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

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

On the face of it this seems like a reasonable Bill. I am sure that it is well intentioned and maybe it is the right thing to do. If I understand it correctly, it is to give the Department of Education some input and oversight with regard to the work of Tusla and educational welfare. That is pretty much it. With things having been transferred one way, and then transferred back another way, one would be forgiven for thinking it is a bit of pass the parcel and a moving around of deckchairs on the Titanic kind of thing.

I am not saying that is the case but when we account for the substantial issues – or, more to the point, the human beings, including the affected children and their families – we realise the importance of what Deputy Durkan was talking about, which is the need for things to be cohesive, continuous and integrated across Departments. When talking about the welfare of the vulnerable, particularly those with disabilities or special needs, we realise there is a real problem. Let us just start with that. There are many children with special needs and disabilities who are being let down badly. They cross over departmental demarcation lines because, of course, human beings do not fit neatly into a departmental silo, whether it is the Child and Family Agency, the Department of Education or the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I will move on to the issue of housing because people with a disability or special needs, when they reach a certain age, need to be housed. That is another area that becomes important. These elements need to be joined up.

The sort of correspondence that I and, I am sure, the Minister receive from families with children with disabilities and special needs points to a distinct lack of cohesion and integration. There is often a lack of willingness on the part of this or that Department, or a section of a Department, to take responsibility because it is always someone else's responsibility to sort these things out. That worries me. In that regard, let me give the Minister an example. The matter has been brought to his attention but the example dramatises it quite a bit. It would probably be best if I read directly the words of the mother of a vulnerable child in the category in question because she wants to communicate them to the Minister specifically and also to the rest of the Government. I will not mention names. Whether the Minister has seen the correspondence, I do not know. I have raised the issue once before, with the Taoiseach, who said he would bring it to the attention of the Minister. The correspondence, comprising two emails, is instructive, and what it describes is pretty awful. One states:

My name is [I will not state the name and] my child's name is …. [He] has a diagnosis of autism and also a learning disability, [he] is an extremely vulnerable child.

The other states:

[He] is 17 years of age. For the last ... three years now, the child and family agency (Tusla) have been involved in our lives. In March 2019 I had no other option but to place my very vulnerable special needs child in voluntary care with the [Child and Family Agency] due to very violent abusive behaviour at home [linked to his condition].

Let us not forget that 17 is schoolgoing age. To my knowledge, the youth has not been at school since. The email continues:

This has been a horrific ordeal for my son.

He was placed in a mainstream residential unit in Wexford. This placement broke down in early May of this year due to dangerous violent behaviour and property damage. I was then told either take him home or to put him into a homeless hostel in Blanchardstown.

I took him home in early May of this year. TUSLA provided no support for nearly 10 weeks the guards invoked a section 12 and put him in the care of the [Child and Family Agency] due to an extremely serious incident in the home.

I then refused to sign a voluntary care order and decided to go to court as I felt they were trying to throw my vulnerable child in homeless services when in fact he needed and still needs special care.

My son ... has so far been in 2 homeless hostels, a hotel and a semi independent living apartment. None of this is suitable or appropriate. This matter is ongoing before the court. I have made a series of very serious complaints to the ombudsman for children and TUSLA. I have been advised by my legal team to contact you [that is me]. I'm in desperate need of your help, I need this matter brought before the Dail as a matter of urgency. My child's life depends on it he is at serious risk of death due to misadventure. His disability is not being recognised and correct treatment is not being provided.

My son and I are being denied our constitutional rights. The [Child and Family Agency] are neglecting my very vulnerable child. This needs to be highlighted in the most serious way. I have been asking for over 2 years for an ASD unit [a residential ASD unit, but the youth is still in homeless accommodation and wandering the streets]. He is being abused and brutalised on the streets.

The mother holds the Child and Family Agency responsible. The email was written in September. The lady wrote subsequently. In this regard, it seems there may have been some correspondence with the Minister's office. It states:

My email is in response to an email received by my solicitor from the office of Minister O'Gorman.

I want to know when would the minister be in a position to intervene given the fact that Tusla is a government agency and we have proven over and over again before a court that Tusla are not fulfilling their constitutional duties to my son, a special needs vulnerable child, these are the facts. Maybe the minister would comment if my child ends up dead.

If Minister O'Gorman is in fact the minister for children in this country, then surely this matter would be taken very seriously by the minister now that it has been brought to his attention, after all, isn't he the one with the platform in the country to be the voice of the children and highlight the very serious failures to children in this country.

It was noted in the Minister's email that a placement has been identified for [my son] and he wishes his all the best. Well, that's very nice but I seem to remember receiving a similar email from the minister the last time a placement was identified [which then subsequently broke down because it was not suitable].

I want the minister to know that we really haven't come far from the time of industrial schools the only difference now is that children are not put in these schools they are thrown to the streets by our own government agency ... to be ... exploited, battered, brutalised and forever traumatised because we do not have the facilities or services or correctly trained people to deal with these very vulnerable, mentally ill autistic children. It's absolutely disgusting that nothing is being done!

There is more but I will not carry on as I believe the Minister gets the flavour. It is very disturbing. From talking to the mother, I regard it as beyond belief that the vulnerable child is being thrown into homeless accommodation. It is beyond belief that anyone is in homeless accommodation, but it is absolutely unacceptable and beggars belief that a child on the radar of the Child and Family Agency and with the acute needs in question – he has a severe form of autism – is in such accommodation. We have to have the services. What is occurring is not acceptable. It is fair for the mother to say we have the modern-day equivalent of the industrial schools if we do not provide the required services and essentially have a young and vulnerable child thrown to the wolves.

It will not be hard for the Minister to find out what correspondence there has been between his Department and the family in question. I ask him to do so as matter of urgency. The matter points to something bigger, which the mother finishes her email with: the lack of services and trained staff who know how to deal with these circumstances. This is apparent in the area of autism and special needs across the board. I am referring to people not getting the assessments they are legally entitled to. When they do get their assessments and their needs are identified, they are not getting the services.

There are a few problems, one of which is silos that want to absolve themselves of responsibility. The reason is often that they lack the resources. They want it to be somebody else's problem and things get pushed around. The parcel is passed. Would passing it actually solve anything? The approach should be needs led. We have to start with the needs and then provide the services necessary to meet them. Our doing so must not be based on what suits a particular silo or on the spreading of resources across the areas of need so thinly that they do not provide the support required.

As Deputy Durkan said, these are life-changing issues because if you get the support, it makes all the difference in the world for you, your family and your future, but if you do not get it, the damage can be permanent and sometimes fatal. We do not talk enough about when children move out of school or are at the threshold of doing so. We have talked quite a lot, and rightly so, about early intervention and school, but the moment comes when the child moves beyond those things or is on that threshold. We have to do this. Ireland has signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We actually have an obligation to do this, not that we should need a UN convention to tell us to do the right thing - we should just do it because it is the right thing to do.

I am not an expert on these things, but I am aware of a situation that sheds light on this issue. It may not provide all the answers, but I got an astonishing response on it. A person from my constituency who was studying psychology and wanted to work in precisely this kind of area, caring for the vulnerable, contacted me. She was trying to do a doctorate in psychology and described to me the extraordinary difficulty she is having, as a person from a relatively modest background who does not have a lot of financial means, in progressing to the point where she has a doctorate and can work in this area, providing supports to children such as these. I raised that issue in the House and it went viral. I have not received as much communication on an issue for years. So many people out there said this woman was absolutely right.

There are loads of young people who want to work in these areas but it is being made so difficult to do so, even at the level of getting a doctorate, that they all go off to Germany, Utrecht or Belgium to study. Many of them do not come back because they do not have to pay fees there and the accommodation is affordable, whereas here in Ireland it is made difficult for them. They cannot afford to live here. They want to work here and help young and vulnerable children, as well as older vulnerable people, but they cannot do so. They are qualified and intelligent and they do not want to leave this country but we are not able to retain them because life is made so difficult for them. Surely we should be able to put all the talent and human ability we have in this country that could meet the needs of those vulnerable children and other vulnerable people to that use. It should not be rocket science, yet there is a failure to do it. That brings in another Department, namely, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, which is potentially another silo, unless we can join these things up. In theory, the Bill is about trying to join a couple of dots, so my party and I will support it, but the Minister hears what I am saying. I hope he hears what I am saying about the particular case I have raised and will respond on it.

If the Minister does not have a copy of that letter, it would be helpful for the Deputy to give him one.

I will shorten my speech, as have the rest of the Sinn Féin speakers on this issue. Sinn Féin fully supports the Bill in seeking to move all educational welfare supports and the school completion programme, SCP, back to the Department of Education, where it should have always remained. The programme is a key support for schools under the delivering equality of opportunity in schools initiative and was previously administered by the Department of Education. In 2016, the SCP came under the umbrella of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The Bill is important because it transfers the overall administration of this vital early intervention programme back into the Department of Education.

During its time under the jurisdiction of Tusla, the focus shifted from a child-centred approach to a more Tusla-based philosophy. This meant that a child's family circumstances were being considered when a decision was being made on whether the child should be given access to the programme. This change in focus meant that children who could previously avail of the service might not be recommended for a place.

The SCP proved its worth following the school closures in the past 18 months. Many students fell far behind while school buildings were closed. Recent reports indicate that almost 5,000 students did not return when schools reopened following the Covid-19 closures last year. Many of these were vulnerable students who became disengaged during the closures. Although the Covid-19 learning and support scheme, CLASS, recently announced by the Government is welcome, it does not go far enough to ensure that young people who are at risk of becoming disengaged are supported and included. More resources need to be invested to save the young people who are falling through the cracks. On a personal note, as the mother of a child who was failed by the educational system due to a health condition, I fully understand what that is like. He did not and still does not have the opportunities that other people of his age can access. These are opportunities that young people need and should be available to them. I ask the Minister to ensure that things improve in that area.

The Bill represents an opportunity for a fresh start for the State's educational support services, including the school completion programme, the educational welfare service and the home school community liaison service. The SCP in particular needs to be placed on a firm footing in terms of its structure, governance and funding. What steps will the Department take to bring that about? Within what timeframe can we expect to see improvements in order to ensure consistent, structured and appropriate supports to vulnerable children and young people?

One of the most important factors in keeping vulnerable people on the straight and narrow is ensuring they remain in education and are part of the education system. In my portfolio as Sinn Féin spokesperson on justice, I regularly come across this issue. So many of the people who end up on the wrong side of the law and in prison do not have high levels of educational attainment. That is one of the issues that need to be considered. The issue of lower levels of education needs to be dealt with, particularly in the communities where people are most vulnerable. In many places throughout the country, young people grow up in volatile and turbulent family circumstances, do not have the kind of supports they need at home and end up very quickly dropping out of school and into the wrong company, as people say, although sometimes the child himself or herself can be the wrong company. That happens because of the difficulties that exist in such situations. There needs to be support throughout all of that for young people who may not be as academic or good at school as others and find school difficult and onerous. They can easily get into a situation that can lead to a turbulent and chaotic lifestyle that can end up in difficulties. We need to do everything we can to ensure that does not happen. For some young people in those circumstances, the simple reality is that they are let down by the absence of State services to keep them in school and ensure they can complete their schooling and go on to have at least some semblance of a normal lifestyle.

Of course, school completion does not have to occur in the usual school setting. There are many examples of various settings where this happens, such as at the Cork Life Centre. It specialises in supporting young people to finish their education in a non-school environment. Although I understand the Bill is more technical than a policy approach, it is important that we highlight initiatives such as the Cork Life Centre and similar settings where children can attain the applied leaving certificate, as well as the other vehicles that support and work for young people.

This move to ensure that we have proper structures in place will only work if those structures are properly funded and resourced. We must ensure that this happens.

I understand that this is a technical issue. It is important that we discuss the issues around the provision of services for children in education and how they support students and their families. I worked for the school completion programme for 16 years and for Tusla for four years until I was elected. I am very proud to have worked for both organisations. They continue to provide an incredible service to young people and their families. I still have strong links with many of the people that I worked with.

I strongly believe that there must be continued close collaboration between the school completion programme, educational welfare officers and the home-school community liaison. Furthermore and importantly, there also needs to be continued close collaboration with other agencies, particularly in relation to Meitheal and how that operates. I would like to know how this will be actioned into the future. With the move from Tusla to the Department of Education, it is critically important that those connections are kept.

I started off in the early school leaver initiative, which commenced in 1999 and which was the forerunner of the school completion programme. In the beginning, the essence of the early school leaver initiative and the school completion programme was around working from the ground up. It was not a top-down project. The idea was that each individual community and school had the autonomy to be able to deliver a programme that suited the needs of the children and students at the time. I hope that the Department of Education will allow this to happen as it will have oversight and give direction in the area.

It would be remiss of me not to mention resourcing. I know that many Deputies have raised the issue of resources. I am concerned that the funding is being transferred from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to the Department of Education. I am concerned about how that is going to operate and how it will be ensured that appropriate funding is provided. Members will recall that during the collapse of the so-called Celtic tiger, funding for the school completion programme was cut by over 30%. What that really meant was that we lost project workers, which resulted in a lack of one-to-one connection with students. That is how you build up a relationship with somebody. If somebody is struggling in school, you build up trust and a relationship with them and work to be able to support them.

I am not sure what is happening with the clock; it seems to be going a bit awry. I think it is trying to catch up with me in the context of how quickly I am trying to get through this. Perhaps I will get a bit of leeway if there is time.

Deputies mentioned services for children. These are critical, particularly as there are so many students. I am speaking as somebody who worked in the area. I worked day in, day out in schools across Coolock and the Darndale area. Trying to connect people to services was a nightmare. In the context of early intervention and school age teams, when a parent believes that something is not quite right and they go for an early intervention, they should not be told that there is a two- or a two-and-a-half-year waiting list. They may find themselves going through early intervention and getting the assessment, only for the child to age out of the early intervention system on reaching five. The child will then transfer to the school age team and the parent may be told that there is another two-and-a-half-year waiting list. As a result, from the time that the parent believes the something is just not right to the time they get access to a service, it could be four, five or six years. The whole essence of early intervention is early intervention. It is what it says on the tin. Unfortunately, however, the resources are not there to be able to deal with that.

I want to mention one particular service. It is a service for teenagers who have additional needs and are on the spectrum. They still do not have access to a full service yet. We are opening pubs, nightclubs and restaurants fully, yet parents trying to access a service in Dublin 15 have been told that it is not ready to open. It has gone from a three-day service to a four-day service and full five-day service is still not available. That should not be happening. If everything else is opening, I see no reason why that service should not open. I will send the details onto the Minister; hopefully, we will be able to get it sorted.

I hope the Minister of Education is correct when she says that the transfer of these functions is going to provide a renewed opportunity for services and greater integration. It seems a bit counterintuitive that things can be switched from one Department to another. I hope it works, and I look forward to seeing how the change will happen. I wish everybody well with it, because at the end of the day, it is about young people and students, and ensuring that we have a service in place that is fit for purpose for the most vulnerable children in our society.

As an aside, perhaps we should take all Bills on Thursday evenings because they would progress very quickly. I was supposed to speak when the Bill reappears on the agenda the week after next or whenever and then I informed that I was to contribute at 8.15 p.m. Five minutes ago, I was told I was due to speak now. We would get through Bills very quickly if they were all taken on Thursday evenings. I cannot say why that might be.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on the Child and Family Agency (Amendment) Bill 2021. Largely, the proposed Bill is to be welcomed. I understand that the need to transfer the powers relating to the educational welfare function of Tusla to the Minister and Department of Education seems like a reasonable and logical step. It makes complete sense that educational welfare issues would come under the Department of Education. However, I would like to express my concern of certain functions being covered by two Departments. While the technical aspect of the proposal may appear to be an effective distribution of regulation and oversight, I would be interested in seeing how this will carry through in practice.

The reality is that while the amendment will transfer particular powers to the Department of Education, Tusla will still come under the umbrella of both the Department for Education and the Department for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. The amendment makes it so that the funding and budget for educational welfare will be exclusively within the remit of the Department of Education. However, the reality of many situations involving Tusla is that there is often crossover between sections and areas. In instances which attract the need for Tusla intervention, including, but not only involving, educational welfare, how do the Ministers propose to ensure efficient and effective inter- and cross-departmental strategies? We have seen how cross-departmental responsibility has not worked well in the past, and I would be doubtful about how it may work better in this case.

We have seen instances where it has been difficult to identify which issues come under which Minister and which Department, with the unfortunate result of neither taking the responsibility in some cases. It seems common for Departments to just pass the buck, and I have a real and justified fear in thinking this is what is going on, or will go on, in this case too, without any impact on the Ministers in question. With interdepartmental issues, there is a real potential for gaps to appear and for important issues to fall through those gaps. We need to make sure we are taking all the steps necessary to ensure that this does not happen here.

While the amendment makes sense on paper, I would like clarification on how it will work in reality, particularly as it is unlikely that all cases will fall solely within the remit of educational welfare and thus the Department of Education alone. I would also like to stress the importance of a cohesive and smooth transition and an efficient and effective transition period. It is essential in ensuring that this actually works well.

Tusla's education support service, comprising its three service strands of the home-school community liaison scheme, the educational welfare service and the school completion programme, is incredibly important, but I would like to see a further effort to see these services extended, especially in my constituency of Donegal. I note a lack of schools involved in the school completion programme in south Donegal. It is important to work with pupils, students, parents, schools and community support services to encourage and improve attendance, participation and retention across the country. I would hate to see Donegal children being left behind in the context of this issue.

The Minister, Deputy Foley, has stated the transfer of educational welfare functions provides a renewed opportunity for these services. I hope that she is right on this and that the transfer of powers will allow for more supports to be accessed by children and families who are referred to educational welfare services in Donegal. Access to education is a child's right and this right should be extended to all children in this country, including those in the north west.

Overall, I support this Bill. However, I would like to see my concerns taken on board and addressed as there have been real flaws in how interdepartmental issues have been addressed in the past. This needs to change in order to properly facilitate the future transitioning of powers from one Minister to another. It could possibly be addressed through amendments to the Bill. The Government has constantly rebelled against having to report back on how Bills operate in practice but this is a case where such an amendment could be very important to see how the Bill works in practice. It is necessary to make sure there is oversight from the Dáil or somewhere that it is working and delivering the intended results. This is the reality of all of these Bills. It is vital when we are speaking about children's education that it works smoothly and well and in everybody's interest. I am grateful for the opportunity to add these few words on the Bill.

I recognise that a lot of the Bill is an exercise in housekeeping. Do I think what is being proposed is perfect? No, I do not, to be very honest. It represents a real opportunity that will need to be monitored carefully. The return of the educational welfare service, the school completion programme and the home liaison scheme to the Department of Education makes common sense. Sometimes this is missing when it comes to legislation.

I know it has been touched on by other speakers but I want to speak about the benefits and the potential of the school completion programme. The reason I want to focus on this is because I want to speak from my perspective as somebody who was an early school leaver. I left school after I did my junior certificate for myriad reasons. Ultimately, I did my leaving certificate when I was 21. I went on to study with the Irish Tax Institute, the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, the Institute of Certified Public Accountants and a variety of others. There is no doubt in my mind that the long and winding road I took to my career in auditing could have been made a hell of a lot more straightforward had there been access to a school completion programme. I would very much like to see others benefit from the resources and skills that a school completion programme can bring.

Recently, I spoke to the transition year students in Columba College in Killucan in County Westmeath. What struck me about the class was not only the range of personalities in it but their engagement and their wanting to be in school. They are not just there coasting. They want to learn. This is not always the experience of young people in our secondary schools. Often, and I have seen it in my constituency of Longford-Westmeath, where there has been an event in family life, often sadly due to the death of a sibling or a parent, it throws a young person into absolute chaos. One of the main consistencies in any young person's life at that stage is school. For me it makes sense for the school completion programme to be a major part of restructuring that young person's life and keeping him or her on the road to the next point. It is simply about keeping these young people on the train and getting to the end of it.

There is a role for school completion programmes in all of our schools because nobody is exempt or immune from unexpected events or unexpected trauma. If we can identify a child who is struggling or perhaps slipping at a much earlier stage, perhaps due to an event or a learning difficulty, the response will be an awful lot more effective the quicker we can put it in place. We know, because we see it time and again, that when a young person starts slipping it can lead to a cycle whereby if they are struggling in school they struggle with homework and if they are struggling with homework they struggle in school. They get caught in a cycle of negativity. There is also a role for homework clubs in these situations where there is access to somebody who can be an additional support.

We also need to recognise, and I saw it as a former member of the Longford and Westmeath Education and Training Board, that in many cases the successful completion of school has nothing to do with exam results. Simply completing school is the result. This does not happen by chance. It takes a lot of work by the school, school completion workers, the parents and the students themselves. It is vital for these young people to be able to say they have done this and to be able to stand up and say they have achieved.

When we look at Covid and the impact that Covid has had on our educational system, I firmly believe the school completion programme will become a much more needed resource as we continue to go through and out of Covid. We have heard of the thousands of children who have not re-engaged in formal education. This is not something anybody in the House wants to see. Where there is the potential for this not to repeat itself, or the potential for these young people to come back into an educational setting, we should be taking it with both hands.

As a Deputy, a parent and an early school lever I will be deeply concerned in the coming years if we do not see additional resources being put into the school completion programme. If it is properly invested in, the level of return on that investment in terms of the positive impact it will have on these young people's lives and on our future workforce cannot be overestimated.

I thank all Deputies for their contributions today and yesterday and for the detail in which they have looked at the Bill. Some of the contributions have focused very much on the legislation. Some of them have been on broader issues that are relevant to the work of the Department, other Departments and the work of State agencies.

I acknowledge the case that Deputy Boyd Barrett brought to my attention. It has not crossed my desk directly yet. I have been in touch with some officials in the context of this debate. I understand the individual in question has a placement at present. I will look into this and I will communicate with Deputy Boyd Barrett early next week, as I said to him earlier.

At the beginning of Deputy Boyd Barrett's speech, he made a point on the importance of Government and State agencies acting in a coherent way. This is what we are trying to achieve in the Bill. There was an incoherence in the issue of the educational welfare service and the various facilities that flow from it being overseen by Tusla and subsequently by the Department rather than the Department of Education. We are looking to rectify this. Many Deputies spoke about silos. They exist but it is also important to recognise that when the Government recognises them and looks to solve them it is a good thing. I appreciate the support across the House for what we are doing.

Before moving away from Tusla, there was discussion of resources by Deputies Devlin and Boyd Barrett. Undoubtedly, Tusla deals with some of the most vulnerable children and families in society. This is why an additional €40 million has been allocated to it in this year's budget. An additional €66 million was allocated to Tusla in last year's budget. This was the biggest single increase the agency had ever received. This was because I recognised the complexity of the cases the organisation deals with.

A significant number of Deputies discussed the key elements that will be transferred, including the educational welfare service and the school completion programme. Deputies Clarke and Funchion discussed it, as did Deputies Paul Donnelly and Ó Laoghaire. It is about trying to get better alignment with the wider policy measures being taken in the Department of Education. This is why it is important that policy control over the educational welfare service and the school completion programme will now be set by the Department of Education rather than my Department.

While they will still operate under the remit of Tusla, the policy direction will be set by the Department of Education. We all agreed that that is correct. As the Acting Chairman said, essentially, this is all about the individual child and that has to be our focus.

There is no question of any cuts or impacts on the budget and I want to make that quite clear. We are not doing this work of transfer to try to undermine these services but are doing it because we see the value of these particular services.

Speaking to what Deputy Pringle said, in ensuring that we are joined-up in the delivery of the service, Tusla’s aim is to integrate the service delivery and it will continue to do that because Tusla will still produce the one corporate plan and annual business plan and in that it will have to demonstrate how it is delivering the objectives that we are seeking, which will come from the Department of Education in respect of the educational welfare service and the school completion programme and how these align with the wider objectives that the organisation pursues across the rest of its functions, where the policy is primarily set by my Department. Again, that link and oversight, which Tusla will continue to have, is tied in by such functions as Meitheal and Tusla have in that integrated role in service delivery. I am confident that we can do that but in the final instance oversight remains in this House and in the ability of Members to raise questions with myself and the Minister for Education on the success of what we are seeking to achieve.

It is important to recognise that responsibility for these services has already transferred to the Department of Education and we are making the legislative provision now, but, under a statutory instrument that kicked in from the start of this year, responsibility for the educational welfare service has been with the Department of Education. We are putting the strict long-term legal framework around a process that has taken place and that I believe it is working, while noting that all education services have been impacted by Covid-19 this year.

A number of Members, including Deputies Patricia Ryan and Cronin, spoke about the additional supports we give to those who are most vulnerable and DEIS is probably one of the best examples of this. It is important to note that an additional €18 million was provided for the DEIS programme in 2022. In a full year that will equate to an additional €30 million. That is a 20% increase in funding of DEIS, which is one of the largest increases that it has had in one budget. That emphasises the commitment of this Government to rolling out and growing the use of DEIS as a real means of tackling educational disadvantage. I know, having been the chair of the board of management of a DEIS band 2 school, the great importance of the home school community liaison officer in visiting families, engaging with them and making them feel comfortable in discussing issues they may have been having in their child’s engagement with school and in building up that very important relationship of trust. Other Members also spoke about the important role of the home school community liaison officer. I am proud that we have been able to grow the allocation in this regard in this budget and I look forward to being able increasing that in future budgets.

In the context of the treatment of children, a number of Deputies mentioned the other supports we provide, particularly in the area of childcare. This is something that was spoken about by Deputy Bacik and I am again pleased that we are able to announce significant additional investment in the early years care of €69 million next year, which will grow to more than €200 million in 2023. That will enable us to ensure that and an employment regulation order, ERO, coming from a joint labour committee works to ensure proper rates of pay for childcare professionals who have been working with inadequate rates of pay for so long. I know the welcome that SIPTU and the Big Start campaign have given to this long-term commitment to fund the sector. I do not deny that a great deal more has to be done in that area and I will be the first to say that. We need to continue to grow that level of public investment in our childcare services.

We have put a significant amount into childcare services during the Covid-19 period and all childcare services are entitled to draw down the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, without having to prove the 30% turnover rule. That was an important exception I was able to negotiate. It deeply frustrated me, therefore, not as much I am sure as I am sure it frustrates parents, when I hear Deputy Bacik speaking of childcare providers increasing their fees at this time because the EWSS pays for 80% of their staff costs and 50% of their overall costs right now. I do not understand any way in which childcare providers would need to raise fees right now considering the level of State support that had been put in. That is why when we introduce the new core funding model next year, we are saying that there will be a quid pro quo, or an exchange in this regard. That exchange is the commitment not to raise fees. That is the first time that this State will ever be able to provide some element of regulation of the fees that are paid. We are stepping up in providing significant amounts for services so they can improve quality. A key way of doing this is to pay childcare professionals properly but there is an exchange for that, which is the commitment not to increase fees. I look forward to engaging with the sector. I spoke to representatives following the budget and I will continue to engage with the sector in how we operationalise that. That means that in future we have put some money into the national childcare scheme this year, but in future, when additional money is put in to the NCS, it will be put in to immediately reduce the cost of childcare for parents, and that investment of State resources will not be eaten up immediately by a fee increase but will make a difference for parents.

I welcome the support across the House for this legislation. It is small but important and I look forward to engaging with Deputies further on Committee and Report Stages. I thank the Acting Chairman.

Question put and agreed to.