I am very glad to be here to update the joint committee on the work of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs since we last met in July. The committee has considered a number of issues relevant to my Department since. I thank members for the keen interest shown and the added value they have brought to the process.
I would like to summarise the significant progress made on my Department's legislative programme and outline a couple of issues which I hope to progress during the remaining term of the Government.
The draft heads and general scheme of the Adoption Information and Tracing Bill were published in July. I received the report on the committee's pre-legislative scrutiny of the proposals last month and I am very grateful for the thorough and expeditious manner in which it carried out this work. The report is being given very careful consideration and I have no doubt that it will make a valuable contribution to finalising this important legislation, on which I hope to consult shortly with the Attorney General and then to revert to the Government for permission to draft the Bill.
Just last week, the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2015 passed its final Stages. It provides, for the first time, for a legal right to an aftercare plan. I believe this legislation will be important in ensuring appropriate planning is taking place to ensure better outcomes, particularly for the most vulnerable of young people leaving care. We also recently enacted the Children First Bill and I am now keen to progress commencing sections of the Bill at the earliest opportunity, starting with the provisions that remove the common law defence of reasonable chastisement in cases of corporal punishment. As I signed that instrument this afternoon, as of tonight, that defence will no longer be available.
On the Oberstown centre, the Children (Amendment) Bill 2015 was enacted in July. It provides for a range of matters in relation to children's detention, including ending permanently the practice of accommodating children in adult prisons. The full transfer of responsibility for all 17 year olds, including those on committal, will come into force as early as possible in 2016 on completion of a programme of recruitment of care staff that is under way. I wrote to the committee on 7 December with a detailed update and response to a range of questions it had posed. My officials are working with stakeholders to develop a consultation process with children around the Gender Recognition Act, while I have signed regulations on entries in the register of intercountry adoptions. We have an excellent group of individuals in the Department's participation unit who are organising this work which has to be treated with tremendous sensitivity because these are very vulnerable children and young people. We want to know what their opinions are, but we need to be prepared for any eventuality arising from their telling of their stories.
I recently announced significant additional funding for children and families in budget 2016. Next year my Department will have gross funding of €1.137 billion, an increase of €117.4 million, or 11.4%, on this year's allocation. There are two major elements to the increase: a €345 million allocation for child care, increasing the budget in this area by one third, alongside substantially increased resources for Tusla, putting the agency on a firm financial footing. The youth sector will also benefit from additional resources next year. Tusla’s financial sustainability is further bolstered by the Supplementary Estimate of €15 million for the Vote of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in 2015. These additional funds, with savings in other areas, will enable Tusla to deal with some legacy issues alongside current cost pressures. This very significant allocation of additional funds to my Department is testament to the commitment the Government has demonstrated to reforming and improving services for children and families. We are investing additional funds strategically during the early years and bringing a much stronger focus on intervening early to prevent problems arising or escalating in order that Ireland will become a better and safer place in which to grow up.
In July, I published the report of the interdepartmental group on future investment in child care, which identifies a framework for developing affordable, high-quality and accessible child care. The group's work was informed by evidence and best practice, alongside extensive consultation with stakeholders, including parents and child care providers. The Government took the first steps to implementing that roadmap in budget 2016.
By increasing the child care budget in my Department by a third, budget 2016 will provide for a number of important improvements. From September 2016, every child will be entitled to free preschool care from age three until they start primary school or up to age five and a half. To ensure children can benefit as early as possible, they will be able to join free preschool at three different points in the year rather than at one at present. In line with that development, I have announced €17 million in funding for a new model of supports for children with disabilities in mainstream preschools in order that all children can benefit from high-quality preschooling. The new model offers seven different levels of support, based on each child's needs. About 7,500 children are expected to benefit in a full year. As a father who had a child who overcame great challenges with disability, I believe this is a very important measure and one of which I am particularly proud.
I have announced funding to increase the availability of affordable child care by providing an extra 8,000 places under the community child care subvention scheme. For the first time, these places will also be available to private child care providers in order that more parents have access to more affordable child care. We are also working on the development of an affordable child care programme – a single subsidy to replace the confusing and sometimes inefficient array of targeted subsidies currently in place. We know they are confusing because in some areas the uptake is not what it should be. I have provided capital funding to incentivise the greater provision of after-school care options on school premises. These measures, while not a comprehensive solution in and of themselves, represent a concrete step towards the high-quality, affordable and accessible child care we want for our children at every stage of their development.
Reforming child and family services has been a high priority of the Government. Tusla is less than two years in existence but I believe we have made good progress during that time. For 2016, I have been able to increase Tusla's budgetary allocation by €38 million, which is an increase of over 5%. These additional resources for 2015 build on the extra €28 million in current funding and €5.5 million in capital funding that I secured for Tusla in budget 2015. I believe that, effectively managed, the agency now has the level of base funding needed to put its services on a sustainable footing and, critically, to address particular areas of identified need and risk.
The 2016 provision includes development funding to support additional services, especially those targeting areas of unmet need and risk. As with committee members, I was deeply concerned about the number of children in respect of whom there were concerns about welfare or child protection or both who did not have an allocated social worker. I asked Tusla to carry out an audit of such cases nationally and to develop a business case on how to address the problem. The additional funding allocated to Tusla will allow the agency to recruit around 400 extra staff next year, including social workers and essential support staff, to progress the solution to this very troubling issue. In addition, I am funding a national out-of-hours social service to support An Garda Síochána, a dedicated intervention team for urgent cases, the implementation of the Istanbul convention on violence against women and domestic violence, and improvements to Tusla's organisational structure. On 20 November, I issued a performance statement to Tusla setting out my priorities for 2016. I met Tusla's board on 27 November to urge it to continue the strong progress made over the past two years and to assure it of my continued support for its endeavours. Under the legislation, Tusla's business plan for 2016 is due by 20 December, which is in ten days.
In October, I published Ireland's first national youth strategy, setting out the Government's plan to ensure young people achieve the five high-level outcomes set out in Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, namely, that they are active and healthy, achieving, safe, economically secure, and connected and respected. The strategy was based on extensive consultation, including with approximately 4,000 young people. This is an important milestone. With collective effort, implementing this strategy will help more young people to flourish and reach their potential.
I announced a youth employability initiative designed to meet the needs of young people who are not in education, employment or training, NEETs, and who are most at risk of long-term unemployment. The initiative is intended to support innovation in addressing the needs of these young people, particularly by developing relevant skills and competencies. The €600,000 available for the initiative in 2016 should benefit an estimated 200 to 300 young people.
I had the pleasure of attending the Dáil na nÓg event in Croke Park along with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, at the end of November. When I attend events such as this, it gives me a great sense of encouragement for the future to see and feel the energy and fresh thinking our young people bring. I was able to inform the assembled group that, from this year onwards, whatever Department is responsible for the topic under discussion in future sessions of Dáil na nÓg will have its Minister in attendance and will support the work of the Comhairle na nÓg national executive. This is the part of the mechanism to support Comhairle na nÓg and is a significant change in the way decisions made by young people at Dáil na nÓg will be progressed. It recognises the importance of listening to young people and acting on what they say. Everybody involved benefited from the session.
At the end of October, I appointed a new board for the Adoption Authority of Ireland. The appointments were made following an open process, fully in accordance with Government guidelines. I was pleased to reappoint Dr. Geoffrey Shannon as chairman. He has worked tirelessly over the past five years to put the authority on a firm footing and has provided effective leadership in a time of change.
I thank the Chairman and the members of this committee for their work in the interest of children and families. We may sometimes have differing views, but that is a reflection of the strong motivation we share, which is that of achieving the best outcomes for children and young people. As we embrace the Christmas season, which is very special for children, it is a good time to reflect on the work done in the year gone by and over the term of the Government. Our combined efforts have served to make Ireland a better place for children and young people. I thank the committee for that.
It may be somewhat premature but I wish everyone a happy and healthy Christmas. I look forward to members' continued support into 2016. Who knows where the road will take us then in our ongoing collective effort to make Ireland the best place to grow up.