Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Assisted Human Reproduction

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

1. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the assurances and safeguards his Department can offer to children who find themselves in a situation in which their mother is not considered by the State as their legal parent (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58929/21]

What assurances can the Minister's Department offer to children who find that the State does not consider their mother their legal parent? This relates to children who have been born through surrogacy. Any proposed legislation is still some time away. What proposals are there to protect children's rights and welfare in the interim? I know the Minister supports resolving this issue and has met with relevant groups. I am just taking the opportunity to raise the issue again.

The area of surrogacy is one of the most complex to deal with. Compassion and sensitivity are required, as is a very strong emphasis on the welfare of the children born as a result of this process. Since the formation of the Government, there has been substantial work and engagement with a view to future legislation on the wider issue between the Ministers for Justice and Health, the Attorney General and myself. My colleague the Minister for Health has lead responsibility for legislation in this area. His Department is working on drafting a Bill on assisted human reproduction, AHR. This comprehensive legislation will encompass the regulation of a wide range of practices undertaken in this jurisdiction, including domestic altruistic surrogacy, for the first time. I understand that officials in the Department of Health and the Office of the Attorney General will continue to engage intensively over the coming weeks to finalise this legislation.

The Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 reforms and updates family law to address the needs of children living in diverse family types. The Minister for Health is responsible for Parts 2 and 3 of this Act. These were commenced in May 2020. Parts 2 and 3 deal with the issue of donor-assisted human reproduction.

While legislation in the area of surrogacy is complex, it is important to note that there are some important protections in place for children in advance of the legislation's enactment. The Department of Foreign Affairs has published guidelines for intending parents pursuing surrogacy arrangements abroad. The Irish authorities require intending parents to provide a written undertaking that they will notify their local health centre of children's presence within two working days of their arrival in the State. In addition, the genetic father is required to provide an undertaking that he will apply to the courts for a declaration of parentage and a guardianship order in respect of the child. This ensures that his legal relationship with the child is established and that he is in a position to make decisions on behalf of that child. The intending father must provide appropriate DNA evidence. An intending mother of a child born through surrogacy is entitled to apply for guardianship of the child where she is married to, or in a civil partnership with, the child's parent or has cohabited with that parent.

While these current protections are important, we all recognise that the best interests of children should be supported through the robust regulation of surrogacy. This is a priority for the Government, as is reflected in the programme for Government.

I thank the Minister. As I said, I wanted to raise this issue again. I know it falls under the remits of a number of Departments, including the Departments of Justice and Health. I also know that the Minister has met with the groups. In fairness, I believe he also went out to them the day they were here outside the Dáil. This is so frustrating for them. They hear a lot of very positive words in this Chamber and in their meetings. It is rare for everybody in this Chamber to agree on something but this is one of those issues on which we seem to. There does not seem to be any movement on it. I understood that legislation is forthcoming. That definitely needs to deal with the issue of international surrogacy. That cannot be left out. Are children who are in precarious situations, perhaps because of a health issue within the family, particularly if it affects the father, going to be left technically parentless? We all know they would not actually be parentless but they may be in the eyes of the State and that is really important. Some children could be stuck in a grey area. This is an issue these groups have been raising for a very long time. As legislators, there is a responsibility on us to deal with this issue, particularly when there is such cross-party agreement on it.

I agree with pretty much everything the Deputy has said. The issue of international surrogacy will have to be addressed. We know it is a very sensitive and complex area. We have to ensure that whatever measures we bring forward offer protection for children when they come to Ireland and for their parents but they should also offer protection to the surrogate mother. That is really important. This person will probably be in another jurisdiction and we have to be sure that protections are in place for her and that the child conceived through surrogacy can seek to establish relations with his or her surrogate mother in the future if he or she wishes to do so. The Deputy is absolutely right with regard to the children who are here now who were conceived through different techniques. The law we are bringing forward must address all of their situations, which are often quite different from one another. Bespoke legal solutions may be needed for each situation in which children have been conceived.

I have two suggestions for practical solutions. With regard to the upcoming legislation, could the Minister and the Ministers for Health and Justice write to the committee to see if the pre-legislative scrutiny stage can be progressed as a matter of urgency? I believe it falls under the remit of the Joint Committee on Health although I would argue that some of it should fall under the remit of the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth as it affects children's rights. Given that there is consensus on this matter, I believe the Bill could move through the committee and through the Houses very quickly. I believe everyone would support it. That is my first suggestion because we need to look at the legislation and the issue of international surrogacy.

With regard to children who are already with us, the surrogacy groups have really good legal representation and really good solutions based on international best practice. I know the Minister has met with these groups but is it possible to have a more formal meeting between the three relevant Ministers and Departments and those groups to discuss how to formalise the situations of these children so that they can be taken out of this grey area? I believe that could be done within a matter of months.

I know I have gone over my time but I will very briefly note that, over the past two years, we have seen that legislation can be passed quickly when there is an emergency. We can do the same with regard to children and surrogacy.

I certainly agree. Urgency is important in this regard. However, I am sure the Deputy will agree that it is important we get this right in light of the complexity and the different situations we are dealing with. As I have said, a Bill on AHR is being advanced by the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. I believe it went underwent pre-legislative scrutiny in the term of the previous Oireachtas. However, as the Deputy has pointed out, it does not address the area of international surrogacy. An Oireachtas committee could be useful in addressing that matter. I know the Ministers, Deputies Stephen Donnelly and McEntee, have been engaging very intensively on this issue. While, as Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, I obviously have to ensure the best-interests principle is always respected, the actual legislative power lies primarily with the Ministers for Health and Justice. I know that their two Departments have been engaging very intensively and that the Minister, Deputy McEntee, in particular is very eager for the engagement we have had with the groups, which, as the Deputy has said, are expert in this area, to continue. I am sure that engagement will continue.

Residential Institutions

Holly Cairns

Question:

2. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the way the proposals for the payment rates of the mother and baby institutions payment scheme were arrived at. [59652/21]

How were the proposals for the payment rates under the mother and baby institutions payment scheme arrived at? One of the most disgraceful aspects of the Government's redress scheme for survivors of these institutions is the payment rates. Mothers who spent less than three months in an institution are to receive a mere €5,000. These women could have endured human rights violations such as forced family separation and abuse. Given that many of the proposed payments are contrary to the consultation with survivors, will the Minister please outline how these payment rates were arrived at?

In developing the proposals for the Government, extensive thought was given to how best to structure a fair and sensitive payment scheme for survivors of mother and baby institutions. I asked an interdepartmental group to develop proposals for a scheme and to make recommendations for the overall approach to the payments as well as potential payment rates. With regard to the payment approach, the group strongly advocated for a general approach based on time spent in these institutions rather than individual assessments.

This is because of the stakeholder view that any scheme should be non-adversarial with a low burden of proof, and the national and international evidence that a general payment is the best way to achieve that.

This approach eliminates the requirement for applicants to bring forward evidence of abuse to demonstrate an entitlement or undergo any cross-examination of this evidence which by its nature can be adversarial and retraumatising. Their experience is still, however, recognised through a payment structure which also takes account of more prolonged institutional experiences.

With these important considerations in mind, the group proposed a general payment with a schedule of payment rates similar to the approach taken for the Magdalen restorative justice ex gratia scheme. The payment rates rise in increments of €5,000 per year in recognition of the prolonged experience of the women and children who spent longest in these institutions. A separate work-related payment is also being provided for those women who undertook what could be termed as commercial work in these institutions.

Of course, as we have all recognised, no financial payment or service provision could make up for the pain and suffering endured by so many people in mother and baby institutions. This is acknowledged by the interdepartmental group, a point I have made many times. The general payments are being made in recognition of time spent in these institutions, harsh conditions, emotional abuse and other forms of mistreatment, stigma and trauma.

It is important to note that the payment scheme stands alongside the 21 other actions the Government has pledged as part of the action plan to recognise the experiences of women and children in mother and baby institutions.

The Minister did not answer the question of how the Department arrived at the rate of potentially €5,000 for forced family separation. The proposed scheme is deeply flawed in many ways. The startling inadequacy of the proposed payment amount stands out. It is still unclear how these rates were decided. The figures suddenly appear in the interdepartmental groups report which was chaired by an official from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. A group of civil servants sat down and devised these rates. Survivors and the public deserve to know how that happened. What, if any, consideration was given to the scale of abuses, the trauma and the years of stigma and hostility from the State? Did anyone on the interdepartmental group have any qualifications in psychological trauma or transitional justice? All those questions remain unanswered. I ask the Minister to tell the House if he is happy that a woman, who endured the cruelty of the mother and baby institution system, was separated from her child and many other things, will receive as little €5,000.

Based on what I said a few moments ago and what I said when the scheme was announced, I have always been clear that I and the Government recognise that no amount of money can make up for what happened to women and children in these institutions. I think I have been clear on that. We understand that a payment scheme and the range of actions we are taking cannot make up for the trauma that was experienced in these institutions. However, it is a recognition of what happened. It is an attempt to provide some element of support to survivors, be they mothers or children, of these institutions. It is the State coming in behind the apology the Taoiseach made in January of this year. That is what we are seeking to do in providing this broad payment scheme that will encompass 34,000 survivors of these institutions.

In my further response I will speak about the payment rates.

I agree with the Minister that no amount of money could compensate for it, but €5,000 is an insulting amount. One would get more in a compensation claim for a slip or a fall. The Department ran a consultation process inviting survivors to participate and many of them found the strength to do so in good faith. Why then were so many of their recommendations for redress ignored? The survivors called for an immediate interim payment, enhanced pension or periodic payments and additional sums, based on separate categories of harm suffered. All that was ignored and none of them feature in the scheme. The interdepartmental group's report cruelly dismisses some of them. Most disgracefully for this horrific topic, the perspective of civil servants is being given greater weight than that of survivors. Again, the State is deciding what happens and what is best for them, ignoring what they said.

This was clearly an actuarial exercise, more concerned with budgets than trauma, acknowledgement of human rights violations or providing justice for survivors. Again, their voices have been ignored. The redress scheme is informed more by the opinion of civil servants than the experience of survivors. How can we stand over it in good conscience?

I do not believe it is an actuarial exercise. If that were the concern, the Government could have tried to rely on the recommendations from the commission which were much narrower. We could have tried to rely on the recommendations of the interdepartmental group which were much narrower. However, the Government did not do that. We went significantly beyond what the commission recommended. We went significantly beyond what the interdepartmental group recommended. It would have applied financial payments to 19,000 survivors. We are applying financial payments to 34,000 survivors.

The rates are similar to those used in the Magdalen redress scheme, using the criteria of years spent in an institution. As the Deputy correctly said, for short periods of less than three months' the rate is €5,000 and for those who were there for ten years, it is €60,000. It is a sliding scale based on the scale used in the Magdalen scheme.

Childcare Services

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

3. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the actions his Department has taken to address the chronic staff shortages facing a significant number of early years services; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58930/21]

This question asks what actions the Department has taken to address the chronic staff shortages in early years services and for the Minister to make a statement on the matter. It has become particularly relevant in the last two weeks with recent announcements by the Department of Education. I will get into that in my later contribution.

I am aware that many early learning and childcare services are reporting staffing difficulties, exacerbated by the current high rate of Covid-19 in the community. My Department is actively monitoring the issue and has sought data and evidence-based proposals from sectoral representatives.

Last week, my Department convened a subgroup of the early learning and childcare stakeholder forum to discuss immediate staffing pressures resulting from Covid-19 and additional measures that may be needed. The group is examining ways to provide additional staffing support on a temporary basis, including a proposal, which is being considered by further and higher education institutions, to build on the current process available to enable students who are undertaking early learning and care qualifications to work in the sector temporarily while carrying on their studies. The group is meeting again today to consider proposals.

While Covid-19 creates additional pressure, longer term challenges with recruitment and retention of staff remain. The high level of staff turnover in the sector, which was 18% last year, primarily reflects the level of pay and conditions of employment. However, we should remember that the sector has continued to grow in recent years, despite the challenges. Employment in the sector has risen from 25,700 in 2016 to 30,900 last year. Thanks to considerable supports from the Government over the past 18 months, employee numbers in the sector have held steady.

The State is not the employer and does not determine pay rates. However, last December I began a process to examine the possibility of regulating pay and conditions. This led to the establishment of a joint labour committee, JLC, which has been brought together.

In budget 2022, I announced the introduction from September 2022 of a significant new core funding stream for services. Among other objectives, core funding will support services to meet the conditions that may be set in an employment regulation order, ERO, as a result of the JLC.

I will publish a workforce plan for the sector later this month, which will include important actions to strengthen career pathways and support recruitment. The plan will also map out a positive way forward for the sector. I believe the services will develop further as a result in the years ahead.

In recent years, there has been a serious issue with retaining staff. We have had that discussion and we know it comes down to the pay and conditions. Highly qualified people are training up to degree level and sometimes beyond but are getting poor rates of pay. I hope the JLC process works. The Minister said the State is not the employer. I wish the State were the employer; I would like to see that happening eventually. Obviously, it will not happen today or tomorrow.

The Covid pandemic has put considerable extra pressure on the sector. There was a recent announcement of special needs assistants, SNAs, to be recruited for schools. Several people in the early years sector contacted me - I am sure they have contacted other Deputies - to say their staff are applying for the SNA role, leaving them in a difficult situation.

We definitely need to address short-term and long-term measures in relation to staffing.

In terms of the short-term measures, when we announced to the sector representatives last week that we were making available third and fourth-year graduates and postgraduates who are in the institutes of higher and further education at the moment, to allow them to take up places across the sector, it was warmly welcomed. The initiative has been able to provide some kind of extra buffer at the moment in terms of many services experiencing staff being out due to Covid. We have acted in the short-term to support the sector, particularly as we, hopefully, crest the current Delta wave.

The Deputy is absolutely correct in terms of the wider issues. I have acted since I have come into this office. We have established the Joint Labour Committee, JLC, which is a really important measure. I think just as importantly, we have come in with financial support. That core funding announcement in this year's budget is going to be hugely important. There is a significant allocation of money to support the employment regulation order. I really hope that the two sides can come together and agree that employment regulation order swiftly.

I agree. I have always argued that there should be a wage scale. I would prefer to see that being taken on by the State but, in the absence of that, I hope the JLC process is successful.

I welcome what the Minister said about the short-term measures because I think they are doing something similar in the education system in terms of people who are doing their masters. Is there any data on how many people will be released? The Minister probably does not have that information right here and now so I ask him to supply that information.

I look forward to seeing the workforce planning report and it is welcome. We need to analyse the panel of substitute teachers for schools in the long term. Perhaps the city and county childcare committees could play a role in establishing a general relief panel for staffing issues when things arise.

I do not have specific figures in terms of how that will impact. We just announced it last week. I have spoken to one or two child care providers in my constituency who were able to secure some of these students so it is making a difference and alleviating some of the real pressures spoken about by the Deputy.

This month, we are going to have two very significant announcements, namely the workforce planning announced and published the final report of the expert group on the funding model. Many Deputies here have waited for both of these for a long time. These areas have been two real focuses of the early years section of my Department since I became Minister. We sought to enact one part in the budget in terms of core funding and that was very much influenced by the expert group. It is important that, even though the expert group was not finalised, we worked as quickly as possible to start to implement one of its most important recommendations. We did not wait until budget 2023 before starting to take action. There will be some significant announcements in the next week or two in this area.

Question No. 4 answered with Written Answers.

Family Resource Centres

Marian Harkin

Question:

5. Deputy Marian Harkin asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his plans to expand the family resource centre network; and if he will prioritise Manorhamilton, Country Leitrim as a location for a family resource centre. [59681/21]

There are two family resource centres in Carrick-on-Shannon and Mohill in south Leitrim. I have been to both centres and was very impressed by the caring and inclusive way, they respond to the needs of families in their communities. However, in the entire north of County Leitrim, a distance of 62 km from Drumshanbo to Tullaghan, families have no access to the supports and resources provided by family life centres. These centres are badly needed and I ask the Minister to ring-fence funding for such a centre in Manorhamilton.

Tusla administers the family resource centre programme, which provides funding support to 121 centres across the country. My Department allocates core funding for the programme. Since 2019 we have provided an additional €1.5 million to this important service and funding for 2021 amounted to €18 million.

My Department also secured funding for Tusla to support existing family resource centres, primarily with expenses relating to equipment and premises, through the dormant accounts fund for 2020 and 2021. Tusla is currently arranging to pay over €650,000 to relevant centres from 2021 dormant accounts funding.

Tusla provided once-off additional supports during 2021 to many of its community and voluntary sector bodies, including family resource centres, to assist them in responding to Covid challenges. As the Deputy mentioned, Tusla works with community-based family support centres and organisations and the two existing family resource centres in Carrick-on-Shannon and Mohill, to meet the needs of vulnerable children, families and communities.

My Department and Tusla have formed a family support subgroup to better understand the demand in this sector and to understand demand for family recourse centres. The output from this group is intended to be an integrated model of family support that expounds the national service delivery framework and provides clarity to policymakers, practitioners and service users across the continuum of need. In carrying out this work it will look at existing provision of family support and resource allocation to family support.

In budget 2022, Tusla has been allocated €899 million, which is an increase of €41 million. The specific amount to be used in 2022 for its various services, including family resource centres, has not yet been finalised. The matter will be addressed in the agency's business plan that will be submitted to my Department in the coming weeks. I have issued my performance statement to Tusla outlining the overall performance parameters for Tusla. In response to this, Tusla will prepare its annual business plan for 2022 and within that it will outline its provision of support for family resource centres.

I thank the Minister. He said that the budget is not finalised yet. Both the Minister and I know that one of the most important aspects of family resource centres is that they are rooted in their communities, involve community participation and respond to the specific needs of families, especially in disadvantaged areas across the country. While the two centres in south Leitrim do really good work they are too far away and their focus is, rightly, on their communities. There are four electoral areas in County Sligo and each one of them has a family resource centre. There are three electoral areas in County Leitrim but only two of them have a family resource centre. In north Leitrim, over a distance of 62 km from Drumshambo to Tullaghan, there is no family resource centre so a centre is needed on the basis of geography, on the basis of responding to the needs of families and supporting families so that they can access these services.

I agree with the Deputy on the importance of family resource centres and how they respond to particular needs. I have visited a number, even in my own constituency, and they are quite different in terms of what they address because they respond to the immediate community need. The work being done by Tusla at the moment, in terms of the family subgroup between my Department and Tusla, looks at the overall supports provided to families across the country. Often Tusla provides family supports in an area without there necessarily being a resource centre. The subgroup will give the full understanding of the range of services that are available and the range of supports that can be put in place, ensuring the geographical gaps in services provided, described by the Deputy in north Leitrim and I see them in my constituency as well, can be addressed and filled.

The Minister has given me a positive but a very general answer. He has said that sometimes Tusla provides supports without family support centres. The Minister and I know that a family support centre provides holistic resources and supports to families within a geographical area, which is hugely important. Sometimes disadvantage can be harder to see in rural areas. It is more dispersed and because of that it is less visible. However, we still have many families on low incomes, an ageing population and small farm holdings. We also have the same pattern of alcohol and drug misuse, abuse and addiction as everywhere else in the country. The families in the very significant part of County Leitrim that I have referred to need these services. I ask the Minister, in his capacity, works with Tusla to ensure that families in that area can get the kind of services that are available all around them in other counties.

The Deputy is right that I gave a general answer. As she knows, the determination on the allocation of family resource centres is a matter for Tusla. It is important, in my role as Minister, to give the agency the discretion in that.

I understand what the Deputy is saying that disadvantage is present in all urban and rural communities across the country. I come from a very urban constituency and I know that the needs in a rural constituency are different but it does not mean that they cannot become as extreme.

As I said, work is being undertaken currently to get a wider understanding of what family support services are available across the country and how they can be deployed more effectively to support need, be it in an urban or rural setting. That is really important. It is also really importance that the rural element of that shines through. I ask that the Deputy writes to me on this particular issue and I will convey it to Tusla so that we can advance the provision of these supports.