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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 24 Mar 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 1

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Childcare Services

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

1. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if his attention has been drawn to the fact that more than a small number of childcare sessional and school-age childcare, SAC, services will be adversely affected by the newly announced core funding model; the guarantees he can give these services that they will not be worse off; if the staff working in these services can avail of the uplift; if not, the reason that they do not qualify; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15445/22]

Good morning to the Minister. Is he aware that more than a small number of childcare sessional and SAC services will be adversely affected by the newly announced core funding model? Will he give a guarantee that they will not be worse off? Will he confirm that staff working in these services can avail of the uplift? If not, why do they not qualify?

I thank the Deputy. A transformative package of measures for the early learning and care, ELC, and SAC sectors was announced in budget 2022, including €221 million in core funding. Core funding will operate from September in order to support improved quality, affordability and sustainability. The significant majority of ELC and SAC services will see substantial increases in income through core funding.

It is important to state that no service will lose out on core funding. All services will receive at least the same level of core funding as they received from higher capitation and programme support payments, PSPs, this year, assuming the number of children, graduate staff and type of service offered remain the same. For early childhood care and education, ECCE, sessional services operating with standard capitation, all full- and part-time services and all SAC services, there will be substantial increases in funding. There will also be increases in funding for the large majority of ECCE sessional services operating with higher capitation. Approximately 1% of services will see the same income from core funding as they received this year through higher capitation and PSPs combined but no service will be less well off under core funding than under the previous scheme.

Core funding is largely contingent on an employment regulation order, ERO, being agreed by the joint labour committee, JLC, for the sector. If agreed, an ERO will establish minimum rates of pay and conditions for all workers and it is a matter for the JLC to determine whether different rates should apply for different roles and qualification levels of staff. A JLC was established this year and has been meeting regularly in recent months.

I thank the Minister. We are acutely aware of issues in the childcare sectors in recent years, including the cost of childcare to parents and staff not being paid at levels appropriate to their qualifications. I acknowledge that many services will be better off and welcome the uplift to 49 weeks instead of 38 weeks for degree staff. I know it is rolled out as part of the budget and will come on stream later this year. However, a few services have been in touch with Deputy Funchion's office to say they will be worse off. They have gone on to the ready reckoner, which is the online tool for services, to gauge the potential funding value for an individual service and found they will be worse off. The Minister has given a guarantee that they will not be. If they find they do not qualify for the core funding, can they engage with the Department to ensure they get the same level of funding as last year? The sessional services are particularly fearful that they will be worse off.

Owing to the manner in which the higher capitation payment was made in respect of graduates when it was based on the number of children participating in the ECCE programme rather than the number of hours of graduate-led provision, approximately 1% of sessional services got a disproportionate uplift under the older system. When they put their numbers into the ready reckoner, they came out as being down slightly. I can give a clear guarantee. We have conveyed this to the services but this is a valuable opportunity to state that no service will be less well off for core funding than under the previous arrangement.

In the coming days we will communicate with all services about the transition payment, which is the payment we will provide to them when the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, ends but before core funding kicks in, hopefully in September. That transition payment will be made in June, July or August and we will issue information about it in the coming days.

The Minister mentioned an interim period and that the JLC is meeting regularly. I am concerned that funding is still reliant on the employment regulation order. Does the Minister have concerns about that? Is he confident that everything will work out as intended?

We are bringing forward €221 million per year in funding. This is a significant State investment, as everyone recognises. The bulk of that money is linked to the delivery of the ERO. We all know how poorly childcare professionals are paid. I see, Government sees and it is seen across the House the ERO as the means to deliver that. That money has to be contingent on the ERO. If we do not get the ERO, we cannot get the guarantee that the extra money the State is providing to services will go to childcare providers, give them the uplift they need and deserve and keep them in the sector so they do not continue to leave as they are leaving at the moment. The Government sees the ERO as essential to the delivery of that objective and that is why it is so closely linked with the provision of the majority of the core funding package.

Ukraine War

Ivana Bacik

Question:

2. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if he has been informed of calls from UNICEF for safeguarding and child protection measures to be put in place for children fleeing Ukraine; if Ireland and State agencies such as Tusla are in a position to safeguard unaccompanied minors travelling here from Ukraine and other conflict zones; and the steps that his Department is taking to ensure that child protection reporting mechanisms are in place and are accessible to non-native English or Irish speakers. [15337/22]

Has the Minister been informed of calls from UNICEF for safeguarding and child protection measures to be put in place for children fleeing Ukraine? Are Ireland and State agencies such as Tusla in a position to safeguard unaccompanied minors travelling to the State from Ukraine and other conflict zones? Will the Minister detail what steps his Department is taking to ensure child protection reporting mechanisms are in place and accessible to non-native English or Irish speakers?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. I am aware of various organisations making calls for safeguarding and child protection measures to be put in place for children fleeing Ukraine. Tusla has a significant role in the State's response to support individuals, particularly women and children, displaced from Ukraine as a result of the war and coming into Ireland. Tusla is committed to balancing the needs of families in a humanitarian crisis with its child protection responsibilities and requirement to support families and promote the welfare of children.

Where children enter Ireland and present to emigration authorities as separated children seeking international protection, Tusla's specialist separated children social work team attend the airport or port to meet with the young person to undertake an assessment, supported as required by relevant translators. If the individual is deemed to be a separated child, the social worker will, in the first instance, see if the child can be reunited with his or her family. If it is assessed that the child needs care, he or she will be received into State care under section 4 of the Child Care Act 1991 and placed in foster care or specialised residential care. Where an immigration official has a concern about the welfare and safety of a child travelling with adults who are not his or her parents, that official will contact Tusla, which will assess the situation. Between 16 and 21 March of this year, Tusla received 22 referrals of separated children from Ukraine. A number of these were subsequently reunited with family members; as such, as of 22 March, Tusla had 13 separated children in State care. Where an individual has any child protection concerns, a referral should be made to Tusla.

In responding to any child protection concerns, Tusla's staff have access to translators, as required, and the translation of key information on the tusla.ie website is under way. The Government website, gov.ie/ukraine, already contains much information that has already been translated into Ukrainian and Russian.

I welcome the Minister's response. I am concerned that there have been 22 referrals, but I am reassured that a designated social worker team has been assigned. Can the Minister indicate if such teams are assigned at all points of entry? There has been much talk about Dublin and Rosslare, but Ukrainian people are, to a lesser extent, coming in through Shannon and Cork airports. I wish to seek assurance that similar teams are being put in place at those points of entry as well.

A team is on-site 18 hours a day at Dublin Airport. Between 85% and 90% of all Ukrainians who have come to Ireland have entered through Dublin Airport. At this stage, we do not have on-site teams at Rosslare, which is the next largest entry point, or at Shannon and the other points of entry that account for small numbers. It is a question of where to best target resources. In the coming weeks and months as the summer season approaches, it is likely that more people may be entering and particularly through Rosslare. As the Deputy is aware, a full hub is being established at Rosslare now, so I have no doubt that Tusla will examine that aspect. The organisation can designate and send a specialist team wherever it is required. My understanding, however, is that the majority of these 22 referrals have come in through Dublin Airport. It is important to reiterate that there have been 22 referrals, but 13 are in care. A significant number have been reunited with their families or family members, which is a positive development.

The important thing for all of us is that children are being picked up by the system. That is the most important thing because it would reassure us.

I pay tribute to the people of Buttevant in my native Cork, who wrapped their arms around approximately 50 Ukrainians who have come into the community there in recent days. Communities are rallying to support families and the effort there has been tremendous. If we were looking for a model of community response, the Buttevant experience would be an excellent exemplar for such a model. The Department of Social Protection and other statutory agencies are beginning to respond to the needs of people in Buttevant. I take that town as an example of other similar communities throughout the country. I ask that Tusla would make itself known to those types of efforts to ensure that where children need psychological services, for example, that such needs would be picked up, even where those children are accompanied by parents or family.

Tusla is acutely aware of its responsibility in this matter, particularly because this is a crisis having such a detrimental impact on children. Bernard Gloster was on "Morning Ireland" this morning. I did not catch his interview, but he has been in regular contact with me and my Department on these issues. As the Deputy said, we and Tusla have moved quickly to address the situation of the 22 children referred to. The Ukrainian authorities have also written to us on the broader issue of the use of adoption during a wartime situation and to ensure that wartime is not used as an opportunity for adoption laws to be taken advantage of. We will be sending a strong official response to say that we recognise that that is the case. The protection of children is, therefore, very much a focus. I have several other questions on Ukraine later and I can probably use those opportunities to outline more details in this respect.

I join with Deputy Sherlock in paying tribute to the great work being done in his constituency and communities all over the country. I had an opportunity to see some of the amazing work being done in Blanchardstown yesterday. The national effort is absolutely spectacular.

Registration of Births

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

3. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if he will establish an inquiry into illegal birth registrations following publication of a report (details supplied) by the special rapporteur on child protection into illegal adoption practices in the State; the form that this inquiry will take; if accountability will be a key component of the inquiry; the consultation process that he plans to undertake; if the €3,000 once-off payment compensation will be applicable to other institutions and or persons; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15446/22]

Holly Cairns

Question:

4. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his response to recommendation 17 (details supplied) of the special rapporteur on child protection’s proposals for a State response to illegal birth registrations in Ireland. [15455/22]

Following the publication of the report by the special rapporteur on child protection, Professor Conor O'Mahony, into illegal adoption practices in the State, will the Minister confirm if he will establish an inquiry into illegal birth registrations, what form the inquiry will take, if the accountability will be a key component of the inquiry and what consultation processes are planned to be undertaken in this regard? Can the Minister also confirm that a once-off payment or compensation of €3,000 will apply to other institutions and individuals who have claims in this regard?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 and 4 together.

Following the publication of the independent review into illegal birth registrations in March 2021, I asked Professor Conor O'Mahony, the special rapporteur on child protection, to consider the significant complexities and challenges which arise in respect of the issue of illegal birth registrations and to provide a report proposing an appropriate course of action. On 14 March 2022, I published the report, which sets out 17 numbered recommendations, one of which is that a State inquiry into illegal adoption should be established. On publication, the Government was able to commit to the implementation of a significant number of the recommendations.

The question of creating an effective non-statutory inquiry is a sensitive, complex and challenging one. The special rapporteur on child protection acknowledged this and, in particular, noted the challenges associated with access to records for a non-statutory inquiry. The Government remains committed to delivering on that comprehensive suite of actions set out in the Government action plan for survivors and former residents of mother and baby and county home institutions. These actions respond to the priority needs and wishes of survivors, their families and advocates. As part of this work, I am advancing an initiative for the recognition and memorialisation of the voices and lived experiences of survivors. This will establish a process for survivors of mother and baby and county home institutions to allow them to come forward voluntarily and share the account of their lived experiences, with a view to having those formally recognised as a part of the official record of the history of these institutions in Ireland.

The Government action plan also contains important measures focused on access to records and the creation of a centralised State repository of records. The Government recognises the potential for a future centralised archive to support future analysis and research on these important matters.

As a consequence of this ongoing work, the Government will need to give further consideration to the specific recommendation on the truth commission. In the coming months, my priority will be to implement the action plan and to deliver the Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022, which will provide full, unredacted access to birth and early life information for people affected by illegal birth registrations, adopted people and anyone with questions as to their origins.

Regarding the specific question concerning the €3,000 once-off payment and whether that will be applicable to other institutions and-or persons, my aim in bringing forward this payment is to respond to the recommendations of the special rapporteur on child protection in the timeliest manner possible. For this reason, I have received Government approval for a once-off payment for those individuals affected by illegal birth registration in the files of St. Patrick's Guild, where confirmation is already held by Tusla and can form the basis for payment to the individuals affected, without any need to bring forward evidence and meet a certain burden of proof. There may be potential to extend the payment to other confirmed cases after the Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022 has provided access to records and, as a result, people with suspicions are able to access the evidence necessary to confirm illegal birth registration and consequently effect a change in the birth register.

We have had two significant exposés of illegal adoptions recently, namely, the "RTÉ Investigates" follow-up programme on illegal adoption practices in the State and then the report from Professor Conor O'Mahony's into the State's response to illegal birth registrations. Tusla is still putting obstacles in the way of some people seeking information in this regard. We saw in the follow-up programme to the original broadcast that obstacles still exist. These reports were both damning and they showed that the State had a significant role in facilitating these practices and now has a role in correcting and repairing past injustices.

Professor O'Mahony's report, as the Minister said, contains 17 recommendations. We welcome confirmation that the State will make an apology. It will go some way to amending some of the human rights violations in this context. We need more clarity, however, concerning what form this inquiry will take. I have reservations if there is no accountability, because people would again be left extremely disappointed. We must be aware that many of the people involved are aged and getting older. While we have known about these practices for approximately 70 years, there is still a need for answers.

We cannot have another report like the one relating to the mother and baby homes, and we are mindful that we cannot wait another seven years for an inquiry.

I really hoped this would be one of the topics on which we could all agree and that after all the human rights violations and mistreatment by the State, we would do the right thing immediately and set up this inquiry. The special rapporteur's recommendations and rationale are incredibly clear and compelling. We all know many adopted people could not participate in the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes; not only were they denied the right to tell their story in a State inquiry but as a result, the Taoiseach's apology did not even include them. Each and every one of them deserves the opportunity to contribute to an official State inquiry that would record the abuses they suffered and their impact. Instead, it seems we are offering a possible lesser process and we have another Government that does not consider their suffering worthy of a proper and full recognition. Will the Government establish the inquiry immediately on the system of illegal adoptions and that legacy?

I thank the Deputies. There has been a rightful focus on the question of illegal birth registration through "RTÉ Investigates" programmes and the published report of the independent investigator. Following on from that, the Government and I took action, recognising that the independent reviewer's report, comprehensive though it was, perhaps did not set out clear next steps. We asked Professor Conor O'Mahony to bring forward his report and he has set out clear next steps. He recognises the importance of the Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022, on which so much work has been done in recent weeks, in answering many of the issues and resolving many of the barriers mentioned by Deputy Tully. I acknowledge they still exist with respect to access to information but the Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022 will address them. It has been designed specifically so those subject to illegal birth registrations and particularly those who suspect they are the subject of illegal birth registrations may use the processes set out in that Bill.

I acknowledge that work has been done and that under the guidance of the Minister, matters have progressed much more than they had under his predecessors. It is important to say an inquiry is needed that would not go on for years and cost millions of euro. It must get answers and hold people to account for what happened.

The Minister has indicated the €3,000 one-off payment is going to people from St. Patrick's Guild and there is a possibility that process will be opened to others. It is only a possibility at this stage and that depends on information that will come forward. Is that right?

The Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022 will not address this. Adopted people and their advocates have been calling for an inquiry for decades and the special rapporteur has unambiguously supported that. We need an inquiry straight away and nothing less; for too long people have had to settle for less. It should not be the case any more.

We need a full and proper inquiry that fulfils all the functions of a truth commission and the principles of transitional justice. That is what is being recommended. Responding to the "RTÉ Investigates" programme on illegal adoptions, Professor O'Mahony stated:

I am struck once more by the shattering impact that illegal birth registrations have had on the lives of those affected. We owe them everything that can realistically be done without further delay.

The vast majority of Irish people agree with this and it is disgraceful that the Government does not. State bodies and officials seem determined to prevent a full inquiry so will the Minister please do the right thing and set up the inquiry immediately?

Deputy Cairns is correct about the comprehensive nature of Professor O'Mahony's discussion of the issue of inquiry. He very clearly took task with the commission of investigation model, and we all agree it did not deliver what survivors of institutions were seeking. Deputy Tully spoke about accountability. One of the key issues with a truth commission is that it requires people to come forward on a non-statutory basis. As a result, what everybody seeks to achieve from an inquiry may not be delivered from a truth commission model as opposed to a commission of inquiry model, although we have already seen how the commission of inquiry model does not deliver either.

Considering how to go forward in a way that delivers for the desires of survivors is important, and it is why we cannot just immediately say that we are following this course of action. This requires consideration. The completion of major work like the Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022 is so important in addressing other elements of Professor O'Mahony's report and providing people who have suspicions that they were subject to illegal birth registration with confirmation either way.

Childcare Services

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

5. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth when his Department's own in-depth analysis of 13 childcare services in very disadvantaged areas was conducted; the findings of same; when he will make this research public; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15484/22]

Will the Minister confirm when the Department's in-depth analysis of 13 childcare services in very disadvantaged areas was conducted? What were the findings and when will the Minister make the research public?

In 2018, the Crowe consultancy group was commissioned by my Department to undertake a sustainability review of a small cohort of early learning and care and school-age childcare services operating in disadvantaged areas. Through this review, Crowe also engaged with parents using these services. A key objective of the review was to examine the potential impact of the national childcare scheme, NCS, which was under development at the time. It was never intended to publish a report of this sustainability review as it contains commercially-sensitive data relating to the services that participated.

All recommendations emerging from the steering group overseeing the sustainability review were adopted and implemented in full by my Department. This includes an increase in standard NCS-subsidised hours from 15 hours to 20 hours per week, which was introduced in September 2019 and an increase in enhanced NCS subsidised hours from 40 to 45 hours per week, which was also introduced in September 2019. The recommendations also included a continuation of and enhancement to sustainability funding to ELC and SAC services, which remains in place.

Since I became Minister, and following my engagements with childcare providers across the country, further consideration has been given to the early learning and care and school-age childcare services needs of children from disadvantaged areas, once the NCS, including NCS sponsorship arrangements, were introduced. In this context, arising from a review of the NCS that I specifically asked to consider disadvantaged services, a review of the work study test and recommendations set out in Partnership for the Public Good, a number of changes to NCS were announced in budget 2022. Significantly, these included the discontinuation of the practice of deducting hours in preschool or school from NCS subsidy hours. This measure will benefit an estimated 5,000 children in disadvantaged areas.

Other recommendations in Partnership for the Public Good will further support services operating in disadvantaged areas. We discussed earlier that Core funding, which will be introduced in September, has been designed to meet objectives with this in mind.

In the Department's 12-month review of the NCS, there is a paragraph that mentions this in-depth review that nobody in the sector has seen or even knew about. Did that review find that seven of the 13 services would move into financial deficit with the introduction of the NCS? Did it find that funding from these schemes constituted a major share of the services' revenues? Will the Minister confirm if many of the parents receiving community childcare subvention programme, a very high proportion of whom are unemployed, now receive fewer hours of subsidised childcare under the NCS? Did the Department know this and still go ahead with these changes, knowing children would be adversely affected?

The Association of Childhood Professionals published a report in November 2019 indicating that 50% of school-age children on the community childcare subvention programme would be entitled to NCS and 30% of early childhood education and care children on the community childcare subvention programme would be entitled to fewer hours and funding. We recognise and welcome that in budget 2022 the Department extended the universal NCS subvention to all children up to 15 and stopped the practice, as mentioned by the Minister, of counting hours spent in school and the ELC and education scheme with respect to a family's entitlement. This does not go far enough, however, to adequately address disadvantage. Will the Minister confirm such disadvantage will be addressed in budget 2023?

From very early in taking up my role, I recognised that the NCS as a national scheme is extremely beneficial. We have very clear evidence that on a national basis it is providing real benefits to large numbers of parents and encouraging large numbers of those parents back to work. However, we recognised that specific services felt a negative impact and I engaged with the Deputy's colleagues about that. I also met representatives from a significant number of services and listened to them and that is why we brought forward these changes in the budget to broaden the NCS and, in particular, to remove the wrap-around hours. I also worked with Tusla and other bodies to make the sponsorship process easier.

We have been very clear in the Partnership for the Public Good report, and there is a clear indication that, a form of Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, approach to childcare is needed.

My Department as well as working on core funding is also working on designing that DEIS-type approach. We hope to begin the process of rolling it out in the next budgetary cycle.

Prior the launch of the national childcare scheme, NCS, those working in the sector warned the previous Minister and the Department of the effect it would have on services in disadvantaged areas. It seems the report did justify their concerns. I would be concerned about children. Just because parents are unemployed and at home does not mean children do not need childcare. It may be the only hot meal they get in the day. They need supports from services like this, especially when they are in disadvantaged areas. It is extremely important. The Minister is confirming that this will be addressed in budget 2023.

I very much recognise the needs of children from disadvantaged areas. That is why we have made changes to the scheme. We have made it clear that sponsorship should be interpreted broadly, particularly by Tusla. That has led to a significant increase in the number of children getting full hours through the sponsorship process. We also removed the wraparound hours, which will benefit 5,000 children. It is my hope that in next year's budget we will be able to begin to advance the DEIS measures. The Government has committed to the implementation of the public good document and the DEIS model is a key element of that. Obviously it is part of the budgetary cycle and something my Department has to go in and advocate for. We are not going to be able to introduce it fully in one budgetary cycle. I very much believe that a DEIS model, as is advised by that report, is crucial to supporting services in areas of vulnerability and that is a key priority for me.

I have a general message in respect of the priority questions. I have been very strict in the past and have to continue to be so in adhering to the rules in respect of prior notice if a Deputy is taking over someone's question. There must be a written notice or contact with my office. I have been in a position where I have refused other people who have come in. I thought Deputy Tully's name was on the list and I made a mistake. That is fine. For everyone for the future, if there is a change in the speaker they must notify the Ceann Comhairle's office.

Did Deputy Funchion's office not do so?

I will not go into it now. There is nothing before me.

I just assumed they had. No problem.

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