affects our understanding as policymakers. For example, it slows down our ability to gather statistics on suicides. Indeed, there is a wider issue about the inconsistency of how numbers relating to suicides are compiled in coroner's reports. It slows down the ability to compile statistics around accidents and the like. This is all slowed down by the fact that the coroner's court is facing such delays. They are not without importance.

The key issue is families are waiting a year or more to find out what happened to their loved one and to find answers to so many of their questions. That is not remotely good enough. Deputy Gould outlined it. With a quarter of the cases that Dublin handles and one twelfth of the staff, how can they keep up? It is not their fault. They do not have the resources. They need far greater resources to deal with these inquests.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter and for the opportunity to provide clarity on some issues.

The Coroner Service comprises the network of coroners located in districts throughout the country. Coroners are independent quasi-judicial officeholders whose core function is to investigate sudden and unexplained deaths so that a death certificate can be issued.

This is an important public service to the living, in particular, to the next-of-kin and friends of the deceased. Coroners not only provide closure for those bereaved, but also perform, as Deputy Ó Laoghaire said, a wider public service by identifying matters of public health and safety concerns.

The timing and conduct of inquests in any district is a matter entirely for the coroner concerned. Neither I nor my Department has any function in this regard.

Most coroners hold inquests in local court houses, and as a result of Covid-19 public health considerations, inquests have unfortunately been severely curtailed. My Department is aware that the delay in holding inquests is causing distress for families and officials from my Department are liaising with the Courts Service on this matter.

The Courts Service works closely with coroners across the country to facilitate inquests and continues to do so while ensuring adherence to public health guidelines.

I thank the Minister of State.

We know the coroner is independent. We are not asking about that. What we are asking is that the service would be funded, resourced and staffed to deal with the work it has to do.

The coroner's job is serious and difficult. The Minister of State outlined the role I am asking what is her role and that of the Department, not in the coroner's work but in the coroner's support with funding and staffing issues.

Families must be supported, especially in this time of need, and not be left waiting months, and even more than a year, for a court date. It is simply not good enough.

There are have been many issues and delays because of Covid. Will the Minister of State give a commitment to provide the resources necessary to clear the backlog?

I have had a fair few Topical Issues taken since I was elected five years and that is one of the shortest printed responses I have ever seen. That is a desperate response. I can see from the Minister of State's face and from the way she spoke that she is sympathetic and that she understands the problem here. She did not write this. Officials in the Department of Justice had input into this. I ask her to have a word with them. This is not a good enough response for us to go back to those families with.

The Minister of State will be aware that we are not asking her or the Department and her colleague, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to intervene with coroners and say that they need to hurry up. That is not the issue. The Department appoints the coroners. There are two staff in Cork, 24 in Dublin and the former has a quarter of the cases the latter has. They cannot keep up. How could they?

I believe the Minister of State is sympathetic. I ask her to go back to her Department and say this is not a good enough situation and more staff are needed in Cork. I ask her to work on that.

I understand the frustration and the pain of many families. I empathise with the concerns raised here tonight. I reiterate that I have no role in the timing and the conduct of the inquests and that it is strictly a matter for the coroner concerned.

Regarding the specific concerns relating to Cork, as I have said, the Courts Service works closely with coroners throughout the country to facilitate inquests. They continue to do so, ensuring that they adhere to public health. I will ask my officials to liaise bilaterally with the Deputies regarding the specific concerns in that area in particular.

Transport Infrastructure Ireland

I thank the Minister of State for taking our debate this evening.

It is important, for both Deputy McAuliffe and me, to speak about public transport in Dublin. Last year, during a debate with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, I called for public transport projects such as the MetroLink, the DART+ and Luas upgrades to be fast-tracked to deal with future demand and to give Dubliners an alternative to their car.

While I welcome these critical projects being included in the national development plan, NDP, it was disappointing not to see concrete timelines. Ultimately, agencies and officials take their lead from the top. I would like to see a more urgent hands-on approach to this particular issue. We need to be more ambitious when it comes to large-scale capital projects.

My colleague, Deputy McAuliffe, will deal with the MetroLink and Luas upgrades in more detail and I will focus my remarks on the NDP commitments and DART+.

This is the third week in a row in which I have raised questions on the metro project. I have addressed them to the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach and now the Department of Transport. The reason I have done that is there was significant concern in my community and many others in north Dublin about what was being reported as a strategic delay by Government in the metro project.

Yesterday, we saw in clear terms that not only is the Government committed to the metro project but it is committed to increased funding for it, but there remains a concern. For all of the reasons that Deputy Devlin outlined, the people of Dublin need different transport options. We need public transport options, cycling and active mobility. However, when we announce these projects, we also need to have integrity and credibility and public buy-in that these projects will be delivered in order that when we talk about metro, people believe that it will be delivered.

I accept, and it is well on the record, that the Government has not decided to delay the metro project but it is clear that there are delays. What are those delays and what will the Government do to ensure that they are addressed?

Along with all of the positives that come with this project, there will be negatives. This involves significant construction up Ballymun Road and beyond the M50. The residents living along that stretch will experience significant delays and disruption. We need to be honest with those people about when that will start and when it will conclude.

We need to get to the bottom of the delays in this project. People accept there will be delays with planning, legal issues, etc. What are the delays and what is the Department doing to resolve them?

I got the timing wrong.

I thought I had gone over my time.

The Deputies have two minutes each.

If I could finish my point on the DART underground, I was about to commend the fact that 41 new DART carriages are on the way, which is welcome.

A transport strategy for the greater Dublin area is under way. This would deal with the initial planning and design stages for the rail projects, such as the DART underground.

The DART underground has been on the cards since 1972 despite a reported €45 million being invested in planning and design. The DART underground is the missing link between Heuston and Pearse stations. It is seen as the Holy Grail of the integration of the DART network. As such, the DART underground is important for the city.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue, which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

Improving public transport services and infrastructure is central to improving citizens' quality of life and addressing our climate action challenge, and the Government is committed to a fundamental change in the nature of transport in Ireland. As the Government, we need to provide people more options so that they can make the switch to sustainable mobility. Within the national development plan, the Government has committed that MetroLink will be one of those options.

MetroLink faces imminent and important milestones in the coming months. These milestones will determine its progress in the coming years. First, there is the Government's approval of the preliminary business case. Second, there is the submission of a railway order application to An Bord Pleanála. There has been no impact on either of these significant milestones in recent days.

Regarding the first milestone, the Department of Transport has received the preliminary business case for the project. This represents decision gate No. 1 under the public spending code and indicates that the preliminary business case is currently under review. For major projects like MetroLink, the public spending code requires a Government decision. The Minister expects to seek such a Government decision in the near future. Approval by the Government will allow MetroLink to move into the statutory planning system, subject to the completion of the necessary planning and environmental documentation.

The second impending milestone is the submission of the railway order application. That application requires the finalisation of an extensive set of documentation, including environmental impact assessment reports. That work is ongoing. The Minister informed the House recently of his understanding that an extensive body of work remained in terms of finalising the preliminary design, completing the required environmental impact assessment reports and closing out property referencing issues. He stated his understanding that this work would be completed during quarter 1 next year. Subject to the Government decision, the project will then be ready to seek planning permission.

The preliminary business cases for BusConnects and DART+ are also being reviewed by the Department. The Minister expects to bring these projects to the Government for approval by the end of the year in line with the requirements of the public spending code. This will allow applications for a railway order for the DART+ West project and planning applications for the BusConnects core bus corridors to be submitted to An Bord Pleanála.

In addition to this necessary preparatory work, we are also seeing delivery on the ground. On active travel, we are all aware of the real progress that has been made in rolling out new and improved infrastructure across Dublin. We have seen some fantastic initiatives rolled out across all four Dublin local authority areas and the national development plan will support that in the years ahead.

Regarding BusConnects, we have already seen the roll-out of new services, with Howth starting earlier this year and Lucan to start by year's end. I am delighted to say that the reaction to the Howth spine has been positive.

The Luas green line capacity enhancement project has been successfully delivered with the delivery of eight new trams and 26 tram extensions.

Regarding rail, construction is continuing on the 41 new carriages for the greater Dublin area commuter rail fleet. They will arrive next year and enter into service in 2023.

I assure the Deputies that the Government is committed to improving and expanding public transport in Dublin. We have a busy programme ahead of us, but progress is being made and that progress will be supported by the funding secured in the national development plan.

I thank the Minister of State for that update. BusConnects and everything else seems to be on track in terms of everything we were told this year and late last year. That is welcome, as is the application to An Bord Pleanála.

Regarding active travel, some fantastic initiatives have been undertaken across Dublin. However, a key element is the coastal Sutton-Sandyford route, which has been part of the plans for more than 30 years. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is aware of the project. On-roading now appears to be the solution. We will need coastal defences across Dublin and we should at least consider putting cycling or walking facilities on those defences.

It is important that the Minister of State is present. On Friday, 22 October, our night-time economy will be open once again. We need a Nitelink service for all of Dublin from 22 October, not just the end of November.

I concur with my colleague on the need for a Nitelink service in Dublin from 22 October. I wish all of those engaged in the hospitality industry well on what will be a significant date.

I appreciate the Minister of State's answer. She is essentially saying that we are at the first stage of progressing the railway order. A great deal of informal public consultation has already taken place. The communities are ready for this to start.

The national development plan refers to the Finglas Luas project, which looks like it is being fast-tracked and is coming to construction earlier than indicated in the previous national development plan. However, if the delivery of the metro is not credible, then the delivery of the Finglas Luas project is not credible. Credibility will require more than just the Government publishing an indication or commitment in the plan. Rather, it will require the Government grabbing the project by the scruff of the neck and making sure that Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, and the National Transport Authority, NTA, do their job and deliver it on time and within a budget that provides value for the public's spending.

I will relay the Deputies' comments to the Minister. I reiterate that the national development plan supports and commits to BusConnects, DART+ and MetroLink. The most important date for MetroLink will be when it secures planning permission. To do that, it needs to enter the planning system and, to do that, it needs Government approval. The focus within the Department is on completing the review of the preliminary business case and secure Government approval. At project level, the focus will be on completing the work needed to submit a planning application. That work will be finished during quarter 1 of 2022. Those are the key dates for this project.

We are in a similar position with DART+. The most advanced projects within the overall project are DART+ Fleet and DART+ West. The key focus within the Department is on completing the review of the preliminary business case and the key focus at project level is on finalising the railway order application for DART+ West and the contract negotiations for DART+ Fleet. Public consultation is still ongoing in respect of DART+ West. That will need to finish and the issues raised will need to be considered before the project is ready to enter the planning system. In the meantime, the Minister expects to have brought the preliminary business case to the Government for approval.

I again thank the Deputies for the opportunity to address the House on this matter.

Proposed Legislation

The Minister of State is aware of this issue, given that contact was made with her this year when she advised that it was a matter for the Minister for Transport and that all correspondence should be sent to him.

I will provide the background. The carriages are a regular sight in and around the St. Stephen's Green area as well as St. James's Gate. In May 2019, carriage drivers led a convoy to Leinster House to ask that new by-laws be made in respect of drivers in the capital. Since 2018, Dublin City Council has not issued licences for carriage drivers, which would allow them to operate commercially. This is due to older Victorian laws - the Dublin Carriage Act 1853 and the Dublin Amended Carriage Acts 1854 and 1855 - that state that the responsibility lies with the police force. These need to be repealed. In 2011, Dublin City Council took over responsibility for the licensing of horse-drawn carriage operators and drivers from the Garda Carriage Office. In late 2018, however, the council was advised that the legal basis for its by-laws regulating horse-drawn carriages was uncertain. As a result, it was determined that the council's 2011 by-laws on the control of horse-drawn carriages were not valid. In late 2019, the Attorney General confirmed that Dublin City Council was not empowered to regulate horse-drawn carriages because the 1853 to 1855 Acts had previously vested the power to regulate horse-drawn carriages in Dublin in the Commissioner of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, to which An Garda Síochána is the successor. The Attorney General advised that legislation had to be introduced. Approval was given in December 2019 for the general scheme of a Bill empowering all local authorities to regulate this area.

I have looked through the legislative programme for this year.

There is nothing in it with regard to this issue which has been ongoing since 2018. This is a serious issue. If a tourist or other person gets knocked down in an accident involving one of these uninsured horse-drawn carriages, he or she will be completely at a loss and in a difficult situation.

The former Minister, Mr. Ross, received approval from the then Cabinet to draft a Bill. Where is it? As I said, this is a serious issue. In 2022, we will have been waiting four years for this legislation. With the lifting of Covid restrictions, we will see an increase in tourists. Operators who were previously licensed want horse-drawn carriages to be covered by a system under which they must be registered and display licensing plates, insurance discs and so on. Will the Minister of State give a clear indication as to when legislation to deal with this matter will be introduced because Dublin City Council needs to be able to move now to introduce the by-laws that are needed?

I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan. I thank Deputy Collins for raising the matter of the regulation of horse-drawn carriages for hire and reward within the Dublin area. The Minister has asked me to use this opportunity to outline how this issue came about and to set out the work under way with Dublin City Council to resolve this issue.

I welcome that work on this matter is progressing. I have checked the legislative programme for 2021 and there is nothing within it in regard to this issue, which would indicate it is not being prepared. Will the Minister of State give me a date for when a general scheme of a Bill will be forthcoming?

At this stage, we are in a very difficult situation in that anyone over the age of 16 years can operate a horse-drawn carriage for hire or reward. There is no regulation, no inspections for insurance, no vehicle roadworthiness testing, no Garda vetting, no pre-checks to determine if a horse is suitable for the job and no requirement to display a licence plate in order that a member of the public can report an incident. The Garda does not have the power to do anything except through the Road Traffic Acts, which is very difficult. We know for definite there are criminals operating some of these carriages. The system is very loose in regard to those who were previously licensed and who want legislation introduced so that they can operate in a safe environment and to ensure they are well covered.

Operators who were previously licensed are keen to see this area regulated. They were keen to link-in with the former Minister and to get involved in the discussions, but they appear to have been excluded from the current process. In the previous Dáil, former Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, raised this issue many times. I have read over the many questions she put down at that time.

I welcome that work is being progressed. Will the Minister of State give me a more definite timeline for the introduction of the legislation and will the Minister encourage the involvement in that process of those who were previously licensed?

I will convey what the Deputy stated here to the Minister, Deputy Ryan. On the process, once the general scheme is published, the Minister will engage with the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications in regard to commencement of the pre-legislative scrutiny. I want again to underline the Government's commitment to resolving this issue and empowering Dublin City Council to regulate horse-drawn carriages on the same basis as every other local authority. I am happy to confirm to the House work on the development of legislation in this area is no longer on hold. It is progressing in close co-operation with Dublin City Council. I will ask the Minister to come back to the Deputy on the issue of wider engagement around the process.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.48 p.m. until 9.12 a.m. on Wednesday, 6 October 2021.