Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Question No. 100 replied to with Written Answers.

Childcare Services

Paul McAuliffe

Question:

101. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his plans for a State-funded national childcare system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48656/21]

At last night's Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting, speaker after speaker stood up and spoke about the need for a universal childcare system and for us to start the journey in doing that. I ask the Minister to outline to the House the steps he intends to take to put that in place both in the forthcoming budget and in the lifetime of the Government, as it will make such a significant impact in the lives of children.

The Deputy will understand I will not give out budget secrets today. I know he and I have engaged extensively on the matter, and as I said to other Deputies earlier, my Department is currently investing €638 million in early learning and childcare, amounting to approximately 60% of the total income of the sector. Most of the rest of the income is from parental fees.

The investment of €638 million in 2020 is distinct from the funding that early learning and childcare employers can access under the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. As the Deputy knows, businesses in the sector are exempt from having to prove a 30% reduction in turnover as I was able to negotiate that exemption for them. For each month during Covid-19, that exemption has represented an additional €34 million investment in the sector.

The programme for Government commits us to the First 5 strategy and commits us to the target of €1 billion being invested per year by 2028 and I have noted that for the additional public investment to work, we must have greater public management. That is why we have had the expert group researching how to link more money being invested with better outcomes for parents, children, providers and childcare professionals as well. The expert group has been researching the matter and it will bring its report to my Department in November this year and I am looking forward to receiving it. I have been engaging with the group since coming to office and I have a sense of where its recommendations will end up. The group has certainly inspired my budget bid to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform this year.

I do not wish to speculate on the exact construction of the final recommendation from the expert group but I know it comprises national and international experts and they have very much looked around the rest of Europe and further in considering what models work to ensure public investment is combined with public management to get those really important outcomes for children.

I did not expect the Minister to give away budget secrets but it is good to hear the trajectory he is on. I suppose the proof of the pudding will be in budgets in years to come because he is right in that significant investment is being made. Nevertheless, significantly more investment must be made. The EWSS in the childcare sector has given us a taste of what a significant State investment in the staffing costs of childcare providers could do. I welcome its extension and I would like to see it extended further until other arrangements are put in place.

The Minister is also correct that we must also have proper management and governance. The community childcare model is the place to start in this regard. The Minister has, very kindly, met several different childcare providers from Ballymun and Finglas, comprising a range of different models. It was very clear that negotiating that patchwork quilt of different schemes for different sectors is a nightmare. We must move to a model that is far simpler and more targeted at those areas that need such resources.

I thank the Deputy for arranging that meeting with some of the providers in his constituency. We had good online engagement and I met them face to face on Tuesday outside Leinster House when they formed part of the protest. We had another really useful conversation. That is really useful for me in understanding the real-life implications of the policy decisions we make in the Department. I really value those engagements. The Deputy is correct that the trajectory is really important and the budget this year will demonstrate that trajectory. It is just as important to look at what we have done during Covid-19 as a demonstration, I hope, of how we can build good faith with the sector with measures like the EWSS supports that the Deputy mentioned. There are also measures relating to that idea of public management, including setting up the joint labour committee, JLC, which has been sought for years. We have started that process and we are also well advanced in work on the workforce development plan in order that new people coming to the sector will be able to see a clear career pathway.

Rights of People with Disabilities

Michael Moynihan

Question:

102. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the details of Ireland’s plans to sign the optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48707/21]

I believe Deputy Calleary is authorised to ask this question.

Today, on "Stars in Their Eyes", I will be Deputy Michael Moynihan. I would like information on our plan as per the programme for Government commitment to sign the optional protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important question. He is quite correct in saying this is part of our commitments in the programme for Government.

I thank the Minister of State and acknowledge her work in this field since her appointment not just as a Minister of State but as a spokesperson on disability matters back in 2016. Now, as part of the Government, she is actioning much of what she called for then. Is there a timeline on earlier ratification or is it completely dependent on the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act being commenced? She has indicated that this might happen by June or July next year. Is it a firm commitment that this will be done before the end of next year's summer session or will it depend on the work being done by both the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, in the Department?

The Minister of State knows directly the frustration of people with disabilities and those with additional needs because we are signing up to all these charters but that does not make a difference to their daily experience of services. While these are all gold-standard flag-waving occasions, the lived experience of people with disabilities and those with additional needs is worsening. I acknowledge in particular the work being done by the Minister of State in clearing assessment waiting lists because children with disabilities and their parents are continuing to go through the wringer on a daily basis despite all of what we are signing up to.

I thank the Deputy again. There are three elements to this, with the first being the securing of funding last year in the budget. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, was successful in doing that and the funding ensures we can recruit staff to work on the decision support services. That is in train and the funding, which was in excess of €3 million, was secured. That work is under way to ensure we deliver on the target of having a decision support service in place by June to July of next year.

The next element is the legislation being brought forward in this session that amends the 2015 Bill. That will put a legal footing in place. We need to have those elements in place. The third element is the publication of the UN report going before the Cabinet.

We are on target, at this moment in time, for next June or July. Once those three pathways are cleared, we then will be in a position to follow up on what the Secretary General said before the Oireachtas committee on working towards the publication of the optional protocol.

I welcome the fact that the Minister of State is on target. I also do not expect either her or the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, to give us sight of the budget. I acknowledge the extra investment but it is not being seen on the ground. We have had this conversation. It seems to go into a big black hole and people's lived experience continues to worsen and disimprove. When the budget is published there will, possibly, be extra resources, but where are they going?

Members of the National Federation of Voluntary Service Providers tell me that it is in the worst state it has been in for many years. They have not had the capacity to fundraise as a consequence of Covid. That fundraising was the difference between them being able to provide a service and being able to assist families in very hard situations. We will have massive amounts of millions and billions of euro announced on Tuesday and then, ultimately, as part of a service plan, but we need to see where that is being spent. We need to see if that will help our communities and families.

As the Minister of State finalises her budget this weekend, I ask her to keep that in mind. Billions mean nothing if people are not getting respite, if their child cannot get a place in school and they cannot go to their local town, as we saw during Make Way Day. Billions mean nothing if they cannot get a service.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to speak on budgetary matters. My budget is not finalised at this moment in time. I am still in negotiation with the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, for my fair share for disability. The Deputy is correct; intervention has to be the priority. There is no point in clearing an assessment of needs waiting list if I cannot deliver on intervention. I need more money for therapists. I need to build on the 100 therapists I got last year and the 85 earlier this year. I need to build on that.

At the same time, we are coming out of Covid and we are still not out of it. Respite was closed for most of that period, especially for young people. We need to build on existing capacity. Last year, I secured nine houses in the budget. Eight of them are built and are going into operation, while the ninth is happening in December. I need to double that because I saw how successful it was. It released a valve and gave breathing space to families. This time, my ambition is to have nine houses for children and nine for adults. That is building capacity into the system without, at the same time, forcing people into full-time residential care.

Youth Services

Brendan Griffin

Question:

103. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the way he can support national youth organisations and local youth services and clubs; if there is specific support for locations experiencing rapid population growth; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48680/21]

I want to raise this issue with the Minister. I have noticed there are now villages in my constituency that were very small places 20 years ago but have grown hugely with the building of new housing estates in that time. These places now have many young people approaching teenage years but, unfortunately, the facilities and services have not kept in train with the development of those towns. We now have a situation where many young people have very little to do at weekends, especially at night-time. They are hanging around the streets with nothing to do. I would like to talk about that and how we can help that situation.

I entirely agree with the Deputy. The work being carried out by national youth organisations through volunteer-led clubs and groups is of major importance. It can be transformative for young people. That is why my Department has worked hard to continue to support these services through a range of funding and other measures. In 2021, we are providing €66.8 million, through a number of schemes, to support the work of youth services and national youth organisations. That includes an additional €5 million in extra spending I got in budget 2021 in particular recognition of the work being done by these services, how they struggled during Covid and how they stepped up to support young people during the pandemic.

Many of the schemes funded by my Department are delivered through the education and training boards, ETBs, throughout the country and with funding from my Department, the ETBs employ dedicated youth staff and conduct needs assessments of their areas to determine their subsequent funding schemes. The needs assessments must have regard to a number of factors, including population growth, which the Deputy highlighted as a key issue. In my Estimates discussion for 2022, my Department is again referencing the data on demographics that affect young people. My officials hold quarterly meetings with senior management in the ETBs throughout the country. These meetings help my officials to identify service needs and emerging issues and, in particular for vulnerable young people, to plan how we address them.

In 2021, the additional €5 million provided is assisting existing youth services to deliver services and to expand their reach to additional young people. We also used that money to set up six brand new services throughout the country. These services will respond to the increased needs of young people in these areas and the very specific needs of certain groups.

This is a sector I value and of which I am highly supportive. Again, in my engagement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, I will seek to continue to increase support for the sector in this budget.

I thank the Minister. It is important that he always bears in mind that population growth happens throughout the country. It is not something that is only happening on the east coast. Many pockets throughout the country have seen major growth in population. For example, Milltown, which used to be a village and is now a town, is quite close to where I come from. When I started knocking on doors there almost 20 years ago, there were two housing estates in the village. There are now more than ten estates and the population has grown massively. There is a great youth club locally, and other facilities, but a lot of the time there is not much for young people to do.

I acknowledge the great work being done by youth services in Kerry, throughout the county, and the support they get from the Department. The ETBs also do marvellous work, but there needs to be better joined-up thinking between established community organisations and our youth services. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, there should be greater collaboration to put on events and things that will attract young people. That is something we could work a little more on.

Of the six new services launched this year, only one was in Dublin. It is important to recognise that. We recognise population growth occurs all over the country. In rural areas, a youth service may often be the only outlet for young people, whereas there are other choices in highly urbanised areas. We put significant investment into some of the big operations in Kerry, such as Kerry Diocesan Youth Services, KDYS, which is the key linchpin in providing substantial youth services across a large number of areas. We also support the national organisations that are available, such as Scouting Ireland and the Irish Girl Guides, and those small youth services the Deputy referred to.

I take the Deputy's point on joined-up thinking. Youth information is one of the things we have invested more in this year. That sounds a little abstract but youth services see it as very important in trying to get information to them about funding and other ways they can integrate with other Government supports.

It is very important, especially in the context of the space we are in, post pandemic - hopefully, we can say post pandemic - that a reset button has been pressed. Much of the social fabric of the country has been ripped asunder in the past year and a half. While we need to put that back together, with that comes an opportunity. The Minister referenced KDYS, which does marvellous and great work in Kerry but all our sporting organisations and community councils also do great work. Rather than youth services feeling the onus is on them and them alone to look after our young people, we should have a more collaborative approach where we interact with the established clubs and organisations rooted in every community and have a more youth-focused approach, with activities that are outside the core activities of those organisations. That will certainly be part of the solution.

I welcome the investment. Capital will also be needed to create centres in certain areas of population growth. For example, the KDYS youth centres in Kerry, and those throughout the country, are great places but we need more of them and they need to be resourced. That is not easy, but it something that is very worthwhile.

The point the Deputy made on activities outside those that are core is very interesting because the Tánaiste and I met a number of people working in national youth services recently to discuss what they can do to support Government actions on youth unemployment. There is a focus on that post pandemic. We are seeing unemployment rates come down, which is very important, but there is a group of young people who are very distant from further and higher education or employment. A youth service is often the first engagement they have with any sort of State supports. They will not go into an Intreo office or to a social welfare office but if you get them into a youth service you can then talk to them about soft skills and, possibly, putting a CV together, just in case. That initial engagement can be very important in getting them that first job and getting something on their CV that builds their confidence. We are looking at how we can support those services to work in areas outside their core activities and thus broaden the influence of youth services in the country.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

John Lahart

Question:

104. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the status of the implementation of the 22-point action plan following publication of the mother and baby homes commission of investigation final report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48694/21]

I am stepping in for Deputy Lahart. When the mother and baby homes commission report was released, many promises were made to survivors. What is the status of the implementation of the 22-point action plan, following the publication of the final report of the mother and baby homes commission of investigation? It is important that survivors are aware of progress on the 22 recommendations. Where are we on those?

I thank the Deputy. This is an issue she raises with me on a regular basis, and I thank her for her ongoing engagement. As she said, in response to the final report of the commission of investigation, the Government approved a suite of 22 specific measures. My Department is finalising a high-level action plan for survivors and former residents of mother and baby and county home institutions. I intend to bring this action plan to Government and publish it later this month. Once approved, the action plan will support structured implementation with defined governance and monitoring processes for each of the 22 actions.

At the same time, my Department has been steadily working to develop individual measures to ensure that survivors see tangible results as early as possible. I will outline some of those. It is important to reiterate that there is a dedicated counselling support service available and it continues to be available nationwide for all survivors of these institutions. I have also established a dedicated information management unit within my Department, with a professional archivist to manage the commission's archive of records and support access for individuals to their personal information.

A key element of the Government's response is to develop a scheme to provide financial payments in the form of enhanced medical cards. I tasked an interdepartmental group with developing detailed proposals with a human rights focus, informed by significant consultations and engagement with survivors. I will be bringing costed proposals to Cabinet for proposal on the matter later this month.

As the Deputy knows, we published two substantial items of draft legislation. The birth information and tracing Bill seeks to enshrine in law the right of access to a full and unredacted birth certificate. That Bill is undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny but, as I said to the committee last week, my Department continues to engage with the Attorney General on the issues that are arising and to bring forward early amendments. Separately, I am considering the committee's report on the certain institutional burials Bill. I think we are all in agreement that the children at the site in Tuam deserve an appropriate burial. I am determined to achieve this dignity for them and their families through this Bill.

I thank the Minister and welcome the news. Communication from the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is very important. We are working with the Minister and other Departments.

Survivors speak of urgency, particularly because so many of them are much older now than when the commission began its work. That is a concern. Those people are anxious to receive redress. This scheme is expected to open next year. I appreciate the work the Minister is doing but I feel that perhaps we should try to have more communication with different groups of survivors. History does not inspire survivors. Look at what happened with Caranua. Look at the Ombudsman report into the Magdalen redress scheme. Years later, some women have yet to receive compensation and medical support. We cannot let that happen in this case. For decades, this State oppressed women and children. We cannot further harm them by dillydallying on these recommendations. Can the Minister assure me that enough urgency is being placed on this matter?

I thank the Deputy. She has made important points. I will try to offer her reassurance. I hope the action plan, with each of the 22 points, and how we intend, quarter by quarter, to implement them, will provide some reassurance.

The point the Deputy made about communication is really important. It is an issue that has been raised when I have met survivors, particularly when I met survivors' groups in Tuam at the end of August. I have endeavoured to improve the amount of communications we send, particularly through the dedicated email list, to survivors. That has been acknowledged.

I also take the Deputy's point about the provision of redress and the importance of learning from the mistakes of previous schemes. That came through to us very strongly during the extensive consultation we did with survivors via the interdepartmental group. It also came through in the paper from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. That is central to the scheme I am seeking to design and get Government approval for shortly.

I thank the Minister. He is right, I have met with him regularly and I know he is totally committed. I thank him for that. I also know he has met with some survivors from my own area. I am delighted to tell him that we are working on five plaques in the County Carlow for cemeteries and buildings. We are making that change, although it is slow change. I am delighted to be part of my own group in Carlow.

I welcome the fact that the Minister has been asking the local authorities to review the lands that formerly housed mother and baby homes to prevent unsuitable development from proceeding. That is important. We must treat sites with delicacy, as we are doing. I am aware that the Minister is moving on many of the recommendations and associated works. As the Minister knows, I am a delighted to be a member of the children's committee. We are working on the adoption and tracing legislation, which is important.

What is the update on medical cards? Many survivors have contacted me about medical cards. People are not getting any younger and it is important that we ensure we deliver as many of the recommendations as we can as soon as possible.

Enhanced medical cards will be provided as part of the redress package, along with financial payments, the detail of which will be set out in the costed proposals I will bring to the Government this month.

Local memorialisation is very important and can often be the most meaningful for individuals who grew up in an area and were incarcerated in one of these institutions. It is valuable when they see that local recognition of what happened to them. I recognise the work the Deputy has done with the group she helped to establish in Carlow, the members of which she introduced me to.

The treatment of these sites, particularly in the context of development plans, is something that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and I have been engaging on. I wrote to him a number of months ago and I know he is engaging with local authorities. I spoke to him about this matter earlier this week. Work is continuing in terms of the guidance he will give to local authorities about how these sites should be protected within county and city development plans.

Asylum Seekers

John Lahart

Question:

105. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the number of refugees accepted from Afghanistan since 1 August 2021; the status of the acceptance of refugees from Syria under the Ireland refugee protection programme, IRPP, II; the challenge that exist in taking larger numbers of refugees from both crisis zones; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48693/21]

Steven Matthews

Question:

115. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the number of refugees from Afghanistan that have been accepted into the IRPP following the seizing of power by the Taliban in August 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48302/21]

Brian Leddin

Question:

118. Deputy Brian Leddin asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the number of refugees from Afghanistan who have been accepted into the IRPP following the seizing of power by the Taliban in August 2021; the background of persons who have been granted permission to come to Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48310/21]

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

119. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the status of the assistance he and his Department have provided to date in regard to the vulnerable children and their families fleeing the crisis in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48446/21]

We all watched the events in Afghanistan with horror. The Irish people immediately wanted to help. Will the Minister tell me the number of refugees accepted from Afghanistan since 1 August 2021?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 105, 115, 118 and 119 together.

In response to the crisis in Afghanistan, my Department, through the IRPP, has made approximately 400 refugee places available for humanitarian places from Afghanistan.

Since August, 189 Afghan nationals from 49 families have entered Ireland from Afghanistan under the IRPP of whom 76 are aged under 18 years. Further arrivals are expected over the coming weeks. A further 13 Afghan nationals, or three families, arrived in Ireland in September on foot of Ireland's pledge to relocate refugee families from Greece following the fires in the Moria camp on Lesbos. The cohort relocating from Greece also included 39 Syrian refugees, comprising eight families.

My Department has co-operated with a wide range of organisations, including Amnesty International, the Irish Refugee Council, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to identify individuals and families whom we could welcome to Ireland under the Irish refugee protection programme. We have prioritised human rights defenders, people who have been supporting women's organisations, members of the LGBTI+ community, journalists and those who are most at risk from the Taliban takeover.

While responding to the needs emerging from the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, we continue to meet our existing international humanitarian obligations, particularly in continuing to bring Syrian refugees from camps in Lebanon and Jordan to Ireland. I am pleased to report that the IRPP recently undertook and completed a mission to Lebanon, interviewing over 260 individuals with a view to providing them with refugee status here in Ireland. A further selection mission for Syrian refugees in Jordan will take place next month. The IRPP aims to transfer selected refugees from both missions to Ireland as soon as possible.

The IRPP supports are normally intensive in nature because of the vulnerability of many programme refugees. Programme refugees qualify for housing provided by local authorities or through community sponsorship groups. They also have access to intensive English language supports provided by the education and training boards across the country. Conscious of the dangers experienced by many Afghans, the IRPP has sought to respond innovatively to this crisis, including by seeking support from potential refugee sponsors and civil society organisations to enable it to maximise the number of places available on its programme for Afghan nationals.

It is expected that not all arrivals from Afghanistan will need the supports normally extended to refugee families, such as language classes and orientation. Refugees will be assisted to access services such as education and health services by the IRPP. The provision of assistance with travel to Ireland is being examined, where required. Accommodation is being sourced through a range of initiatives including, but not limited to, public pledges and community sponsorship. This is intended to ensure that we do not place additional pressure on local authorities' housing resources, where possible, and to enable Afghan refugees to be admitted as programme refugees and to have access to employment at an early stage.

I particularly recognise the community sponsorship model that has been used and implemented by many groups across the country. Under Community Sponsorship Ireland, a trained group of people in a community come together and commit to supporting a refugee family with education, employment, medical supports and housing for a period of up 18 months after a family arrives in Ireland. This helps to prepare refugee families for a new and independent life in Ireland. It has been absolutely crucial in integrating families who have experienced absolutely incredible fear and terror in initially leaving their home countries before possibly spending many years living in incredibly precarious circumstances in a refugee camp. These community sponsorship groups are helping to integrate these families into their local communities. It is a really selfless act. My Department continues to support these groups. As I said when speaking on Afghanistan earlier this week, if any Deputies know people in their own constituency who are interested in setting up a community sponsorship group, I ask them to please get in touch so that we can provide them with all of the relevant information.

Ireland has previously joined with the international community in highlighting that any future provision of support to the Afghan Government will be conditional on its protection and promotion of human rights, especially for women, girls and minorities. Like all of us, I was particularly concerned about reports of violence and coercion against women and girls, including reports of forced marriage, sexual violence and serious human rights abuses perpetrated against civilians across Afghanistan. Ireland acted swiftly and compassionately to demonstrate our support for, and solidarity with, the Afghan people. The Minister and his Department are to be applauded. This is an important development. There are many in Ireland with deep concerns for family members who have remained in crisis. Almost 250 places were allocated on the IRPP for Afghan citizens who have worked on human rights issues. Everything that we do to assist is of great importance. What is the situation regarding accepting Syrian refugees under the IRPP?

I share the Deputy's concerns. From my direct engagement with members of the Afghan community living here in Ireland, I know that things are very bad in Afghanistan right now. The PR savvy approach we saw from the Taliban in the initial weeks is not reflected in life in the country. That is why, in providing for refugees, we have targeted those who are most vulnerable including women, people who support women, people who are in the LGBTI+ community and journalists.

The Deputy is absolutely right about Syria. We have a pre-existing commitment to bring 2,900 Syrian refugees to Ireland by 2025. As I have said, we accepted a group of 50 in September. They arrived in Ireland in mid-September. We had a mission in Beirut with a view to bringing over a further 260 refugees. We are sending a mission to Jordan next month to organise the next group.

There are challenges in taking large numbers of refugees from both regions. Do we have the resources? That is the thing. Do we have the wraparound supports? I know the Minister spoke about them. They are part of the solution he is working on. I am also concerned that we are in the process of ending direct provision. A number of issues are arising after resettlement. That is another priority for the Minister. It is very important. One area I am particularly interested in is that of education for the children and young adults who come here. My office has received queries regarding the Student Universal Support Ireland grant. This scheme is not available to those who have not lived in Ireland for three years or more. We are offering safety and security. We also need to offer housing, education and opportunity. It is very important that we give opportunities. I know the Department is working on that. We all have concerns. I thank the Minister for addressing them today.

The Deputy has raised a number of key international humanitarian obligations that this Government recognises as priorities, as does everyone across the country. We do have the resources. In last year's budget, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, provided my Department with an extra €5 million that we used to specifically target unaccompanied minors. These are young people under the age of 18 who do not have any family and who have fled. Many such young people are on the island of Lesbos in Greece. Between this month and last month, we brought over 28 unaccompanied minors. We provide them with supports which are very resource intensive, but which are very necessary, in residential care centres or specifically designed foster care situations. I recognise Tusla for launching Fáilte Care, which provides fostering designed specifically for unaccompanied minors. I met some of the families. They are absolutely amazing. I recognise the work that is being done.

Question Nos. 106 to 108, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Direct Provision System

Niamh Smyth

Question:

109. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the progress regarding the implementation of the White Paper to end direct provision; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48698/21]

I am asking this question on behalf of Deputy Niamh Smyth. I know the Minister is committed to ending the system of direct provision. I know that from our talks on the programme for Government. I would like to get a sense of where we are in that regard. Do we have a timeline for it? I fear that the system might conspire to dilute the Minister's ambition. Will the Minister assure me that is not going to happen?

It will not happen. As the Deputy will know, we published a White Paper. Since then, my Department has taken a significant number of steps to implement these reforms. A staff team was established in my Department to lead the transition to the new model. It has developed a detailed implementation plan.

We have a programme board, chaired by my Department, which has Government and independent membership. This will provide detailed oversight and advice to the implementation team. At the moment it is meeting monthly to review and monitor the progress of the reports.

I recently announced the membership of the three-person independent advisory group to monitor and report independently on my Department's work and that of other Departments in terms of implementing the White Paper. It is made up of really eminent people, including Dr. Catherine Day, Dr. David Donoghue and Dr. Lorcan Sirr, experts in the area of direct provision, international human rights law and housing, all of whom are essential in terms of delivering this plan. The status of those three individuals will give real confidence in respect of their independent oversight. No doubt sometimes it will be critical oversight. That is really important.

I want to recognise the work my Department has done with the Housing Agency. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, opened its resources up to us and it is working with us in terms of designing specific housing needs because housing is absolutely key in addressing this particular issue. We have access to the expertise in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage in terms of designing new funding mechanisms, sourcing accommodation and designing new ownership models.

My Department has also begun work on an integration policy. Key to the White Paper is the idea of integration from day one. Irrespective of whether somebody gets a final decision of status, we will seek to integrate that person into his or her community from day one. It will take time to end direct provision. We have always said that the date will be the end of 2024. Some people say that is too long. It is an ambitious timeline to make as big a change as we are setting out, but I am absolutely committed to ending direct provision and having a new international protection support service in place by the end of 2024.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. There are 6,500 people living in accommodation provided through the International Protection Accommodation Services, IPAS, 1,692 of whom are children. What access do they have to the various reforms? Will their input be sought by the expert panel the Minister mentioned? Will their daily experiences be heard? Do they have a complaints mechanism at the moment? As we begin the transition away from this service, how do we ensure their lives are not impacted by it and the fact that the model will change?

I refer to the integration policy element. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure it is community-led and that all communities are involved in it, rather than having a model imposed on communities which goes against what we want to achieve and provokes the opposite reaction to what we want to achieve? We have all had experience of things that have been handled in the wrong way. Is the timeline still on target? Can we commit that by October 2024 we will have moved on from this system?

The Deputy has asked plenty of questions, and I will do my best to answer. I am absolutely committed to the timeline, and my Department and all other Departments are working towards it. The point the Deputy made on the significant of involving communities in this change is important. We have work to do in terms of explaining exactly what the White Paper is at a national level and also at a specific local level. If community accommodation or a reception and integration centre is being set up locally, work is underway in terms of how that communication happens. My Department has gotten better at that. When we opened the own-door accommodation centre in Letterkenny, I informed each local Deputy of that. My Department engages with the local authority and various groups. It was not perfect, but it was certainly better than what happened in other circumstances.

In terms of the engagement of people within direct provision, their views were sought while we drafted the White Paper. Someone who lived in direct provision is on the programme board and we now have new resident welfare teams to improve the quality of life for people currently in the system.

Childcare Services

Matt Carthy

Question:

110. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his plans to improve the pay and conditions of professionals in the childcare sector. [47519/21]

The Minister has spoken about the review of the expert panel on childcare and early education. I am quite hopeful, on the basis of what he said, that he is keeping up to date from the point of view of ensuring that a number of issues are dealt with in the budget. Pay and conditions are vital in terms of delivering a service in the long term and ensuring it is sustainable. We also have to deal with the remaining issues with the NCS and others.

I thank the Deputy. I am conscious of the need for a significant improvement in the pay and conditions of employment for early learning and childcare professionals. The level of pay they receive does not reflect the value of the work they do for children, families and our wider society. As the Deputy knows, the State is not the employer. We cannot directly determine the wages in the sector, but I am committed to doing whatever is in my power to influence that situation.

As the Deputy knows, last December I set up a pre-joint labour committee, JLC, process with the former chair of the Labour Court, Dr. Kevin Duffy, which engaged with IBEC's Childhood Services Ireland and SIPTU. On foot of that, the chair indicated that a JLC process had been indicated as the only real mechanism of improving pay and conditions for employees in the sector. Following on from that, I wrote to the Minister of State, Deputy English, and asked that he establish a JLC. That has been established. It is an important step forward. The work on the JLC is taking place and I am looking for an employment regulation order, ERO, to emerge from that.

As the Deputy said, an expert group is examining how we increase the level of public investment. We also have strong public management. It is not enough to just put money into a sector and see it disappear into fee hikes or the like; we have to manage the system. That is really important.

We have to provide clear career pathways for childcare professionals. That is why we have the workforce development plan. Let us be honest: it is, by and large, young women who enter the sector after doing a three or four-year degree and earn less than they did in the part-time jobs they did while in college or university. That is not going to keep people in the sector. The workforce development plan is essential to creating clear pay structures and pathways and making childcare an enticing profession for more and more people.

The logic of what the Minister has said is that in the long term this will morph into a public model and that will provide a greater element of control. Within that, pay and conditions can be dealt with, possibly to a greater degree than in the context of a JLC. Beyond that, a roadmap can be provided for people in terms of a career path.

I will digress slightly because a number of people have spoken about the NCS. We accept that it works as a job activation tool. There are difficulties with regard to disadvantaged children. In fairness to the Minister, he has had a fair amount of interaction with groups. I hope in November we have a different pot of money and solution to paying for early childhood and after-school care for disadvantaged children. In the interim, there is still the difficulty of Tusla. I accept most people do not want to deal with Tusla, but if we are going to use it we probably need a directive from the Minister to Tusla so that it can provide a roadmap to individual groups which can then use Tusla as a referral service. I accept the system is far from perfect, and it is to be hoped November will offer solutions.

As the Deputy knows, we have engaged extensively on this with other Deputies in terms of local groups bringing similar issues to my attention. I have worked to put forward short-term solutions. I see the broadening out of the sponsorship element as part of that. If we need to do more to clarify roles, responsibilities and duties I am happy to do so. We are doing that piece of work in our examination of the NCS after one year. I specifically asked for a new element to be examined, namely the impact of the NCS on services in areas of disadvantage. I want to use that information to structure my response. I heard about this issue when I went to the protest on Tuesday. I heard about other related issues as well, such as the difficulties of parents with reduced English or literacy in terms of accessing the childcare identifier code key, CHICK, code. That is something I need to speak to my officials about and think about solutions for. This is all part of the enhanced public management of the system.

I welcome the interaction the Minister has had. I believe there will have to be, as I said, a directive and clarity because, even for groups that have a service level agreement, SLA, with Tusla, there is still difficulty. In that regard, long-term, I think those early intervention pieces that fall within Tusla's remit may need to be nearly separated from the acute child protection issues Tusla deals with. That is what creates difficulty, and Tusla is then not seen by many families as a fair arbiter. We need to look at that in the long term. In fairness, the Minister has given a comprehensive answer regarding the JLC and pay and conditions. We have to do whatever we can to ensure sustainability, which will happen only with the correct pay and conditions. In the long term, however, it is, as the Minister said, a case of public management and a greater element of public control to deliver a service that will deliver for our people.

As the Deputy says, the issues are affordability for parents, sustainability for services and fair pay and conditions for staff. All that coming together will deliver quality for children, which is what we are trying to achieve. Whether the children are from the most disadvantaged backgrounds or not, quality for children is absolutely essential. We all recognise that this will require very significant increased investment. It will involve not just this Government; it will be a long-term project because we are so far behind other countries across Europe in the amount of investment we put in. Regarding that additional public investment, we must have public management as well, whether it is the JLC as one example or whether there are other examples we can bring forward to ensure the additional money we are putting in is giving us those really important outcomes and, most important of all, enhanced quality for children and babies.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.