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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 2 Jun 2022

Vol. 1023 No. 3

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Emergency Accommodation

Pa Daly

Question:

1. Deputy Pa Daly asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth further to Question No. 146 of 18 May 2022, his views on the different categories of accommodation listed therein (details supplied) and their function. [28271/22]

This question is further to a previous parliamentary question I asked the Minister regarding making a statement on the different categories of accommodation currently listed, such as emergency reception and orientation centres, EROCs, emergency accommodation etc., as well as their functions.

I will list and describe the various categories of such accommodation. There are seven State-owned accommodation centres in the interactional protection accommodation services, IPAS, portfolio. These buildings are owned by the State and companies are contracted as service providers at each of those centres. Commercial centres are privately owned and operated accommodation centres. Emergency reception and orientation centres, EROCs, refer to centres for refugees coming under the auspices of the international refugee protection programme, IRPP. When programme refugees are accepted in Ireland under the IRPP, they are generally accommodated in EROCs for some six to 12 months. This allows for initial orientation and assessment and access to services such as health and social welfare. Adults are provided with English language lessons and children attend primary school in the EROCs and local secondary schools. This time provides refugees with an opportunity to acclimatise in cultural terms, as well as to recover from the trauma associated with their journey to that point. It also provides refugees with an opportunity to assess necessary basic services in advance of their resettlement within the wider community.

Then we have emergency accommodation centres, which are temporary accommodation locations used by IPAS to provide accommodation where the permanent IPAS accommodation centres are at capacity. These premises include hotel and guest house accommodation. We also have quarantine and isolation accommodation, which was accommodation used during the Covid-19 pandemic to facilitate initial isolation of new arrivals to the State as part of the IPAS response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The specific hotels are no longer quarantine centres as there is no longer quarantine for new arrivals. These centres are now being used for pre-reception. Pre-reception accommodation is accommodation put in place to provide initial accommodation to new arrivals where there is no available space in the national reception centre in Balseskin. My Department has contracted NGO support at these locations to assist with meeting the needs of the residents at those locations. Nine such centres are now operating.

No one was ever going to be in any doubt that there would be an increase in the number of people coming into the country to seek asylum following Covid-19. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated this situation. The crisis has posed some serious questions. We can address some of those in another question later perhaps. What is concerning in this regard, though, is that we may end up being stuck in the same cycle as we experienced several years ago. That crisis came to a head with the situation in Cahersiveen. It seems now, however, that we are back to a situation where large-scale profits will be made in this context and refugees will be housed in hotels. There is no own-door accommodation or cooking facilities and people are being accommodated away from essential services in locations where there is a lack of transport and so on. Does the Minister think we are making the same mistake in this regard all over again? What is the Department doing to address this situation?

Undoubtedly, there is a challenge being faced now. It one caused by the combination of the war in Ukraine and other major international conflicts, such those in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, that are generating greater movements of people. There are also issues in respect of changes in approaches to immigration and asylum law in other countries that are having an impact here as well. Therefore, we are undoubtedly under pressure. What is different in this case, however, is that in previous times there was an acceptance that direct provision was the way to go and that it was just a question then of letting the system grow to deal with an increase. As the Deputy is aware, and this aspect will be discussed in the next question I will answer from Deputy Bríd Smith, we are seeking to end direct provision. We have a White Paper and a proposal in place to end direct provision. The crisis in Ukraine is undoubtedly putting pressure on that undertaking and we will talk more about this aspect in a few moments. There is, though, this central view regarding ending direct provision and the work we are doing to achieve that goal is being done in conjunction with the NGOs, those organisations that have so much experience in this area on the ground.

The White Paper that came out approximately 14 months ago was clear about emergency accommodation. It recommended that purpose-built facilities be constructed. Sinn Féin's view is that there should be more State-run accommodation centres, because allowing private companies that operate for profit to undertake this endeavour is not going to be the best way to address this situation. The Minister previously said that funding for approved housing body, AHB, accommodation was going to be launched soon. What are the Minister's plans in this regard? The State needs to play a greater role in this context or else we will find ourselves back, effectively, at Groundhog Day in respect of the mistakes made over the past two decades.

The State must undoubtedly play a greater role but it needs to be a role centred on an approach based on human rights and an approach that believes in integration from day one. This is not solely a matter of accommodation, and I know the Deputy is not suggesting it is. Accommodation is important, but so are integration supports and ensuring that people seeking international protection are not isolated while waiting for decisions at the edge of towns and villages and instead are fully integrated in our communities. We will be bringing forward details of the funding model for AHB accommodation and builds later this year. Significant work has been done in this regard and it has been done with the AHBs to ensure we are creating a funding model of beneficial use to them. In that context, we have done significant work with the AHBs and with the Housing Agency on how to design the best model.

Direct Provision System

Bríd Smith

Question:

2. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if his attention has been drawn to recent media reports of further delays to his Department’s plans to abolish direct provision; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28434/22]

Is the Minister aware - I am sure he is - of the recent media reports of further delays to the Department's plans to abolish the direct provision system? I ask him to make a statement on the matter. In his response, I ask the Minister to clarify, in respect of the answer he just gave to Deputy Daly, how many of the 37 centres are commercial and run for profit.

As the Deputy will be aware, I published a White Paper to end direction provision and to establish a new international protection support service in February 2021. In the 14 months since its publication, my Department has placed a significant focus on the delivery of the new model of accommodation and supports for international protection applicants.

As the Deputy will appreciate, the war in Ukraine has had an unavoidable impact on the implementation of the White Paper, as staff in my Department were temporarily diverted to fulfil Ireland's obligations. These members of staff included those working on the White Paper transition team. As the Deputy is aware, upwards of 33,000 Ukrainian displaced persons have come to Ireland under the temporary protection directive, and of those, more than 23,000 have been accommodated by the State.

Last week I met Catherine Day and David Donoghue, two of the members of the external advisory group appointed to oversee the implementation of the White Paper. We discussed the progress made to date on the implementation of the White Paper and the impact the Ukraine crisis was having on that. We also discussed the delivery of the new model of accommodation. As I said, staff from the transition team were temporarily diverted to responding to the need to accommodate Ukrainian displaced persons. I am pleased to be able to say that I have now been able to reallocate those staff back to the implementation of the White Paper process.

However, and I am being as upfront as possible, the need to respond to Ukraine has created delays in recent months. We are doing a review of the project timelines now and we will initially bring forward a revised implementation plan to the programme board and will subsequently publish it later in the summer.

The implementation of the White Paper on the ending of direct provision is a priority for me. It is an absolute priority for the Government. We have the commitment to the provision of resources to undertake that, but we must also respond to the significant pressures my Department has faced over the past four months.

The Minister did not answer my question about the number of commercially run centres, but I hope he will come back to it.

First, we both agree that the scrapping of this inhumane system has to be achieved. If the Minister achieves this, he can be proud but I contend that the entering by the Green Party into a coalition with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which have an appalling record on housing, the dispensing of public housing and lands into the private sector and pandering to the developer-led models they have, was bound to failure. Will the Minister comment on that?

This system was specifically designed effectively to punish people for coming here. In the words of officialdom in the past, it was to lessen the pull factor of coming to Ireland, as if somehow the oceans did not pull people away from either climate disaster, war or famine and all of the terrible things happening across the world in terms of societal collapse. We are failing in our international obligations to live up to that. I do not accept that the war in Ukraine is the whole reason. We were failing before the war.

As the Deputy is aware, the central problem with the direct provision model is its reliance on commercial operators and that is why the State has so few centres. We have seven State-owned accommodation centres as well as Balseskin, which is State owned and operated. Other than that, the system relied on commercial operators. That is the problem with the system, which the White Paper is trying to change and move away from.

In terms of the commitment to doing this, I have received full support across the Government on the White Paper. There has not been opposition to what I have been seeking to achieve. I share the Deputy's critique of direct provision and the reliance on that model for more than 20 years, but I believe there has been a recognition across the Government and society that such a model is not the way to go. People fleeing conflict deserve to be accommodated in conditions that are human rights compliant.

We agree on many things and I am sure the Minister does not get verbal or even officially written opposition to the commitment to end direct provision. The problem is that the Minister is in a Government with parties that are dominated by their links to international finance, developers and the idea of private property for rent and ownership. They have handed over public land and facilities that could have been used not just to house refugees but to end the housing crisis and take the people off the streets; today I walked past dozens of people sleeping on the streets. We have an absolutely disastrous housing policy.

The Minister will not end direct provision or indeed deal with the housing crisis with a group of parties that do not have a commitment to public housing or to ending the sort of profiteering that emanates from it. The figures speak for themselves. Seven out of 37 direct provision centres are publicly run. The rest are making vast profits from State money. This is an absolute scandal and I do not believe it will be ended by just getting a commitment from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. There needs to be a much greater struggle to demand it happens at least on a human rights basis if not further, and to stop spreading the idea that the housing crisis is the fault of refugees.

The Deputy's last comment is certainly not one I have put forward and I do not think it is one anyone in government has put it forward either. However, she is absolutely right in terms of the response to the need to accommodate people seeking international protection. It has to be seen in the context of the wider response to the housing crisis. It is also important that we have a clear plan. For years, we have seen that we need to end direct provision but there has to be an answer to the question of how we accommodate people while they are waiting for their international protection application to be addressed. That is a complicated question. It requires resources and the provision of accommodation. I believe what we have put forward in the White Paper is the way to go in that regard. We will probably have to broaden the assumptions upon which the White Paper is based because there is a greater flow of people migrating internationally seeking protection and that is part of the review process that I have asked my Department to undertake in terms of those timelines.

Ukraine War

Pa Daly

Question:

3. Deputy Pa Daly asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his views on the Ukrainian refugee crisis unit within his Department; and his further views on the number of Ukrainian refugees who have arrived and who have requested assistance from the International Protection Accommodation Services. [28272/22]

My question relates to the Ukrainian refugee crisis unit in the Department and I seek the Minister's views on the refugees who have arrived. Arising from the previous question and the recommendations in the White Paper, is he confident that between now and the end of the Government's term, in two and a half years' time, that it will be able to implement the recommendations?

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine on 24 February, and the invoking of the temporary protection directive by the EU, my Department has worked intensively as part of the cross-government response to the Ukraine crisis.

The operational challenges brought about by responding to the conflict are significant. Our country has never experienced an influx of displaced persons such as that seen over the past four months. My Department's role is focused on the immediate short-term accommodation needs of those who have fled Ukraine. To date, some 33,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Ireland and we are providing accommodation to 23,000 of them.

Within my Department, a dedicated Ukraine response division has been established. The team includes more than 80 staff, the majority of whom have moved from within the Department with consequent impacts on ongoing work priorities. The division also includes new staff and those seconded from other Departments and agencies.

Overseeing the provision of accommodation on this scale during this timeframe for all those who require it remains immensely challenging. Due to the urgent need to source accommodation, a broad range of accommodation types have been contracted, including emergency accommodation. While this is not ideal, the priority is to place people fleeing the conflict in safe and secure accommodation. Numbers seeking international protection have also increased adding to accommodation capacity issues.

I wish to take this opportunity to recognise the hard work and commitment of departmental staff in providing accommodation for so many people in such a short period, as well as maintaining work progress in other key areas. Many staff have volunteered their time, at night and on weekends, to work in the welcome centre in Citywest to provide the people fleeing Ukraine with an immediate welcome as they arrive here. I also acknowledge the staff from other Departments working in Citywest, including those from the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Justice, as well as medical staff from the HSE. My Department and its staff will continue in their efforts to assist those arriving from Ukraine and those seeking international protection as best they can.

I too commend the staff in the Minister's Department and the International Protection Accommodation Services, IPAS and I acknowledge the assistance they were given by local authorities around the country in identifying properties. However, tomorrow marks the 100th day of the conflict in Ukraine and it is difficult to see an end in sight to it.

Accommodation centres are around the country, including in west Kerry. There is a centre in Gallarus, south Kerry. Those types of accommodations are clearly inappropriate in the medium term. What plans does the Minister have to deal with the Ukrainians who have been given accommodations in those areas? I note that €16 million was spent in March and April on accommodation to house those who needed assistance from IPAS. It is tied to the housing crisis and the lack of accommodation for the regular asylum seeker, which seems to have stalled just like the Red Cross pledges. Is there any update on the vetting of homes so that we can use that avenue?

The medium-term accommodation needs of the Ukrainians is significant and the Government is examining it. Part of that includes those Red Cross pledges. There are 1,200 people in pledged accommodation now which is a significant support to the State in terms of the accommodation of the Ukrainians here, and those numbers will continue to grow.

As the Deputy is aware, we are engaging closely with the Department with responsibility for housing on a range of medium-term accommodation solutions that it is bringing forward. The Department is looking at a number of issues including modular housing and the refurbishment of large institutional buildings to make them fit for habitation in the medium term.

All of those avenues are being pursued and will deliver accommodation in a three- to six-month period. We have to be honest, however, things will be tight this summer. The offering for many Ukrainians will continue to be hotel, guest house or more emergency accommodation. We are offering shelter and security and that is all that we can offer at this stage.

One of the Minister’s colleagues in government previously said there was a question of perhaps up to 200,000 people arriving. Does the Department have revised or anticipated figures as to how much it will, as the Minister noted, continue to increase? What is the Department planning in respect of the number of people who will continue to come from Ukraine?

At the start of this crisis, many figures were thrown around. We have to deal with the figures we see before us. As I said, we have 33,000 at the moment. We are seeing perhaps between 1,200 and 1,400 arriving weekly at this point. It has been fairly steady on that figure for the past three weeks. We build assumptions into the various models we use for our accommodation. We use our models based on a slightly higher figure, just to give us a little bit of room for expansion. That is what we are seeing at the moment and it has been relatively consistent over the past number of weeks. Even though the numbers arriving have dropped quite significantly, when the system is already under pressure additional numbers continue to put pressure on the system. However, we have great support over the summer, in particular from universities and institutes of higher education in terms of using student accommodation to meet need, where perhaps hotels are leaving the system so they can be commercially operational over the summer.

Early Childhood Care and Education

Verona Murphy

Question:

4. Deputy Verona Murphy asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his views on the real concerns regarding viability under core funding within parts of the early childhood care and education sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28436/22]

I wish to ask the Minister his views and those of his Department on the real concerns regarding viability under core funding within parts of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, sector and to make a statement on that issue.

The new core funding system announced in budget 2022 amounts to €221 million in full-year costs. Of that, €173 million represents new investment. From the work we have done on this, we see no evidence that suggests services will face viability issues as a result of this significant increase in investment. However, I am engaging with representative groups to understand their concerns and will continue to do so.

The vast majority of services, including full-day, part-time and sessional services, will see a substantial increase in funding under the new scheme. A small percentage of services, about 1%, will not see an increase in funding. These services, which are primarily ECCE sessional services that are already on the higher capitation rate, are currently in receipt of some of the highest levels of public funding of at least €110 per hour of provision, with two adults required to be working with children under the ratios in place.

In addition to a funding guarantee that ensures no service will receive less under core funding, a new strand of the sustainability fund is being designed to provide an extra safety net for providers who have financial difficulties. This new sustainability fund will be open to both private and community providers.

Core funding is distributed in a fair and reasonable manner that is related to services' costs of delivery. Core funding intentionally addresses some of the existing disparities in funding approaches across ECCE and non-ECCE provision. The significantly increased investment through core funding provides a mechanism to control parental fees and improve pay and conditions for staff through supporting the drawing up of the employment regulation order, ERO. This will ensure that early years educators and staff are paid properly for the very important work that they do.

Every year a number of services close and others open. The current data on service closures and openings are not markedly different to the trend in previous years. Services close for a wide range of issues, such as retirements etc. Only a small minority close due to sustainability issues.

To conclude, the new funding model will benefit providers by improving the level and stability of funding, as well as deliver significant improvements for children, parents and staff.

A lot of that sounds very positive but often the headline figures are used as indicators of Government support for particular areas and the true picture can only be seen when that breakdown of funding is examined in greater detail by those who will be able to avail of it or not, as the case may be. The headline figures do not in this case account for the variety of services being funded, nor do they show any shortcomings in funding for any particular services.

I would like to commend the work of Elaine Dunne, chairperson of the Federation of Early Childhood Providers, and many others on their tireless work and informing us. As my daughter is 27, I do not have a need for the service at this point in time but I see how important it is. The sector itself and people such as Elaine Dunne, who have a depth of knowledge, are worth listening to. At all cost, the Department should meet them to understand their roles. They have highlighted some shortcomings in service provision when it comes to comparing full day care and non-full day care.

Correspondence I have been provided with from the federation gets to the heart of the matter, when it stated it is acknowledged that full day care has higher staff ratios. I apologise; as the Minister also has this correspondence, he might just read through it.

I met the federation. Officials and I had a lengthy meeting with representatives from the federation. We are continuing to engage with the federation, which submitted a detailed document to us. We do not agree with all elements of it and we are working through it.

Core funding is about covering the costs of delivery. One of the key elements here is that as the sessional services, by their nature, have a shorter operating day and fewer numbers of hours per week, their costs of delivery are different to full day centre services. That is why when one does a full analysis of how much a full day centre costs, we are not just talking about big ones but about small community full day centres as well, they are by their nature going to get more from core funding because they are open more. They are open 48 or 49 weeks a year as opposed to 38. They are open 40 hours a week compared to 30. That is where that raw difference comes from. In terms of operating costs, we believe we are meeting the operating costs of providers.

That is something that they would disagree with. That is why I would encourage the Minister to certainly keep talking with them. They have a range of optional extras that they put to him that can be implemented. I think the Minister will find that most of what parents want is quality first and availability second or both in tandem, absolutely. The reality is there are many hidden costs in childcare that nobody has accounted for and even parents do not consider. This includes the training and education that now goes into child carers and everything from insurance to the retention of staff. It is not just about how there are staffing shortages, but also the retention of staff. It primarily comes down to much of what Ms Dunne said is not being recognised as cost. As I said, core funding is there as a headline figure. However, when you delve into it, the problems surface. We can only understand and remedy it through the providers, just as how we can only build houses with developers.

The first year of core funding will be from September of this year. As this is a very significant investment, I ask services to give this a go and to work through this. It will be addressed and refined over the years but I genuinely believe this is the way to go and it will deliver the quality the Deputy spoke of. One of the greatest threats to quality is the staff leaving the sector and they are doing so because they are not sufficiently paid. Everybody recognises that. That is what the centre of core funding is about. Of the allocation, €132 million is dedicated directly to supporting services and paying staff extra, assuming that this ERO that is being negotiated at the moment is agreed. They have negotiated a base rate of €13 per hour, which is a living wage. It is the first time we will have a living wage for childcare professionals. That is what we are trying to achieve here, and it looks like it is about to be delivered. That is something very positive.

It is very positive and I commend the Minister-----

I think the Deputy has been in twice.

Have I? I apologise.

I think the Deputy has.

I am overly enthusiastic.

Childcare Services

Pa Daly

Question:

5. Deputy Pa Daly asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the status of the State agency for early learning and care and school-age childcare. [28273/22]

No matter where one is on the political spectrum, one has to accept that be it in housing, direct provision or bin collection, the outsourcing of essential services to the market only leads to higher profits, lower wages and high costs for citizens. This is particularly true for childhood, early learning and childcare. This is tied into the cost of living crisis. Families are struggling and more often than not, it is the mother who has to stay at home and cannot afford the cost of childcare and this question is related to that. I hope this disparity is on the Minister's mind.

I thank the Deputy for his question. Since I have become Minister, my focus in the area of early years has been on increased public investment going hand in hand with increased public management of the system. Part of that relates to the report I received on 29 March, namely, the Review of Early Learning and Care (ELC) and School Age Childcare (SAC) Operating Model in Ireland. The Government agreed with that report, which stated that a dedicated State agency is the optimal operating model for the ELC and SAC sector for the years ahead.

It is envisaged that this dedicated agency will undertake the functions currently carried out by Pobal's early years programmes and the city and county childcare committees, as well as operational functions currently undertaken by my Department. My Department has now commenced a further phase of detailed analysis and open planning, consultation and engagement with sectoral stakeholders to determine how the recommendation arising from the review can best be implemented. This phase will include a detailed design of a new operating model, an examination of all legal requirements, transition and continuity planning, risk management, and an examination of associated costings.

My Department is committed to ongoing consultation with stakeholders throughout this phase and engagement in this regard has already commenced. Officials from my Department have met all organisations comprising the existing operating model and with other key stakeholders to brief them on the review and to provide them with an opportunity to share their initial feedback and views.

A dedicated State agency will assist in the development of a more streamlined structure to better support the delivery of ELC and SAC, and will facilitate my Department in implementing and progressing the significant reform agenda envisaged under the policy articulated in First 5: A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families 2019-2028. The next steps on this project will include the completion of a detailed design of the new operational model, as well as a policy on the future role of the national voluntary childcare organisations, NVCOs. There also will be extensive consultation with key Departments and with ELC and SAC stakeholders. I look forward to bringing a further report to the Government next year following the completion of this next phase of what is a significant and transformative reform project.

A 2021 survey by the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, titled, Where do rich countries stand on childcare?, found that families of average income in Ireland are spending up to one half of a two-person earning household to put two children in childcare. Researchers found that a couple with an average income would have to spend between a third and a half of one salary to pay for two children in childcare. The maths becomes very simple then, particularly when other costs, particularly in rural counties when one includes where people have to spend two euros per litre on petrol or diesel. Sinn Féin recently introduced the Employment Equality (Pay Transparency) Bill 2022, which will attempt to address the gender gap in pay by giving workers the ability to understand the going rates for those workers. That is a small step compared to the revolution we need to see in accessibility for women in the workforce with proper childcare, whether it is ELC or SAC.

When will the consultation process which the Minister has mentioned finish and when will the design of policy and the review with stakeholders be completed?

I want to create a world-class childcare system that is affordable for parents, which provides quality in care and education to children and which pays staff well. We all recognise that childcare fees should not be a burden for families and we want every parent to be able to access childcare without worrying about what it is going to cost them. That is why I am moving forward with a whole range of far-reaching reforms in the early years sector, which are informed by the recommendations of the expert group, to develop the new funding model. This will see much greater State management of the sector but will also see much greater State investment. The goal and outcome of this will be to deliver cost reductions for parents.

Core funding also represents a new departure for the State and we have just discussed it there with Deputy Verona Murphy. Core funding, in particular, will deliver on that imperative of paying our early years staff and educators, who are 98% female, better in order that they can continue in this profession and to deliver that very important quality care for children.

When does the Minister expect that the living wage he has mentioned will be obligatory for the childcare providers? It is encouraging that there will be less reliance on private operators because we are far too reliant on those, as with many outsourced agencies.

Does the Minister believe that the consultation process and the design of policy will be completed by the end of this year or by the end of the term of the Government?

There are two separate things here. The review of the operating model will be completed by the end of this year and I will come back to the Deputy with a specific date on that.

On the living wage, a joint labour committee, JLC, has been set up, bringing together employees, employee representatives and employers. They have put forward a proposal on that entry grade pay of €13 per hour and that is out for consultation at the moment. My understanding that there are further negotiations ongoing about higher rates for a greater degree of experience, such as for graduate staff etc.

A JLC process is obviously independent of Government and I do not have control over that but we have indicated core funding to support the outcome of a JLC and this funding will kick in from September, assuming that we have that agreement on better rates of pay.

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