Child and Family Agency (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Second Stage of this important legislation. The purpose of the Bill is to give effect to the Taoiseach's announcement on 27 June 2020 that education welfare functions would return to the Department of Education. Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, is responsible for the delivery of these services under the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, through the Tusla education support services, TESS, and the alternative education and registration service, AEARS. This Bill is to provide the Minister for Education with appropriate powers to provide the policy guidance, direction and prioritisation parameters for Tusla in respect of education welfare matters.

Following approval by Government on 22 June 2021, I sought a waiver of pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill in order to publish it before the end of the summer session. The request for a waiver was approved by the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth at its meeting of 29 June 2021.

I now turn to the provisions of the Bill. Section 1 provides the definition of the principal Act as the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, while section 2 amends the interpretation section of the principal Act to provide a definition of education welfare functions in respect of the Child and Family Agency and the Minister for Education.

Section 3 amends the principal Act for the purposes of including a reference to the Minister for Education in the standard expenses provision of the principal Act.

Section 4 amends section 8 of the principal Act, which sets out the functions of the agency. It provides that the Minister for Education may request the agency to undertake or commission research into matters in respect of his or her education welfare functions, and that the agency may give information or advice, or make proposals, to the Minister for Education in respect of the education welfare functions of the agency.

Section 5 amends section 13 of the principal Act and provides that the annual report of the Child and Family Agency shall include any other particulars that the Minister for Education may require. The amendment also provides that the agency will submit a copy of the annual report to the Minister for Education at the same time that it submits a copy to the Minister.

Section 6 amends section 14 of the principal Act by placing an obligation on the agency to furnish the Minister for Education with information which that Minister is likely to consider significant for the performance of his or her functions under the principal Act or otherwise.

The amendment further provides that the agency must provide information regarding any other occurrence or development that falls within a class of occurrences or developments that have been specified in writing by the Minister for Education, having regard to his or her functions under the principal Act or otherwise. The agency shall, when required by the Minister for Education, submit a report on matters connected with the education welfare functions of the agency and specified by the Minister for Education.

Section 7 amends section 15 of the principal Act to provide that the Minister for Education may require the agency to furnish certain information and documents where he or she considers it necessary in the public interest to do so for the performance of his or her functions under the principal Act or otherwise. The agency is required to provide the information within any period specified by that Minister and in any event without delay.

Section 8 amends section 16 of the principal Act by inserting references to the Minister for Education in order to enable that Minister to share certain information or documents received pursuant to sections 14 or 15 of the principal Act in the context of an examination or inquiry.

Section 9 amends section 17 of the principal Act by inserting a reference to the Minister for Education for the purpose of enabling that Minister to use any information or documents furnished under sections 14 or 15 as he or she requires for the performance of his or her functions.

Section 10 amends section 18 of the principal Act by inserting a reference to the Minister for Education into the saver section to clarify that nothing in sections 14 to 17, inclusive, limits the power of that Minister contained elsewhere in the principal Act or otherwise to require information from, or issue directions to, the agency.

Section 11 amends section 19 of the principal Act and provides that the Minister for Education will nominate a person to be a member of the board who, in that Minister's opinion, has experience of and expertise in matters connected to the education welfare functions of the agency. This section further provides that the Minister will appoint the nominee of the Minister for Education no later than 24 September 2023.

Section 12 amends section 20 of the principal Act and provides that, should a casual vacancy arise in respect of the board member with education welfare experience appointed in accordance with section 19(2A), the Minister for Education will nominate a person who has experience of and expertise in matters connected to the education and welfare functions of the agency for appointment by the Minister.

Section 13 amends section 21 of the principal Act by providing that the board of the agency is accountable to the Minister for Education in respect of the performance of its education welfare functions. It places a requirement on the board of the agency to inform the Minister for Education of any delegation or revocation which relates to the education welfare function of the agency. It further provides for the Minister for Education to issue directions to the board in relation to delegation of education welfare functions to the chief executive and requires the agency to bring any matter to the attention of the Minister for Education that it considers requires that Minister's attention.

Section 14 amends section 29 of the principal Act. The purpose of this amendment is to place a requirement on the chief executive to provide the Minister for Education with information that he or she may require relating to the performance of his or her education welfare functions and the implementation of that Minister's policies and priorities with regard to those functions.

Section 15 amends section 40 of the principal Act. The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that a person making a disclosure of confidential information to the Minister for Education does not contravene section 40(1).

Section 16 amends section 41 of the principal Act and provides that the performance framework shall include such policy guidance, direction and prioritisation parameters for the preparation of the corporate plan of the agency as the Minister for Education, in respect of his or her education welfare functions, shall provide to the Minister within the timeframe specified.

Section 17 amends section 42 of the principal Act to provide that the corporate plan of the agency will accord with the policies and objectives of the Minister, the Minister for Education and the Government as they relate to the functions of the agency. The corporate plan will be submitted to the Minister for Education at the same time that it is submitted to the Minister. Furthermore, within the timeframe specified, the Minister for Education may, insofar as the corporate plan relates to the education welfare functions of the agency, issue directions regarding amendments to the proposed plan. Any amendments to an approved corporate plan by the Minister or the agency, and that relate to education welfare functions, are to be made with the consent of the Minister for Education.

Section 18 amends section 44 of the principal Act by providing that the Minister for Education shall, in respect of the education welfare functions of the agency, develop an annual performance statement. This statement will provide the agency with specific policy guidance, direction, prioritisation and resource parameters in respect of each year for the preparation of its annual business plan.

Section 19 amends section 45 of the principal Act to provide that the Minister for Education will, in respect of a financial year of the agency, determine the maximum amount of net expenditure that may be incurred by the agency in respect of its education welfare functions for that financial year, and notify the agency of the determination of net expenditure in the context of the performance statement developed under section 44(1A).

Section 20 amends section 46 of the principal Act to provide that, within the timeframe specified, the agency will submit a business plan to the Minister for Education, prepared in accordance with the performance statement developed by that Minister. The business plan must contain any other information specified by the Minister for Education in respect of the education welfare functions of the agency and accord with the policies and objectives of that Minister as they relate to the functions of the agency. The Minister for Education may, in certain specified circumstances, direct the agency to amend the business plan.

Section 21 amends section 47 of the principal Act and provides that the Minister for Education may, in respect of the education welfare functions of the agency, give an additional direction in writing to the agency. The agency will be required to comply with such a direction and the chairperson shall inform the Minster for Education of the measures taken by the agency to comply with such a direction.

Section 22 amends section 48 of the principal Act by providing that the Minister for Education may at any time issue additional guidelines in writing to the agency in respect of the education welfare functions of the agency.

Section 23 amends section 51 of the principal Act by placing an obligation on the agency, if required to do so by the Minister for Education, to furnish him or her with information in respect of the education welfare functions of the agency as that Minister may require in respect of any balance sheet, account or report of the agency.

Section 24 amends section 52 of the principal Act and provides that the Minister for Education, in respect of the education welfare functions of the agency, may, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, advance sums to the agency on terms and conditions the Minister thinks fit for the purpose of expenditure by the agency in the performance of its functions.

Section 25 amends section 56 of the principal Act to provide that a direction issued by the Minister for Education under section 47 is one of the matters to which the agency must have regard before entering into an arrangement with a not-for-profit service provider. The amendments also provide that the Minister for Education may make regulations in respect of arrangements between the agency and education welfare service providers.

Section 26 amends section 59 of the principal Act by inserting a reference to the Minister for Education. The amendment provides that the agency may give assistance to a person who provides or proposes to provide a not-for-profit service which is supplemental to services provided by the agency, subject to any directions given by Minister for Education in accordance with section 47.

Section 27 amends section 70 of the principal Act in order to provide that the agency will submit, as part of its annual report, a general report to the Minister and the Minister for Education on the performance of its functions under Part 9 of the principal Act, "Complaints", and that it will contain such information as the agency considers appropriate or as the Minister or the Minister for Education may specify.

Section 28 amends section 94 of the principal Act by providing that if the agency adopts a report which relates to the education welfare functions of the agency, it shall submit a copy of that report to the Minister for Education.

Section 29 amends section 95 of the principal Act by inserting a reference to the Minister for Education in order to provide that where the agency is performing its functions relating to education welfare, the agency may, with the consent of the Minister and the Minister for Education, make regulations specifying such charges as it considers necessary and appropriate.

Section 30 is a standard provision that provides for the Short Title and commencement of the Bill.

Having educational welfare services within the Tusla service structure gives the Tusla education support service, TESS, immediate access to expertise and a wide range of supports that can be accessed to meet the presenting needs of children and families referred to TESS and the alternative education assessment and registration service, AEARS. In addition, it is important that critical links and synergies are developed between TESS, AEARS, and other key services under the Department of Education to enhance and develop supports to vulnerable children in the educational context. Both Government Departments will work closely to support this objective, with the core principle of the best interests of the child.

I thank the Minster for Education and her officials for their engagement and collaboration with officials in my Department and with Tusla during this process. I thank the Attorney General for his assistance in drafting the legislation. I believe the Bill passed with all-party support in the Seanad. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to outline the provisions of this Bill and I look forward to hearing Deputies' views on its contents. I commend the Bill to the House.

Deputies Funchion, Martin Kenny, Ward and Ó Laoghaire are sharing time.

I thank the Minister. I am delighted to see this legislation go through. The Minister knows I am supportive of it. I raised this issue in the previous Dáil, from 2016 onwards.

I will focus my remarks solely on the school completion programme. Historically, it was an educational programme and then it was transferred out of the Department of Education. It is great that it is going back there because it has an educational role. Some people do not fully understand what the school completion programme is. In fact, I have come across people who think it relates to the building of schools. When you know the programme, it is amazing. I love having the opportunity to talk about it. I have experience with the programme in Kilkenny and I am aware that there are 122 programmes nationwide. In future, if funding permits, it will be something that should be rolled out to all primary and secondary schools because of the key work it does, that so many other services do not, which is to focus on the child and the child's needs. It can identify a child who may be struggling or falling behind. That may be due to a learning difficulty or there may be something going on a home at a particular time in a child's life. There are many and varied reasons why children struggle at school. It becomes a vicious cycle. If you start to struggle at school, then you struggle with your homework and then you do not do your homework, you go into school without your homework done and then one day, you start to think you do not want to go to school. It is not as bad when children are in primary school because parents drop children to school to a greater extent but as children go into secondary school and into their teenage years, some of the power goes away from parents and children make their own decisions. Some parents face a battle with their children in school.

The school completion programme is invaluable, for example, in terms of its homework clubs. They are not just the standard approach of going there for an hour to do your homework; you get assistance with the homework, which can help with your day-to-day schooling. Play therapy and counselling are also provided, depending on the age. The approach taken must be age-appropriate. I know of families where there was a sudden bereavement that were, ironically, lucky enough to be in a school where the school completion programme was offered, and they were able to access play therapy and counselling. If they were not in such a school, it would have been a battle. They would have had to go through the child and adolescent mental health services, CAHMS, process and it would have been a disaster. Counselling is often done during school time. You are not putting a big red circle around children, which is so important. Children often do not even realise they are getting the supports. One school I am aware of had two homework clubs. One was provided as part of the school completion programme but no child realised there was any difference between it and the other homework club. That is invaluable because it breaks the stigma and labelling of children.

My party leader, Deputy McDonald, met people involved with the school completion programme in Kilkenny over the summer. We were able to meet people who had gone through the programme, who had finished school and gone into employment. They were success stories. The programme is amazing in terms of the work it does for the small amount of money that is provided. The Department of Education is the right location for the programme. I wanted to focus my remarks on it because I always take the opportunity to speak about the school completion programme. I extend an invitation to the Minister to visit the programme's office in Kilkenny. He would be welcome to visit either of the programme's offices in my constituency, even though the programme's remit is moving from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to the Department of Education.

Deputy Funchion has already stated that we support the Bill. There is a logic to educational welfare issues being returned to the Department of Education. This is probably similar to a conversation I had with the Minister previously about the range of beneficial work that falls within the ambit of Tusla. However, Tusla has specific pieces of work that make it difficult for certain vulnerable families to deal with it.

I echo what Deputy Function says about the vital work that is done by the school completion programme. I have seen this in operation for many years. It fits into the wider conversation when we are talking about family and community supports. We know we cannot deal with every issue that arises with children and keeping them within the educational fold. Many children have different issues depending on their background and there are multiple other issues. I have seen cases where those involved in the school completion programme have gone above and beyond in their engagement with children and have facilitated them and kept them within the process. No more than others who carry out such work in communities, they end up creating ad hoc networks and using other community and voluntary groups and NGOs within the wider community to access some of their funding to carry out joint projects. It is beneficial and, in fairness, it creates a safe environment in which children can operate.

Deputy Funchion spoke about the necessity of breakfast clubs and after-school supports. There are obvious benefits that come from them. It is a piece of the puzzle that we must put properly together because, to a degree, our approach can be ad hoc. We do not necessarily have all the pieces working together and we are not putting the puzzle together as it should be. I apologise for being a broken record, but I must refer to the difficulties with the national childcare scheme, NCS, especially in terms of after-school care for children in the most deprived areas. We must find a solution. In fairness, I appreciate the work the Minister has done and the short-term interim fix that is Tusla. That includes all the caveats to which I referred, that many families do not want to go near Tusla, as it will frighten them. I ask the Minister to play his part in making the interim solution as easy as possible for operators. I refer to the centres such as in Moneymore, and the houses in Cox's Demesne and in Grange Drive in Muirhevnamore. Last week the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, visited Garda youth diversion programmes and he happened to visit two that were operating out of those two campuses that are providing multiple projects. We have seen real benefits. They can also point out the mistakes that have been made previously in terms of community and family support. I refer to the youth justice strategy that is separate from child support programmes. Sometimes groups put it together but when the State is putting plans together, we must put in place a plan that gives us the best bang for our buck, in order that we can give the best support we can possibly give to those that need it. I have seen multiple positive results with school completion programmes and other programmes. Part of the reason that happens is possibly because they are all connected in an ad hoc fashion. We must facilitate that.

As regards the NCS, like everybody else, I await the report in November which should give us the facility down the line to deal with a better funding model that can deal directly with these types of projects and we can remove them from the work done by the NCS as regards job activation and other such activities. I support what is being done in the Bill. It makes sense. We must revisit the conversation on Tusla and the possibility that early intervention may need to be taken away from the other work Tusla does.

I will speak about school completion and the overly elaborate funding streams that were operated by Tusla.

Hopefully, this Bill will stop that happening again. I want to tell the story of the Get Ahead Club, which was a vital service in the north Clondalkin area that offered a wide range of community-based educational initiatives aimed at increasing children's chances of completing school. It was based in north Clondalkin and Lucan and operated in schools in Neilstown, Rowlagh, Quarryvale and Balgaddy. Approximately 120 children a year benefited from this programme in the Get Ahead Club. As I mentioned, these programmes included homework clubs, breakfast clubs and recreational activities. The children who used this club were from a disadvantaged area with a higher than national average level of early school dropout. As we all know, early intervention is key to a child's development and key to finishing education.

The funding stream for this service came from Tusla to the local school completion programme, which then directed the funding to the Get Ahead Club. Somewhere along the line, a decision was made not to allow the local school completion programme to act as the conduit for the funding. I met the Minister's predecessor, Katherine Zappone, on this issue just after the by-election. I was only in the House and it was one of the first things I was working on in the search for a resolution. Our pleas fell on deaf ears and, ultimately, the Get Ahead Club closed its doors and it is lost to the people of north Clondalkin and Lucan forever - it is gone. These convoluted funding mechanisms and bureaucratic red tape resulted in the closure of this vital service. I will be going back to the Minister for Education to ask her to revisit this issue, and I will be happy to send her on all of the information that is needed. I hope this legislation stops something like that happening again.

I spoke with the Minister before on child poverty. One of the basic needs for a child in completing their education is food in the child's belly in order to just get through the day. We had a very emotive debate that day, if I remember correctly. I want to talk about eligibility for the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, scheme, DEIS status and how that has worked. For example, as a child myself, I benefited from the free lunch programme in school. I was not alone and as all of my friends and family benefited from it, there was no stigma associated with it. I still remember which sandwich I got on which day and I remember looking forward to the currant bun on a Friday, at the end of the week. That is what got me through the week and it got a lot of people through the week in the area where I grew up. It enabled us to take part in school in the best way we could. My parents and teachers are probably listening to this and will say it did not work but, at the time, it got me through it.

There are other areas of my constituency that are not traditional areas of disadvantage but which have pockets of poverty within them. This is due to the fact of housing assistance payment, HAP, tenants living in private housing estates but it also involves people who are not traditionally in poverty but who are renting and paying high levels of rent in these areas. This is creating food poverty and income poverty because they are paying extortionate rates, and children from these backgrounds are going to school hungry. Parents from these areas tell me they are accessing the local food bank. I do a bit of work with the Quarryvale and Clondalkin Cares Food Bank, and they tell me people are accessing their services from areas that are not traditionally disadvantaged. That needs to be looked at. DEIS needs to be modernised and brought up to a 2021 level so no child will go to school hungry and come home from school hungry, because that would be a travesty.

My last point, which is tied into this, is in regard to school completion. We mentioned food in the belly and the school completion programmes but there is also access to healthcare. One of the big issues at the moment is in regard to dental care. A report from the Irish Dental Association states that an increasing number of children are only being offered examinations of dental care for the first time at sixth class instead of at first, second, fourth and sixth class. When I was in school, it was at first, second, fourth and sixth class that we got dental care. This should be a priority for either the Minister for Health or the Minister for Education, or something needs to be worked on between them in order to provide that. In my own area of Dublin Mid-West, we have seen a 62% decrease in the number of dental screenings in the last year, which is simply not good enough. As we know there are strong links between good oral health and good physical health, it is vital that the HSE and the Department of Education develop a contingency plan in order that children can receive this vital service, which will enable them to finish school.

With regard to the legislation, I believe it makes sense to have these functions within the Department of Education. It is logical and the feedback I get from school completion projects and from education welfare officers is that it is logical. There are some issues and concerns that we need to watch but that is not a reason not to do it. When they were in Tusla, some education welfare officers who had to take, for example, a section 29, felt it was useful, in order to convince parents they were on their side, to say they were not employed by the Department of Education but that they worked for Tusla. That is certainly not a reason not to proceed with it. The reasons, by and large, make sense. A lot of these functions began with the Department of Education in the first place, although I think some of them actually started with the city and county councils. I know school completion workers, particularly education welfare officers, will function independently because I have confidence in them to do that. What is important is that the perception is out there and that they have the ability to represent the fact they are independent.

We often talk of education in terms of achievement and results and the biggest story in education in many years is the leaving certificate and everything that goes with it. However, what can often be forgotten is that for many students, many families and many schools, ensuring that the child finishes school is an enormous achievement in itself. We need to recognise the fact that for many schools, school completion workers, families and particularly the students themselves, that is a big effort that involves a lot of work, and it does not happen by accident. That is why we have school completion, namely, to make sure they have the assistance they need.

Perhaps we have never needed it more than we need it now. Covid, for reasons that were in many ways unavoidable, has meant the connection that some students had with education was disrupted. There are reports that 4,500 young people did not return to school when it reopened following Covid. That is a significant and worrying number. For each of those, this is enormously tied in with their future. We need to invest in it. While the Covid learning and support scheme which was announced by the Minister is welcome, it does not go far enough to ensure that young people at risk of becoming disengaged are supported and included. Additional teaching hours are well and good but that is not going to deal with potential regression for people like that. It is a pity there was no increase in funding for school completion in the budget.

I will talk about DEIS shortly. There is an argument that every child and every school should have access to a school completion worker, not necessarily that one would be allocated to each school, but that there would be one across a number of schools that are non-DEIS or across a catchment area. Challenges can happen in a family’s life or an individual's life, and disadvantage may be more dispersed than it once was. There is an argument for that.

We are looking at the expansion of DEIS, which is welcome. The last time DEIS was expanded, although it was welcome, a huge opportunity was missed in that no DEIS band 2 schools were added. Schools at DEIS band 2 went up to DEIS band 1 and some schools went straight in at DEIS band 1. That means schools that might not have the very highest levels of disadvantage to justify the much-reduced pupil-teacher ratios could have qualified for DEIS band 2 had that criteria been used, could have accessed school completion, could have accessed home-school community liaison and could have accessed school meals, and it is much less expensive than DEIS band 1. This review needs to involve new DEIS band 1 schools but it has to crack that whole area. It has to ensure that schools that could benefit from those things do benefit.

To give an example, I spoke to a principal in a non-DEIS school this morning. In recent weeks, it had a family who had a related family in the school. They arrived in Ireland and they are trying to sort out everything to do with PPS numbers and all the rest of it. The school had to deal with six additional children from a family with very little money and no place to stay. It tried to organise uniforms and tried to help them settle in. That school did not have home-school liaison and school completion, and this was all left on the principal’s desk. That is not how it should be. Schools facing these challenges need additional support and that includes school completion and home-school liaison. It is vital this is looked at in the expansion of DEIS.

We must adjourn the debate for the sos. It will be the Labour Party speaking slot when we reconvene.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 4.30 p.m. and resumed at 5.30 p.m.