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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 24 Mar 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 1

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Ukraine War

Jennifer Whitmore

Question:

8. Deputy Jennifer Whitmore asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the way his Department is co-ordinating the accommodation and welfare needs of Ukrainian refugees coming to Ireland; if there is a co-ordination person and organisation in each county to manage the needs of refugees on behalf of his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15101/22]

Mick Barry

Question:

13. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the measures that will be put in place to ensure the safeguarding of Ukrainian children who come here as refugees; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15480/22]

Pauline Tully

Question:

19. Deputy Pauline Tully asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his plans to increase the resources to community organisations that are and will be delivering services to the expected 100,000 refugees from Ukraine; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15321/22]

Niamh Smyth

Question:

30. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to outline his Department’s supports for Ukrainian nationals arriving in Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15306/22]

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

50. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the response of his Department to the Ukrainian war crisis; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15100/22]

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

65. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the assistance and supports that are being provided by his Department to Ukrainians fleeing the war; if provision is being made to accommodate persons outside of Dublin, to provide holistic supports to children and young people including access to mental health supports; the measures that will be undertaken to integrate these young people into their communities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15447/22]

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

72. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the supports that he is considering in order to involve the public and local communities in towns and villages to assist in integration measures needed for Ukrainian nationals coming to Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15355/22]

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

73. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the measures that are being taken to provide accommodation and housing for those fleeing conflict in Ukraine; the number of children to date who have arrived from Ukraine and the services made available to them; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15354/22]

Ivana Bacik

Question:

298. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the details of his engagement with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage in respect of the housing needs of children coming to Ireland to escape conflict in Ukraine; his views on the need to avoid the inappropriate accommodation of children in congregated settings, particularly those shared with adult strangers; and his views on the use of modular housing to meet the specific housing needs of child refugees and asylum seekers. [15338/22]

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill

Question:

306. Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the system that is in place for persons in Ireland who wish to open up their home to Ukrainians fleeing conflict; the way in which persons can access information about how they can help; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13371/22]

Deputy Tully is down for one of these grouped questions, Question No. 19. The other Members ahead of her are not here so I think she will be taking the 30 seconds.

What are the Minister's plans to increase resources to community organisations that are and will be delivering services to the expected 100,000 refugees from Ukraine?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8, 13, 19, 30, 50, 65, 72, 73, 298 and 306 together.

I thank the Deputies for their questions. I am sure everyone joins me in condemning in the strongest possible terms the illegal aggression of Russia towards Ukraine, which at this stage appears to be designed to create the most possible suffering for civilians. I am sure all Deputies will join with me in extending a hand of welcome to Ukrainian refugees as they arrive in our country.

Since the outset of the Russian attack, I and my Department have been focused on providing reception accommodation for Ukrainian refugees in need. From 25 February to this Tuesday,19 March, 10,414 Ukrainians have come to Ireland. We have established dedicated teams at Dublin Airport to meet new arrivals from Ukraine, with teams from the Departments of Social Protection, Health, and Justice and from my own Department. Alongside that we have hubs in Cork and Limerick cities to support new arrivals. We are establishing a hub presence at Rosslare Port. Officials from these Departments are ensuring that every person arriving is met and given support as soon as possible.

We have specifically prepared reception areas and they include designated spaces for children and adults and quiet spaces. The international protection accommodation service, IPAS, of my Department has temporarily taken responsibility for providing accommodation to Ukrainian refugees. A dedicated Ukraine unit is being established to manage the provision of accommodation and related services to Ukrainian refugees. To date almost 5,000 Ukraine nationals have sought accommodation from IPAS.

My officials are continuously working to source further accommodation and supports for Ukrainian arrivals to Ireland. So far, IPAS has contracted over 2,500 hotel rooms, with additional capacity also being pursued through accommodation pledged by the general public, where there are 20,000 pledges on the register; State-owned or private properties which may be suitable for short-term accommodation; religious properties; and local authority facilities. My Department has worked with local authorities which played a pivotal role in securing short-term accommodation. We have engaged with the City and County Management Association, CCMA, about drawing on emergency accommodation in community centres, if necessary. Dublin City Council provided some emergency accommodation last weekend and we have engaged with convention centres about installing emergency accommodation in those facilities and with the Defence Forces about options if existing capacity was insufficient.

All of this work is being undertaken. However, I have to be clear, open and honest about the scale of the challenge facing the State. Over the past month, we have been contracting hotel accommodation. This week, we are going out to pledged accommodation. Right now, this is our primary source of accommodation. Over the coming weeks we will get a better sense of wider accommodation through local authorities, religious organisations and State bodies. Some of this may require renovation. This accommodation is unlikely to meet the level of need should some of the higher estimated numbers of people arriving come to pass.

If we are to offer people shelter and security, we have to have contingency options and these are being put in place. These include the use of arenas and conference centres such as Millstreet and CityWest, as well as the use of Gormanstown. It will not be own-door, and may mean camp beds in shared spaces. It is not our first preference. However, it is there as a contingency if at some point it becomes needed. We have a war on our borders and we are facing a humanitarian crisis on a scale we have never seen before.

What the Minister has outlined is around accommodation, which is the first port of call and the first important thing. However, I have been hearing from local community groups such as family resource centres that have been to the forefront of assisting families fleeing conflict in Syria and Afghanistan. In Cavan-Monaghan a number of family resource centres have been reporting that staff are under extreme pressure on a daily basis with requests for help and support for these families who often have limited English. Workers in the centres are trying to cope with an expanding list of critical needs in terms of education, housing, social welfare, medical appointments and citizenship applications. The work goes on through lunch times, late into the evenings and often at weekends. That was before the conflict in Ukraine and the dreadful plight of the Ukrainian people. We can expect that this is only going to increase as Ukrainian people settle in different areas, and rightly so. It is going to exacerbate a bad situation that is already there. What plans does the Minister have to increase funding and resources to community groups and the family resource centres to deal with refugees?

There is a great deal of goodwill among the public as is evidenced by the 20,000 offers of accommodation and also the significant donations and cash amounts that were shipped out in recent weeks. Community groups really want to be able to provide support, whether people are in congregated settings or spread right across the country. It is not going to be so easy to gather together those different ideas.

What kind of platform is available to community groups that want to engage, whether they are offering welcome packs, communications services, transport or any of the various offers that might be made? Given that the people coming here will be spread right across the country, does the Minister have a plan for transport? How can we accommodate groups of people, whether a group of friends or those engaged with a particular organisation, in terms of transport options, in a situation where they may be scattered across the country?

First, it is important to say that we are taking an all-of-government approach, led by the Department of the Taoiseach. The Deputy is right that transport will be a key element and I will be engaging with the Department of Transport on that. It is important that each Department is responsible for its particular element of the response to the crisis. We all will work together to deliver for the very significant needs of Ukrainian refugees.

I will engage with Tusla regarding family resource centres. Its CEO, Bernard Gloster, has indicated that it is looking to support the Government's work in terms of the response to Ukrainian refugees in individual communities.

On the wider co-ordination point, which speaks to both of the Deputy's questions, the community forums are being stood up at the moment. He may recall the community call initiative during the Covid crisis. We are looking to a similar model now and the County and City Management Association, CCMA, is being asked to contact all the local authority chief executives and ask them to convene meetings of statutory community and voluntary agencies that can co-ordinate what is needed. The work that needs to be done in Cork and Cavan, for example, may be different from what is needed in west Dublin. The effort must be shaped to each particular area.

I would welcome any supports that can be given to family resource centres because they really are under pressure at the moment. That is before they even start to deal with people from Ukraine.

The Minister said a cross-governmental approach is being taken. Is there a good plan in place in this regard? Many of the people coming here are highly qualified professionals in areas where there are staff shortages in this country. Will they be allowed to work within a short period of arriving here? It would give them the means to support themselves and feel they are contributing to our society and it also would fill shortages we have, especially in the healthcare sector, where there are shortages of nurses, doctors and therapists within the disability sector. Is there a plan to get people working as soon as possible?

I welcome the Minister's update and the engagement with the community forums. There are two almost distinct timeframes at play here. There is the immediate need as people are arriving and there is the question of how they can be supported in the longer term. In terms of the immediate or short-term response, I have offers, for instance, from a company's sports and social club that wants to make welcome kits available to children arriving here. There is a school that wants to make its gym's shower facilities and so on available. All of these kinds of arrangements will have to be prepared in advance. If it is a matter of waiting for the councils and the city and county managers to assemble a forum, it will be a little too late for those offers to be ready for when people arrive. Is there a platform or opportunity for these types of early set-up offers to be taken on board? They are only for the short term but they would help with the more immediate needs.

I, too, have concerns about the plans. I really welcome the work that is being done to welcome Ukrainian refugees but, like other Deputies, I have had several telephone calls from people who have houses available but need more communication and information on how to proceed. I contacted Carlow County Council, which told me it is setting up a forum and gave me a telephone number. I said that I have had loads of people contacting me and I need to know where to go for information. There is no branch of the Irish Red Cross in County Carlow, although there is one in Kilkenny and it does an excellent job.

It is correct that the timing of all this is crucial. It is great that the local authorities do a good job in such matters, as they did during the Covid crisis, but we, as Deputies, are to the forefront on this. We are getting a large number of telephone calls but we cannot give people information because we know nothing about what is happening. I have contacted all the different Departments trying to get that information. Many people in different communities are coming to me, as an elected representative, looking for help but I do not know where to send them. Communication will be key in all of this. It is just not about local authorities but it is also about all the different groups and everybody working together. This is an urgent issue and a crisis. If we all do not play our part, the outcome will not be good. I am not happy with what is happening in terms of engagement with communities.

It is 28 days since Russia invaded Ukraine. All of Europe is responding to a crisis none of us foresaw and which is happening at a scale none of us foresaw. Yes, the response right now is imperfect. We are doing our best to meet the immediate needs about which Deputy Moynihan spoke and to plan for what could be very significant medium- to long-term needs. The entire system is coming together but it will take time before everything is perfect. I genuinely think Cork County Council is in a better position to decide, for example, that a school can make shower facilities available to a local group, rather than such decisions being made at Government level or by the Department of Education. That is really important.

I have asked the Department of the Taoiseach to make sure the community forums are being established and will be up and running. If they need help in getting contact numbers and so on, it is important to get that right. It is important that they know, and we all know, who to contact. There is a process, which is the same process that worked during the Covid crisis, and it is getting up and running. It is not perfect and it will be imperfect for a while, but we have a clear mechanism to deliver in the short term while we work on the plans for the longer term.

International Protection

James O'Connor

Question:

6. Deputy James O'Connor asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if he will outline supports provided to date through the community sponsorship model and whether consideration has been given to including Ukrainian nationals in the scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15316/22]

Will the Minister outline any work that is being undertaken in the context of the community sponsorship scheme and whether consideration is being given to enabling Ukrainian nationals in communities to access the scheme?

As the Deputy is aware, accommodation is being made available by the International Protection Accommodation Service, IPAS, of my Department to meet the needs of Ukrainian refugees. So far, accommodation has been provided to more than 4,500 people. The community sponsorship model he referenced was developed by the Government in collaboration with non-governmental partners such as the Irish Red Cross, the Irish Refugee Council, Nasc, Amnesty International and Doras Luimní. The purpose of the programme is to enable communities to welcome refugees to Ireland and to ensure communities are supported as they engage with refugees to find sanctuary here and integrate into Irish life.

During the arrival of Afghan refugees in 2021, a less formalised version of this programme was adapted to support groups wishing to welcome Afghan arrivals in an emergency situation where time did not allow for a full training programme to take place. Communities already are becoming engaged in the process of providing support to Ukrainian refugees, as we discussed in the debate on the previous question. Community forums are being established to serve as a mechanism for channelling community and voluntary support to Ukrainian refugees. The model is similar to the community call approach that was adopted during the Covid crisis. Local authorities will be able to provide details of the community forums in each country, which will oversee community initiatives to support refugees. Community support will be crucial in ensuring refugees are successfully integrated into Irish society.

As the Deputy is aware, a key part of the community sponsorship scheme is the provision of accommodation to refugees. Members of the public already are providing such accommodation through the national pledge process managed by the Irish Red Cross. It is open to communities to submit pledges to the register, encompassing both accommodation and community supports.

I welcome the work the Government has undertaken since this crisis began. As the Minister noted, it is only 28 days since the invasion took place and we are undertaking a multimillion euro and multifaceted approach to dealing with many of the concerns that have been raised. More could, perhaps, be done but we will get there in time. The events taking place internationally are deeply concerning, as I am sure he acknowledges. The community sponsorship scheme was used for the first time a number of years ago at the time of the Afghan crisis. It has been a successful way to encourage a degree of integration and assistance to refugees. We are now living in extraordinarily dangerous times. The world has changed utterly since 2016, when a general election took place, and we need to adapt to this new reality. Ireland's place can be as a beacon of peace and refuge for people who are in need across the world. We must ensure we resource that status and style of approach. I would welcome any further details the Minister can provide in this regard.

The Deputy is right that the community sponsorship model was brought forward in a different time and it responded to the very real needs of Afghan refugees last year and Syrian refugees prior to that. It was an extremely successful programme and communities really have rallied around to support those who arrived. However, it was done on a small scale, whereas now we are undertaking developments at a massive scale across the country, as we expect tens of thousands of refugees to arrive in the weeks and months ahead. We need to learn from the successes of the community sponsorship scheme.

We have to be in a position to upscale that at a much greater level and to respond to the many needs of Ukrainians. One of the Deputies raised the issues of employment and the desire of Ukrainians to engage in employment. Under the temporary protection directive, they have a right to join the jobs market. We are considering expediting membership applications to the Teaching Council and other professional bodies to allow Ukrainians into the workforce as quickly as possible.

I have a couple of additional points based on observations I made on my community in the weeks since this crisis began. Throughout rural Ireland, we see families, including young mothers and children, arriving. We need to do more to find suitable accommodation. Many places in rural Ireland could easily be renovated and brought up to a standard whereby safe accommodation could be provided, but conservation architects cause many issues when it comes to renovating many derelict buildings in towns and villages, as many rural Deputies will confirm. We could set these buildings up as emergency accommodation for the initial months until we find time to provide suitable housing for people who will be remaining here for the foreseeable future while the conflict is taking place. The Minister might examine this issue, if possible.

I thank the Deputy. We are proceeding on a phased basis. The initial phase involves hotel accommodation. Two thousand five hundred rooms have been procured in recent weeks. We are now moving on to the pledges and seeking in the first instance to activate the vacant houses or fully vacant units into which people can move quickly. Following on from that will be shared accommodation in people's homes. There will be an element of vetting where a child is going into a home. We are engaging with a view to considering larger buildings, perhaps institutional buildings, including those of the HSE and religious institutions. We have asked local authorities to identify large vacant buildings that may not be in their ownership but that are in their areas and that could be renovated, as the Deputy stated. However, if the numbers increase, we will need more. The Government and Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage are considering the various options. We do not have the answers right now but we are working on them. We are asking everyone to work with us and to be reassured that we are very much focused on delivering for potentially large numbers.

Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence

Niamh Smyth

Question:

7. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to provide details of his Department’s plan to support increased domestic violence refuge provision, including progress on the delivery of refuge provision for counties Cavan and Monaghan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15307/22]

I am substituting for Deputy Niamh Smyth. I would like to know the Department's plans to support increased domestic violence refuge provision and the progress in this regard. I am asking the Minister about Carlow, which he will know only too well.

I prepared a response for Deputy Niamh Smyth. I might put that on the record and then address the Deputy's question, on Carlow. Deputy Niamh Smyth has raised this issue regularly. I have received correspondence from Cavan County Council on the matter. I am very much aware of the importance of refuge protection in counties such as Cavan and Monaghan, and, indeed, Carlow.

The response to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV is cross-departmental and multi-agency, co-ordinated by the Department of Justice. Tusla provides supports for victims of domestic violence, primarily through funded NGO service providers. In 2021, Tusla allocated €28 million in core funding for DSGBV services plus €2 million in contingency funding to address challenges arising from Covid-19. Overall funding to address DSGBV has increased from €23.8 million in 2018 to approximately €31 million in 2022.

I am informed by Tusla that support for victims of DSGBV in counties Cavan and Monaghan is available through the services of Tearmann, which is based in Monaghan and funded by Tusla. Tearmann also provides outreach services in both counties. Tusla's funding to Tearmann in 2021 was just over €214,000. Tusla has indicated that it has engaged with stakeholders in the Cavan–Monaghan area about taking forward provision of safe accommodation and explored options for emergency provision during the Covid-19 period. As the Deputy knows, Tusla published its review of accommodation recently. It assessed the distribution of safe emergency accommodation and examined the level of refuge provision, evidence of demand for services and unmet need.

An interdepartmental group, led by a senior official in the Department of Justice, has been established to examine the physical delivery of refuge accommodation, identify obstructions to delivery, address the perception of significant delays in provision and identify how they can be shortened. Priority areas have been identified where there is the greatest urgency in achieving safe accommodation for victims of DSGBV. There will be engagement with local authorities, Departments and State agencies to source refuge provision, including in Cavan and Monaghan.

I thank the Minister. I ask that he get a report for me on Carlow. I have been involved with various networks. A group of us, including all the relevant agencies, has been working together for the past few weeks, particularly since the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, announced Carlow was to have a women's refuge. We have a great network in Carlow but nobody has corresponded with it. Nobody has heard anything since the report was launched. Nobody knows anything. I sit on the group. We have a meeting next Tuesday. We are expecting another report from the Minister for Justice in April. It is to be the second. I welcome the fact that she, like the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, is committed to this, but the problem is that there has been no communication whatsoever through all the various agencies. The group I am part of has about 20 representatives from all the various agencies. Not one has heard from any Department.

It is great that the Deputy has got the group together. It shows the genuine commitment to the delivery of refuge services in Carlow. The Deputy raised this with me when I visited Carlow recently. She has clearly identified that the mechanisms for the delivery of refuges up to this point have been slow, cumbersome and ill-focused. That is one of the key issues that the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, is working on addressing to ensure we have a clear and fast-acting mechanism. We now have the report that has identified the gaps and now we need a fast process to fill the gaps and allow the groups the Deputy has been bringing together to link in with local authorities, get the capital funding, identify the site and build a suitable, appropriate and, I hope, specifically designed centre to provide for the accommodation needs. That work is ongoing.

Again, I thank the Minister for answering. The matter is important. I have met the Minister and the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, several times about a women's refuge for Carlow. Particularly in the nine counties that do not have a refuge, the urgency is recognised. Sadly, Covid created a crisis for something we knew was not working properly. In Carlow, we have a network set up. We have got all the various agencies together. When I raised this matter as a question on promised legislation, the Taoiseach requested that we put together a group involving all the agencies and be ready to go. I even wrote to the Minister for Justice about properties on sale in Carlow. I have done everything I can. I assure the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth that I have left no stone unturned. I acknowledge he is committed. I ask him and the Minister for Justice to communicate with the nine counties affected, particularly Carlow. We are ready to go on this; all we need is the go-ahead.

The Deputy does not in any way need me to back her up on this. I was in Carlow–Kilkenny on Monday and met the various groups, including Carlow Women's Aid and the Carlow and South Leinster Rape Crisis Centre. They are so much further ahead than Tusla in their work, in what they have identified, in what they can deliver and in the speed at which they can deliver. What the Deputy says is absolutely accurate. I see the same in Dún Laoghaire. The accommodation review identifies ten spaces. The joint policing committee has been working on this for two years and has identified a need for 20 spaces. It is at the point of simply trying to get the building. My point is that the group is further ahead than Tusla. It is a point of concern where the accommodation review is behind what is actually happening on the ground between the local authority and Garda, led by the joint policing committee and councillors. When the accommodation review report comes out, it is behind the work in this regard. That is of concern to me. I ask the Minister, who has responsibility for Tusla, to call in its representatives and make sure Tusla is keeping pace with the work on the ground. This is too urgent to be allowed to go slow.

As both Deputies know, responsibility for delivering the refuge services is being moved from the Department and Tusla to the Department of Justice. That is an issue on which the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and I have been working. It has been decided across Government that the Department of Justice is the appropriate location for both the setting of policy and the delivery of new refuge space. We will be seeking to facilitate the transfer of the responsibilities. We have been working very closely with the Minister for Justice on this issue since the formation of the Government.

Again, I am going back to the question arising from Professor Mahony's report and one of his 17 recommendations and conclusions. It relates to the payment of €3,000. I have had the privilege of hearing the Minister's reply previously. I am happy with that reply. The content is perfect. He set out the answer. However, he is doing so in a way that does not take cognisance of the 17 recommendations which said that doing nothing is not an option. That is also set out in the context of delays to date. I ask the Minister to be specific on the details of the €3,000 payment and when it will be extended to others.

I thank the Deputy. In March, following publication of the independent review into illegal birth registrations, I asked Professor Conor O'Mahony, the special rapporteur on child protection, to consider the significant complexities and challenges which arise regarding the issue of illegal birth registrations and to provide a report proposing an appropriate course of action. On 14 March, I published the report which sets out the 17 numbered recommendations.

Recommendation 16 in the report from the special rapporteur on child protection was that provision should be made to cover legal costs associated with a declaration of parentage of persons affected by illegal birth registrations. In response, the Government approved a once-off payment of €3,000 for those individuals whose illegal birth registrations had been confirmed by Tusla from the files of St. Patrick's Guild. That once-off €3,000 payment is intended as a contribution towards costs such as creating or amending wills or seeking a declaration of parentage. While it could also be used for DNA testing, Tusla has covered the cost of DNA testing for individuals in cases where records were insufficient to confirm an illegal birth registration and will continue to provide the support.

Tusla already holds confirmation of illegal birth registrations from the files of St. Patrick's Guild that 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 has been passed to access records and people with suspicions may, therefore, be able to access the evidence necessary to confirm illegal birth registrations and effect a change in the birth register.

In terms of the basis for the figure of €3,000, this was by the work of the interdepartmental group on illegal birth registrations and the special rapporteur's recommendations in terms of the purpose of the payment. My officials are currently working to establish a scheme with the intention of making payments as soon as possible in 2022.

We know that the potential extent of illegal birth registrations is huge. We know from the independent reviewer in Northern Ireland that there could be up to 20,000 cases or more. If we do not examine, we cannot find. The three monkeys come to mind. I mean that not in a disparaging way, but it seems to be a case of see, hear and do no evil. If we do not look, we cannot find.

The report from Professor O'Mahony in September was not published until March. That came on foot of the independent reviewer's report from Northern Ireland which is dated 2019 and was published in 2021. She recommended that we look at suspicious files. We have not looked at them. The 17 recommendations from Professor O'Mahony did not advise a payment of €3,000. He referred to making money available, but did not confine payments to those linked to St. Patrick's Guild. Why has the Minister made a decision that the payment should be confined to cases linked to St. Patrick's Guild on the basis that there is no evidence? We can never get evidence if we do not look for it. Other reports advised not to burden Tusla because it does not have the resources, or advised that it should be given resources if it is asked to do this work.

The Deputy is absolutely right in saying that if we do not look we cannot find. That is why I have prioritised the birth information and tracing legislation, which provides the mechanisms to allow us to find this information and get birth certificates, records and early life information which is the core way in which we can find out if someone has been subjected to an illegal birth registration. We have the provision of a specialised tracing team, which Professor O'Mahony recommended. We have set out in our response to the recommendations how that will be implemented by Tusla. Tusla requires some additional legislative support to undertake the kind of detailed tracing that will be needed to determine what has happened.

As the Deputy knows, we are dealing with illegal acts that were usually deeply covered and concealed. For whatever reason, that was not done in St. Patrick's Guild. Therefore, we are providing the legislative tools in the Birth Information and Tracing Bill, and the resourcing tools to Tusla in terms of the €3 million in additional allocation in this year's budget. We are providing the mechanisms so that we can look for information.

I appreciate that the Minister is doing his best, but I ask him to forgive my frustration given the context. At every step of the way there has been a delay. The Minister has to acknowledge that. Professor O'Mahony's report is dated September and was not published until St. Patrick's week.

I understand a lady asked for her name not be mentioned, which is the reason I have not mentioned it. I have asked the Minister to confirm whether she asked for her name to be taken from the independent review that she carried out because there were changes or alterations. I do not wish to say something that was incorrect. That is why am not using her name. I am not using her name because she, apparently, has asked that it not be used. Can the Minister tell me whether that is true so that I can attribute the very good work she did to her? That work was delayed for almost two years.

When there is that type of background, it is hard to have confidence in the system. I am here and I have a voice. I am speaking for the people who are voiceless outside and do not have any trust. I find it increasingly difficult to keep my trust. I am on record as having praised the Minister and have said I do not doubt his bona fides, but history is becoming more and more fragmented even in these reports. I only have summaries of the reports before me.

Professor O'Mahony conducted a very detailed piece of work within a short period of time. When I get detailed work, I give it the time to consider it. There were 17 detailed and complex recommendations. I do not rush into things in this area. I give them time and consideration. Through doing that we have a strong Birth Information and Tracing Bill and strong Institutional Burials Bill because they were given the time to assess the various elements that needed to be addressed.

In the context of the independent reviewer's report, the independent reviewer was commissioned to do a piece of work. She did that piece of work. The Attorney General recommended a small number of redactions from the report. I have to accept the response of the Attorney General. Our Department indicated that to the legal reviewer. She indicated she was not happy with those and we indicated that was the legal advice we required. She asked for her name to be removed. We commissioned this piece of work from her, therefore we believed it was appropriate that we publish it and attribute it to her.

Question No. 9 replied to with Written Answers.

Disability Services

Michael Moynihan

Question:

10. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if he will detail progress regarding the development and implementation of the autism innovation strategy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15315/22]

Can the Minister detail progress regarding the development and implementation of the autism innovation strategy?

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to set out a response to the question in the House. The autism innovation strategy is in development, with the current focus on design, consultation and collaborative working structures. National action in respect of autism is a firm commitment in the programme for Government 2021 and I announced an intention to develop an autism innovation strategy and launch it in 2022. In budget 2022, the Minister and I secured €100,000 for the design and implementation of the autism innovation strategy and for awareness raising around it.

The autism innovation strategy will be aligned to Ireland's existing policies like the NDIS and comprehensive employment strategy. The innovation strategy will complement these structures by focusing on the specific challenges that face people with autism. We will seek to break down barriers by focusing on practical and tangible actions and outcomes. When I talk about practical and tangible actions and outcomes, I talk about them in various veins, including education, housing, employment, care settings, independent living and support so that we can have a good vision of how to support persons with autism.

As part of the strategy development process, a stakeholder-led strategic oversight and advisory group, which I will chair, will be established through an open expression of interest. The group will contribute to the development of the full draft of the strategy and will also have an ongoing role in the process of monitoring the implementation of the strategy. The full draft of the autism innovation strategy will be put to public consultation before it is adopted or implemented by Government, which will give people the opportunity to have full and open engagement.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. Work on the strategy was announced last December and was obviously very welcome. I understand when the strategy is rolled out and devised it will at all junctures try to advance the rights of people with autism and address the challenges and barriers they face. Nonetheless, we all know the pressures and challenges faced by people with autism and their families, and they are significant.

I hope that as the strategy evolves, and with input from all stakeholders, we can arrive at a point where significant policy recommendations can be made that will improve people's lives and their interaction with the State and its services.

What does the Minister of State hope or envisage the autism strategy will address specifically? I ask her to explain step-by-step how the strategy is to be developed. I believe there are three steps that will be followed. How will she ensure the strategy will be fully inclusive?

My hope and aspiration for the entire strategy is that persons with autism will have a voice in the context of how their day-to-day living is impacted. It is also important to ensure parents have a voice. I refer to the issues of accessing services, education and housing, as well transitioning from school into higher education, the workforce and everyday life. That is the whole piece. We must listen to the voices of persons with lived experience in respect of where there are barriers or where various Departments may not have not considered this in the round. There are three stages to the strategy. The first step will be a public consultation on its design. The second step will be the establishment of the strategy oversight and advisory group. It will comprise stakeholders and persons with lived experience, who have to be front and centre. The final piece of the strategy will be its going out to public consultation before it is adopted.

I thank the Minister of State. I have a follow-up question specifically on the strategy oversight and advisory group. I ask the Minister of State to clarify who specifically will be members of the group, if she has that information at this point. Is it possible or the intention of the Government to establish the autism innovation strategy on a legislative footing?

With the indulgence of the Acting Chairman, I have not had a chance to ask the Minister of State publicly about the court case some weeks ago as a result of which the standard operating procedure, SOP, model has now effectively been deemed defunct. If she has time, I ask her to comment on that decision.

The Deputy is never one to miss an opportunity. Let us be clear. The strategy oversight and advisory group will comprise stakeholders and people with lived experience of autism and neurodiversity. The group will input into the development of the strategy and have an ongoing role in monitoring its implementation. The group will be established following an open expression-of-interest process. As I outlined to the Deputy, the interdepartmental strategy development group will comprise officials and representatives of relevant Departments and agencies. Its purpose will be to develop actions, including the autism innovation strategy, following the initial second consultation.

As regards the recent court case relating to the SOP, I welcome the clarification by the HSE this week that it will not be challenging the ruling. I have stated the review group I set up is no longer functioning. I look forward to the HSE coming back to me with its agile approach to adopting going forward.

Child Poverty

Marc Ó Cathasaigh

Question:

11. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the way he intends to implement the European Union child guarantee; the timeline for the implementation of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15457/22]

The Minister will be aware that in 2021 the European Commission adopted the European Union child guarantee. The guarantee aims to prevent and combat child poverty and social exclusion in the EU by supporting the 27 member states to make efforts to guarantee access to quality key services for children in need. How does the Minister intend to implement the European child guarantee? What is the timeline for its implementation?

I thank the Deputy. I believe significant progress can be made through my Department's co-ordination of the EU child guarantee, which is an important initiative that aims to combat social exclusion by guaranteeing access for children who are in need of a range of key services. I will publish our national action plan for the child guarantee shortly. The commitments under the guarantee address critical matters such as: free access to early childhood education and care; education and healthcare for children in need; healthy nutrition, including a healthy meal each school day; and adequate housing. Tackling child poverty and effectively implementing the child guarantee will require the commitment and active and sustained participation of my colleagues across government to ensure it is collaborative, integrated and, ultimately, impactful.

As part of the EU child guarantee process and in developing the successor national policy framework to Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, I will be engaging with my Cabinet colleagues to consider the most appropriate and effective structures to pursue the reforms necessary to improve outcomes for our most disadvantaged children and young people. The child guarantee will form part of the broader body of work supported by the new national policy framework for children and young people and its implementation structures. Addressing child poverty was identified as a priority action under Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures and it will remain a priority in the successor framework currently being developed by my Department.

It should also be noted that the Department of Social Protection leads on the Roadmap for Social Inclusion 2020-2025 aimed at reducing poverty and improving social inclusion. Under the roadmap, a new child poverty target is being agreed. In this regard, relevant officials are in contact regarding a new target for child poverty and identifying a programme of work to address child poverty under the successor framework to Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures. I have met the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, recently on this issue and will meet him and his officials again soon on this point.

I know from conversations I have had with the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, that they fully understand the implications of this for children of early ages. I refer to issues such as difficulty in education or homelessness which can have lifelong implications. There is also the pressures on families. I refer to the work we on the housing committee do on homelessness. Our recent work in supporting local authorities to produce more housing, including cost-rental and affordable housing, will have a significant impact in that regard. There is positive and good work being done on this. I am particularly interested in the guarantee for children in need of effective and free access to early childhood education and care. Access to that education is key to their well-being and life ahead. I ask the Minister to outline the work being done in that regard, particularly work being done on housing with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien.

The child guarantee will sit as a part of the broader successor framework to Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures. It is the national policy of the State in respect of children. I have asked that child poverty be a key element of our new national policy. The EU child guarantee will sit within that. The guarantee is a little narrower in its scope; it is targeted at children who are most in need. The two documents will progress together. I was at a meeting of EU ministers for children some weeks ago at which we discussed the implementation of national action plans. We will be publishing our national action plan and sending it to the Commission shortly. I previously met the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, on a range of issues relating to housing, housing for children and homelessness among young people, but I have been engaging with his Department in respect of using the planning system for the improved delivery of sites for school-aged childcare as well.

I thank the Minister. I welcome that the national action plan will be produced shortly. It is my understanding the Minister will then send it to the EU for it to overlook the plan.

Obviously, the Minister is fully aware of the implications of Ukrainian residents coming to live in Ireland. There will be many children involved in that so I am delighted to see the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, both working on this and on the Ukrainian situation.

We are very aware of the impact this brutal war has had on so many civilians, but particularly on children, and we will in the coming weeks have to provide supports to those children as they arrive. As I stated earlier, right now the response has very much been towards getting accommodation. It is currently about getting shelter and safety for people and making sure they have a bed, but wider supports will have to be put in place. I spoke earlier about the work Tusla is doing with some of the most vulnerable children, those who have arrived here as unaccompanied minors, but continued work will have to be done in my Department to ensure the availability of early learning and care, while the Department of Education and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science will have to work to ensure children have the ability to access the curriculums at those stages.

Question No. 12 replied to with Written Answers.
Question No. 13 answered with Question No. 8.

Childcare Services

Holly Cairns

Question:

14. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the steps he is taking to address high childcare costs. [15453/22]

Joe Flaherty

Question:

15. Deputy Joe Flaherty asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if he will provide an update on measures to make childcare more affordable and sustainable; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15310/22]

I ask the Minister to provide an update on measures to make childcare more affordable and sustainable.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 14 and 15 together.

Significant investment is being made by my Department to support parents with the costs of early learning and childcare. The national childcare scheme, NCS, is currently supporting thousands of families to offset their costs. A recent review of the NCS showed that 38% of families had more than half their early learning and childcare costs covered by the NCS.

Some 56% of families had more money to spend due to the scheme and 28% of families were working more because of the NCS, with 8% reporting that they would not be in work at all without it. I recognise that the burden on some families remains high and we will need to do more to ensure affordability and sustainability. I outlined earlier the package of measures we are bringing forward in core funding of €221 million in a full year to support early learning and care and school-age childcare services. This will have a primary impact on affordability because the payment of this additional money is linked to a commitment to a fee freeze by childcare providers which will immediately bring about some degree of certainty for parents.

In budget 2022 we have also extended the universal NCS subsidies for children of all ages up to 15. Previously the universal subsidy only applied up to the age of three and now it applies to the age of 15 which we estimate will benefit approximately 40,000 children in the course of a full year.

Since August 2020 early learning services been able to access the employment wage subsidy scheme, which has allowed many of them not to increase their fees. We have seen that the previous very high increases in childcare fees did not manifest in the years 2020 to 2021. It is important to recognise that more money needs to be invested in the national childcare scheme and all three parties in government are committed to doing so. I hope to be able to begin that process in budget 2023.

I thank the Minister. I hear regularly from constituents who raise issues around affordability and availability of childcare and it is an issue that is becoming more pressing now. When we welcome so many young children to Ireland from Ukraine, we also have to provide for them. It is very important that we address the affordability issue here. Many more childcare workers tell me of how they want to have an opportunity to stay working and to progress in the sector as valued employees.

In Partnership for the Public Good: A New Funding Model for Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare, the report of the expert group on a new funding model for early learning care, school-age childcare issues such as core funding, tackling disadvantage, affordability measures, fee management and the role of the State were addressed. What steps will be taken to make childcare more affordable?

People are in contact with me regularly. A lady came to my office the other day who has had her second baby. She told me that she was thinking of giving up work as she cannot afford childcare which, she said, was more expensive than her mortgage. That is a worry.

The Deputy has raised a wide range of questions there that I probably will not be able to address comprehensively in one minute. The core funding is there this year to ensure that childcare workers are supported, reflecting the point that the Deputy has made that they are not getting adequately paid. It is also to support the sustainability of services in order that the 4,500 facilities that are open remain open and that there is encouragement there for new services to open. It also begins advancing that affordability element by ensuring that these fees are not raised in the 2022-23 academic year.

The Deputy is correct, however, because crèche fees are still too high, even when they have been capped for that one year. That is why my and the focus of the Government for budget 2023 is on the national childcare scheme. That is the direct subvention the parents have received. We have broadened that out this year by making it available up to the age of 15 but we need to put significantly more money into the NCS and all Government parties share a commitment to do that.

I know that the Minister is fully committed, as is the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, who was spokesperson for children previously. It is important that parents understand how committed we and the Minister are and communication to all of the different agencies is key and of great importance here. No mother should ever have to come into any Senator or Deputy’s office and say that she might have to give up work because she cannot afford childcare. We have excellent workers within the childcare sector who are very good in what they do and we are very lucky in that respect. Overall, it is important that we do our best to support these workers.

What role does the expert group continue to play? Will this be an advisory role and can the Minister tell me what its status is and what will be that group's next steps?

The childcare sector, like every other sector, is looking at increasing costs right across the board. The cap that is in place for some of them is going to be inoperable because of the dramatic rise in costs. The Minister needs to look at that issue specifically.

He also needs to look at the broader issue of affordability. Even in a county like my own, a rural county constituency of Roscommon and east Galway, we have very significant problems on the availability now of childcare because many providers are pulling out. They just cannot make ends meet and cannot get staff because of the pay rates that are in the sector at present.

There is something fundamentally wrong with a sector where the people who are packing the baby wipes on to the shelves of the supermarkets are being paid more than the staff who are minding the children and using those very baby wipes in our childcare facilities across the country. That needs to be addressed urgently.

I thank the Deputy for his contribution. That is the reason that I am bringing forward a package of €221 million in core funding for the childcare sector in a full year. That money is primarily designed to address the issue specifically raised by the Deputy on the rates of pay that our fantastic childcare professionals receive at the moment. Core funding, dependent on the employment regulation order that is being negotiated at the joint labour committee right now, will deliver increased rates of pay for those childcare workers, which means that they will not be leaving the sector and that the services that exist now will not have to shut rooms because they will be able to continue to get staff. That is linked to the fee freeze and because if we are giving this very substantial amount of money to the sector, the State has to get something back, which is why we have the fee freeze. As the Deputy has correctly identified that is not enough which is why the focus is going to be on increasing the NCS in next year’s budget.

To address Deputy Murnane O’Connor’s question on the expert group, this group has been stood down now and it is now within my Department’s remit.

The final question in this section will be put by Deputy Matthews who will only have one return call on it.

Official Engagements

Steven Matthews

Question:

16. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if he will outline his engagements while abroad for St Patrick’s Day; the way these engagements were beneficial for the State; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15370/22]

That is absolutely fine, a Chathaoirligh. I followed the Minister’s extensive engagements across the St. Patrick’s week visits with interest and it seemed a very packed schedule. Can the Minister outline the work that he carried out on behalf of the State and the benefits and experience gained for both himself and the State from such a visit?

I thank the Deputy for his question. Last week, I visited the United States to undertake a series of engagements as part of the State’s annual St. Patrick’s Day programme, as well as to head the delegation attending the UN Commission on the Status of Women as Minister responsible for equality.

These engagements bolstered the Irish Government’s support for the large Irish-American communities in Philadelphia and New York, particularly after having been suspended during the pandemic. I was also afforded the opportunity to meet several US elected representatives, community leaders and business leaders, where I was keen to raise issues related to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

I also represented the State at the 66th annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Ireland’s commitment to the UN is strong and it was important that a member of the Government join government representatives from around the world to discuss critical issues related to women and their role in responding to the climate crisis, as well as to discuss domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV, gender norms and to deliver the national statement on behalf of the Government. Again, it was also a very useful opportunity for me to raise issues related to Ukraine with other countries and international organisations.

In total, I participated in 38 engagements over seven days, and I am happy to list them further in the supplementary time. I would like to take this opportunity to praise the consul general, Helena Nolan, and the ambassador, Geraldine Byrne Nason, and each of their respective teams, for the extraordinary work they do in representing Ireland’s interests in the United States and the United Nations, which I got to experience at first hand.

I would also like to extend my deepest sympathies to them and to the family and friends of the ambassador, Jim Kelly, who very tragically passed away last week. Mr. Kelly served Ireland with distinction at the United Nations in recent years, and in his other postings throughout his career as a diplomat.

As we are very short on time to go into this in detail, I believe that 38 meetings over a short period of time is quite an extensive number of engagements. The House in general would benefit from reports and updates back from all Ministers who go on these visits as we will all gain from the experience that he received overseas.

I found the bilateral engagements with a number of ministers particularly beneficial. I met ministers from Belgium and from Sierra Leone where we discussed the support that Irish Aid is giving there. With Belgium we discussed issues to do with their approach to domestic violence. I met the British minister on women's issues and it was a very useful engagement there. In particular, I had an engagement with the vice president of Iran, where I took the opportunity to discuss issues to do with the response to the refugees in Ukraine, and to refugees generally such as in Afghanistan and Syria.

I also took the opportunity to raise the importance of the protection of LGBT rights in Ireland. I asked the minister for women in Iran to reflect on the fact that Ireland has moved a long way in our approach to LGBT rights from 30 years ago to our approach now, and I suggested that, perhaps, such a journey should also be travelled in Iran.

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