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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 30 May 2013

Vol. 223 No. 11

Early Child Care Education Standards: Statements

As I said in the Dáil yesterday, I found the scenes broadcast on Tuesday night's programme on RTE distressing, shocking and absolutely unacceptable. What we saw was poor practice and a dereliction of duty and care, resulting in the mistreatment of young children. It was abusive, distressing and inappropriate and showed a poor understanding of children's developmental needs, as all of those Members who watched it will agree.

It was truly unacceptable and inappropriate and was harrowing to watch.

Since coming into office I have initiated, prioritised and placed a much overdue focus on early years services. Two months ago I came to this Chamber to address the imperative that is early intervention at the request of Senators who realised how important early intervention services are. We talked about the benefits that can accrue in terms of both better outcomes for children and economic return to the State, but primarily in terms of returns to the individual child. I also used that opportunity to speak of Ireland's legacy - as I said when I addressed Senators here earlier in the year at their request - of providing direct cash payments instead of investing in services. That is the reality of the legacy. We need to discuss the implications of that and where we go from there. I highlighted a legacy that has allowed us to lag behind many other developed countries when it comes to our early years sector. It is clear that we lag behind our European counterparts when it comes to the early years sector. We have much ground to make up. I further spoke of the need to improve quality standards and workforce capacity in all sectors of child care and early years services. That is the challenge and it is one I am determined to meet.

Up to the last decade, Ireland's preschool sector was almost non-existent. We all knew the small playgroups that existed in local community halls. It is out of that sector that our current child care services have grown. Everyone knows that. During the late 1990s we still had one of the lowest female workforce participation rates in the developed world and one of the highest unemployment rates. The years of the Celtic tiger saw a scramble to put services in place in response to demand but a wholly inadequate approach to quality and sustainability. On Tuesday night we saw elements of that legacy starkly exposed. We saw the challenges at first hand. We saw what happens when we do not invest in building an effective system and culture of quality-focused, child-centred service provision and when we do not invest in robust oversight and inspection. We all saw that. As I said, the scenes were shocking and distressing and what they showed was absolutely unacceptable. There was poor practice resulting in the mistreatment of young children. The practices witnessed are currently and rightly the subject of a thorough and comprehensive investigation by, I stress, both the HSE and the Garda. All such incidents of mistreatment of children in child care settings should and must be reported to authorities. The matters addressed in the "Prime Time" programme deserve and demand a comprehensive response.

As I said when I addressed the Senators here earlier in the year, I have already highlighted these issues. I have already acted and will continue to act on many of them. We are aware of the challenge and the work that needs to be done. Work is under way in my Department, by Gordon Jeyes and by the inspectorate to address the range of issues that were highlighted in that programme.

The "Prime Time" recordings highlighted practices on the part of individual staff members which were of very serious concern. The responsibility of management must also be the subject of questioning. Management is responsible for the selection and training of staff, the development of operational policies and practices and the management of day-to-day service delivery. Most of all, management - I am sure all Members will agree with me on this - is responsible for the ethos and culture of the preschool. Its members set the tone through their example, their interaction with children and parents and their guidance of staff. A caring ethos is the very foundation of any preschool service. It is management's responsibility to ensure this ethos pervades all interactions with a child. This is local commitment on the basis of which good standards are achieved and timely action is taken to address areas that require improvement.

Providers must all be subject to a robust system of regulation and oversight. Parents need that reassurance; of that there is no question. It is clear that significant work is needed in this area. It is already in train and will be developed further. I want to see a strong partnership between providers, parents and the State. We do not have robust registration and have not had it in this sector for ten years but we will have it now. We will have registration rather than notification. It is not enough for people to notify the Department that they want to open a child care service; they must register and meet various criteria, and work is under way to have a registration system in place. We need the kind of regulation and inspection that will underpin standards. We are a small country and we can achieve a system of regulation that is strong and consistent across the country. As I said, in many aspects of child protection and improving children's services, what we have not had is national implementation, national measurement or a national approach. We cannot get the standards we are talking about and the kind of regulation that is required if it is left to local initiative; there must be a national approach. I want to inform the House that we have not had a national approach to inspection, but we will have it now. It will mean that inspectors can be redeployed to areas of need and can do the work that is necessary. Such a system of regulation must approve the commencement of a service - we are working to achieve this - only after it has been established that it is in a position to meet standards. Where the HSE has been concerned about crèches, some have been closed if there is a question of there being a danger to children. They must be closed in such cases, and that has happened.

We must ensure also through regulation that we will be in a position to respond to parents who have concerns that have not been properly addressed. As I have said a number of times, we need that partnership with parents, but parents can empower themselves in this situation to ask questions about the care of their children and demand to see inspection reports. Parents throughout the country do that every day. Parents make decisions about the care of their children and if they are not satisfied, they raise concerns. I must inform the House that the level of complaints from parents is low, at 0.3% of all services. Perhaps parents do not know precisely what is happening every hour of every day and, as we saw in the video, I am sure many parents whose children were attending those services were shocked. I make the point that that is the percentage of complaints we get from parents regarding the services.

We need to be proactive in assessing compliance with standards, and we need to publicly report on the standards achieved in each of the 4,600 preschools in the country. I have said that in the coming weeks we will put online the new reports that have been done, and the previous reports should be available to parents if they request them. Providers should be providing them to parents now.

In advance of the establishment of the child and family support agency, work has been under way within the HSE to establish a single national management system for the preschool inspection service. This includes registration for all child care providers, and we are working towards this. I have stated what is involved in that; namely, inspection prior to opening, not afterwards. Registration will begin later this year. We will also outline the compliance requirements necessary to address all the issues that have been raised.

I have said that parents are entitled to ask their service providers to provide copies of the latest HSE inspection reports. They should be available as a matter of course. As stated by the new head of quality assurance at the HSE, Annie Callanan, it should be a mark of any good child care provider that the parent can go in and see its inspection reports, see the qualifications of the staff and see that all the staff are vetted. That is the situation we should be in. I emphasise again that this is not the situation we have been in; it is the situation we are now working towards and that we want to implement.

We are working on the development of new national preschool standards which are designed to support providers in delivering a high quality service and to support parents in choosing the child care best suited to their needs. These standards are well advanced and will be implemented later this year. The work has been under way on these new national standards for preschools.

Many of the tools for improving the services are already in place. Síolta and Aistear are developed but we need to accelerate their implementation. We are developing a more comprehensive and broader-based inspection regime for preschools, moving away from the narrow focus on compliance to a greater focus on outcomes for children, including educational development and child well-being. The programme extracts showed that relationships between adult and child were not being managed. The focus was not on child development. We must ensure that the quality of the relationships and the interaction with children are assessed in order to ensure good outcomes. That work will be informed by the findings of the first ever joint pilot inspection carried out in a small number of settings by inspectors from the HSE and the Department of Education and Skills. I will seek to amend the Child Care Act to ensure that the sanctions are stronger to deal with failure and where there have been prosecutions.

The HSE is addressing existing resource issues in the inspection services in particular parts of the country. The inspection rate in each of the past two years stands at 60% of all providers. I want to see the national average of service inspections carried out every 18 months as being the norm across the board. In England, inspections are carried out every two to three years. Of course, where problems are identified there has to be enforcement which is a key issue. It is no good having inspection without enforcement. Of the 2,500 reports in 2012, there were hundreds of follow-up visits to deal with compliance issues. Compliance varies from minor issues to what I would call red-line issues. We have to be absolutely clear about the unacceptability of any red-line issues. A good inspection system will inspect for and enforce compliance. That is what we intend to provide. The HSE will prioritise resources to achieve this outcome.

We are working to improve the support and mentoring services for individual preschool services to help them to implement Síolta and Aistear. Síolta is the curriculum standard which is designed for the preschool system. Aistear is the curriculum. We have done much work on the various tools which will provide good outcomes for children. We must now ensure that these are in place and that they are being implemented. In the past ten years there has been a focus on direct cash payments to parents and there has been far less investment in an affordable, accessible, high quality child care sector. This year we will invest €3 billion in direct cash payments. I understand more than anyone how much parents need those direct cash payments. I am simply making the policy point that the investment has been in these cash payments and not in the development of the sector that is the subject of today's debate in the House and which was the subject of the "Prime Time" programme. Everyone is concerned about standards and everyone wants to see quality but I repeat that the focus has been on bricks and mortar and on direct cash payments, rather than on building the system which I am outlining and which should have been coexisting with the development of the sector. I acknowledge there are many good providers providing high-quality services. I see them every week and I know that parents are very satisfied with the quality of care. However, there is no room for complacency. We must ensure a monitoring and inspection system is in place.

I wish to reassure Senators that all complaints in respect of preschool services are acted on by the HSE and where a complaint is made, the services are inspected on an urgent basis. In 2012, the 0.3% of complaints equalled 243 complaints received, all of which were investigated. These and other measures I have outlined will form part of a comprehensive programme of quality improvement and regulation for early years services which will be a key part of Ireland's first ever early years strategy. I have asked the early years strategy group, which is composed of experts from around the country, to examine the issues arising from the "Prime Time" programme. This is already on the agenda for the group. The work of the group is well advanced and I expect to publish its recommendations in September.

I want to be very clear about the change we will drive. We will sign up all the parties involved in the delivery of this change. This is not about any one of these factors such as the number of extra inspectors. I agree that inspection and enforcement is important but we must also deal with the other issues to which I have referred. Issues such as staff qualifications, the culture and management of the sector, must be dealt with. We cannot underestimate the scale of the challenge but we will deal with every one of these issues. There is not a simple, single solution. We should not distil our national response into a narrow overly-simplistic focus on any one factor. We will not achieve a quality service if we simply focus on one factor. We need to address the range of issues. Inspections alone, while essential, are not the answer. What is required is a multifaceted agenda, a partnership between the State and providers, a much broader focus on quality assurance and workforce development, as well as robust registration, regulation and inspection. I have asked Gordon Jeyes to examine the inspection reports on the for-profit sector. We need to analyse the pattern revealed in the inspections of the for-profit sector which is the focus of attention as a result of the "Prime Time" programme. I emphasise the need for a national analysis of the for-profit sector. Many parents have put their trust in these services. There needs to be an in-depth examination of the issues raised as between the for-profit sector and the not-for-profit voluntary sector. I am collating that information with the assistance of Gordon Jeyes.

This is the Government's and my Department's agenda. It is also the HSE's agenda. Just like the ambitious and comprehensive reform programme under way in child protection, work is already under way and a sustained effort is required for a significant period ahead. This will not be completed overnight. We have the tools and the knowledge but action is what is needed now. I will be to the fore in securing these resources. Parents and society rightly demand and expect the highest standards and this will be a key factor in driving change in the sector. I believe this week's controversy will have a lasting impact in building knowledge about the importance of quality in the preschool sector.

Eleven Deputies raised the issue yesterday in the other House. Today it is the turn of Senators. I have wanted a debate on early years care and on the care of the under-fives. We have not really had such a debate in this country. We have debated teaching standards, monitoring and curriculum in primary schools. We need to focus on the under-fives. Having prioritised this issue since coming to office, I will drive the programme of work required to bring about a quality preschool sector which gives parents a choice of quality services. I look forward to the debate.

The Minister must feel somewhat embarrassed that she is relying on "Prime Time" to find out what is happening in crèches. If I was Minister in her Department, I would be appalled by what was exposed and shocked that lack of action by the Department and the HSE and inspections allowed this to happen. There is constant exposure but very little happens - it is all talk and no action. Action should be taken immediately to investigate this issue. As the Minister said, the Garda has been called in and so on, but there are 4,600 crèches, the majority of which are doing an excellent job. Let us not undermine all of them. The way to resolve this issue would be to have CCTV systems in every crèche but not to broadcast into the homes of parents because one would then never be able to run a crèche. At least, there would be more evidence and more information available when the inspection took place. It is extraordinary that children could be flipped over and thrown like rag dolls on mattresses and abused. It is horrifying. The most precious things in a family are children. We went through enough in this country with what happened in Letterfrack and all of the places in which children have been abused during the years. In 2013 it is a revelation that this could happen in any institution overseen by the State. It is a wake-up call for the Minister. She is more than two years in office, but the situation continues and she does not seem to be informed about what is going on in these institutions. She is relying on "Prime Time". Fair dues to RTE which I commend for carrying out the investigation. Please God, we will not have come back to this House following another "Prime Time" investigation into the work of the Minister's Department.

I welcome the Minister who has come to the House on a number of occasions. It is a pity that we are here to discuss this issue following the "Prime Time" programme. I speak as someone who has a daughter in child care. There is no question but that the Minister's speech was heartfelt and it was full of references to proposed actions. However, I remind her that on 16 July 2011 she produced the document, Children First, and the Government gave a commitment that in its first year of office it would implement the Children First and family support agency Bills. I do not for one moment question the Minister's bona fides, but her speech would be acceptable if it was made when she was assuming office, outlining what she would do during the term of the Government. She has made some very valid criticisms about previous levels of investment, but she should not use them as an excuse to say direct payments are a problem in terms of the lack of investigations and inspections. When will she implement the Children First and family support agency Bills?

Some 50,000 children are being looked after in the professional childminding sector, to which the Tánaiste alluded yesterday. That is an area which needs to be looked at. In October 2012 the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill was before the Dáil. As a party, we tabled three specific amendments to include those involved in professional childminding services. Seven months ago the Government rejected these amendments. Why did it reject them?

In the two and a half years since she became Minister for Children and Youth Affairs - I very much welcomed her appointment at the time - what additional funds has the Minister allocated to carry out inspections? She has mentioned that she wants to reach a situation where there will be regular inspections. However, only 60% of crèches and preschool facilities are inspected, which is unacceptable. What additional resources has the Minister put in place? There are areas of the country in which there has not been an inspection for four years and the Minister has been in office for more than two of them.

The Minister's speech was full of proposals to take action, which I welcome. While I do not question her personal commitment, I question the Government's commitment and that of previous Governments. The Minister has outlined measures which need to be implemented immediately and on which work is being done, but this comes as a reaction to an exposé. Did she see the "Prime Time" programme before it was aired? Has she met the HSE executive subsequent to the programme being aired? Will she give me a timeline for implementation of the some of the very valid measures she wants to take? I wish her well in her endeavours, as I always have. I do not question her personal commitment, but we need to know what will happen.

I welcome the Minister. I say to Senator Terry Leyden that the Minister is alert to the issues involved and working on them. RTE took an opportunity to make a programme which was very disturbing for many, in particular parents who use the facilities of a crèche. Some parents decided not to look at the programme. We have some wonderful and well run crèches. Parents make a decision to have their children minded by private childminders or in crèches which are regulated and unregulated. As the Minister said, 70% of people opt for private childminding services. Inspections are taking place. I know nurses were mentioned, but it is important to know who the inspectors are and what qualifications and expertise they possess.

I am a parent who used crèche facilities in the past. It is important that the staff employed in crèches have the necessary qualifications to work in them, but, most important, parents have an obligation when they hand over their children to a crèche to ask questions and know what is going on. For infants who cannot talk, parents should ask more questions. Last year I took the Minister to a fantastic crèche in Sligo which had been in business for several years, but I was told this morning that no parent had ever asked for an inspection report. I find this worrying. Parents must take more interest in where they send their children and what is going on in the crèche. It is frightening to think they do not.

The last Administration spent a lot of money on bricks and mortar but not on children. We are very lucky to have the Minister and for the past two and a half years she has done an enormous amount of work. Her commitment and passion were evident in her speech. She is someone people in different parties admire and we know she is committed to doing what is best for children. She has done so much work on the family support agency and Children First and in the referendum campaign. It is very unfair for anyone in this House to say otherwise.

The Minister acted very swiftly following the "Prime Time" programme. It is important that excess staff are redeployed to this area, as in the case of vetting when 25 staff were moved from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I welcome the national approach the Minister will take. We have the tools, knowledge and the resources. As a parent, I have complete trust in the Minister. I am sure that when the term of the Government comes to an end, she will be one of the Ministers who will have made huge changes, of which I as a parent of two children will be very proud.

I warmly welcome the Minister to the House. The purpose of my request for her to address us was twofold. The first was to give confidence to the public, particularly to parents, which I believe she has done in her statement. The second was to send a strong message to her Cabinet colleagues about the importance of this issue - this needs to be a wake-up call. Yesterday during the Order of Business we all got plenty of time to voice our concerns over the images we saw. Today I want to move beyond that shock and talk about our role as legislators. The Minister has spoken today about the importance of the registration system, having sanctions and amending the Child Care Act, on which she will have the support of the House.

The responsibility of management has not received sufficient focus. The researcher on the "Prime Time" programme in some cases reported issues to members of management, who did not see the need to take action until they knew they would be exposed on television. That indicates a more systemic problem in that they did not believe they needed to take action on the basis of reports from one of their workers.

I welcome the Minister's assurance that not only is the Garda investigating this, but that the HSE is following up as appropriate. I welcome the fact that she will publish the inspection reports. I agree with her that parents should ask for inspection reports if they wish to see them. However, there is an issue with facilities that have not been inspected. We have that heard some facilities have gone four years without an inspection. We need to prioritise the inspection of any child-care setting that has not been inspected within the past 12 months.

I agree with the Minister that we need to pay attention to relationships when the inspection is taking place. There has been too much emphasis on the physical environment and not on the learning environment and the relationship environment.

We need to invest in children and not concrete. The Minister referred to Síolta, the national quality framework, Aistear, the national curriculum, and the 2010 workforce development plan. Hopefully we will shortly have the early years strategy. I regard them as four wheels on a good car. We will have all the parts, but we need the engine to drive it forward and we need the investment to do that. I was alarmed at a report in The Irish Times this morning. There has been much talk about cost and whether this will place a greater burden on parents. The report showed a chart of public expenditure on preschool care and education as a percentage of GDP. Ireland spends less than 0.2%. France spends 1.5% of its GDP on early years education, the UK spends 1.1%, and New Zealand spends 1%. Belgium was closest to us at 0.7%. There is an issue with our expenditure as a percentage of GDP. Instead of investing in concrete, we should invest in our children and in childhood.

The National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012 has been mentioned. I tabled amendments - supported by Childminding Ireland - to provide that where there is regular payment for a service those involved should be vetted.

The Minister has said the Children First Bill will be published shortly. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. The committee had the opportunity to examine the heads of the Bill last summer. Representatives of many different organisations appeared before the committee to share their viewpoints. At the time - I seek the Minister's reassurance today - the heads of the Bill proposed that emotional abuse would not be included under its provisions. In the Minister's description of the "Prime Time" programme she talked about emotional abuse. I believe this issue is critical. Many members of the committee and all the representatives of NGOs who came in said that emotional abuse needed to be included and that the provisions should not be limited to dealing with physical neglect and sexual abuse. I hope that one of the achievements of the programme will be that emotional abuse is covered in the Children First legislation.

There is much we could do. We have already had discussions in the Seanad on early years education and intervention. We know the workforce contains some really excellent people, but if they are not being paid well as a profession - that is where the investment needs to be - how can we expect further education and training to take place?

There are many issues. I welcome the fact that the Minister has come to the House for this debate. As I am conscious that many others wish to speak, I will conclude, but I have so much more I would like to say on the issue.

I wish to share time with Senator Moloney.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. I agree with much of what Senators van Turnhout and Henry have said and will not repeat it. The Minister's record speaks for itself in terms of her excellent performance.

I will be very brief in what I have to say about the "Prime Time" programme, because I wish to move beyond that programme. There is an issue with how the matter came into the public domain; it has been reported that the HSE had inspected one of the crèches one month earlier. There is an issue with the inspection regime. I am aware of similar inspection regimes in other areas where the form of the inspection is the issue. Some inspections end up being nothing more than a box-ticking exercise, and in reality, people do what is inspected and not what is expected. As the Minister said, enforcement is the key. I welcome the commitments the Minister has made and the matters she outlined in her statement. While I will not spend much time going into them, enforcement and inspection are key.

I wish to broaden the debate slightly. There are two issues: one is childminding, which must incorporate child safety, and the other is early years education strategy. Of course the two issues are not mutually exclusive, but I believe we have developed a two-tier child-care system - the formal system, which is being delivered principally through private crèches, and the informal sector, mainly involving children being minded by other members of their communities in low-formality settings, generally outside the tax system.

I raise the issue, which has become more prominent recently, of significant numbers of children being minded by au pairs. Senator van Turnhout mentioned this on a previous occasion and we need to get to grips with it. There is far too little regulation of au pairs, many of whom are being left in charge of very young and vulnerable children.

Regarding the informal system of child care, I draw the Minister's attention to a matter I raised with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, during the debate on the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012. That legislation is deficient in not making provision for the vetting of people providing informal child care. The response from the Department was that it was not possible because of how the Bill was structured. However, it must be possible to allow for an individual to put himself or herself forward to be vetted so that at the very least parents putting a child into an informal child-care setting are aware that the person to whom they are entrusting their child has been appropriately vetted. I believe it must be possible to put such a system in place.

Regarding State support for child care in financial terms, we depend far too much on private provision. We must tackle the issue of bringing informal child care within a regulatory system, which we do not have at the moment.

I will not go over what everyone has said. The image we saw in the "Prime Time" programme of children being flipped and flung onto the floor will stick in the minds of everyone and particularly in the minds of parents with children in crèches. We must act swiftly and comprehensively to deal with the issue. Parents need to be able to sleep easily at night and we need to let them know that not every crèche is of that standard. Parents need to be reassured that there are very good crèches also.

This morning I heard a radio report suggesting that those operating under the free preschool year scheme do not need a qualification to mind children. That matter needs to be addressed immediately. We cannot install CCTV cameras to see what is going on.

On Tuesday I visited LauraLynn House - Children's Sunshine Home. Every 15 minutes a member of staff swipes a card at the head of a child's bed to show he or she was inspected during the night. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility to put this system in place. The service offered is second to none and if they can do it, so can crèches and other services.

I am heartened by the Minister's speech and know she will act. This is not new. It went on in 2006, 2007 and 2008, when there were headlines that shocked people. It is ridiculous that Members give out to the Minister on the basis that she is not acting quickly enough. No action was taken in the past, but at least she is ready and willing to act and acted by introducing the referendum. I will support her in whatever she does because it is heartfelt and she will ensure children are safe.

I thank the Minister for attending the Chamber at short notice. I commend Senator Jillian van Turnhout for pressing the issue and the Leader of the House for arranging the debate. Everyone in the House and the public at large were shocked by the contents of the "Prime Time" programme. The shock was quickly followed by anger owing to the fact that this was not a new issue. As far back as 2006 and in a report in 2008, problems with understaffing, inadequate supervision and failures in vetting were identified. Five years after the report and seven years after it first became an issue, a programme showed the abuse of children in crèches.

I know many people who work in the child care sector and the vast majority of those who work in it are of the highest integrity, well qualified and do a superb job. Unfortunately, a minority have not done a good job and have let down everyone in the sector. They were guilty of child abuse, which is the only way to describe how some children were treated. The Taoiseach spoke about the brand image of child care being of the highest standard. We all want to see this, but how can it be squared when we look at the JobBridge website which carries child care worker adverts seeking interns with no experience to work with children for €50 a week? I do not see how this can sit with the brand of child care about which the Taoiseach talked.

It comes back to the issue of whether we value caring. We have had the Minister in the Chamber several times. We must place some of the responsibility on the previous Government with respect to an investment in caring generally and the value attached to it. For years I worked very closely with the Carers Association on its demand for a national caring strategy. I commend the Government for bringing it forward, but none of this, including the children's rights referendum which Sinn Féin supported, means anything if children are being abused and mistreated.

With regard to State funding for child care facilities, the three crèches that were the subject of the report are still open. Are they still receiving State funding? When will we see changes to the inspection regime? Will we continue to see State money being given to child care facilities that are not run properly and in which children do not receive the service they need and are subject to much worse in some areas?

I recognise the Minister has a difficult job to do, but I must be honest when she is in the Chamber and say she has been in the job for two years. There is a responsibility on the Government not just to look back at the previous Government's failures but also to undertake the responsibility to fix the problems in the system and make sure the issues that surfaced in 2006, 2007 and 2008 are properly fixed. We should have proper supervision, inspection and the world-class child care facilities children deserve and need.

I welcome the Minister who is here at short notice and thank Senator Jillian van Turnhout for requesting the debate.

We have all passed being shocked and saddened by what we have seen. I will not repeat what I said in the Seanad yesterday, but not repeating it does not mean it is not still through my bones. To think any child should have to suffer like that is amazing. "Prime Time" has done the State some service. Since taking office, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, has also done the State some service. She has demonstrated her commitment to child care and three months ago gave a speech in which she said what she has said today and what she intended to do. At the time I said every Minister and the Government should be behind her because the topic needed to be debated and funding. There is also a need for the diversion of funding. The Minister for Education and Skills raised the matter of children's allowance and people on every side were jumping up and down, saying we could not do this or that. We did not have a debate on the issue.

The Minister has spoken about training. Some 4,000 crèches jumped up around Ireland during the Celtic tiger era, but we did not have the same focus on what went on in them. It is all right having state-of-the-art buildings, but it is the people within them who provide nurturing child care. It is all right having polish and paint, but a little dust will not kill or damage a child in the way psychological damage will. Members could spend 50 minutes debating this issue, but we only have five minutes each.

It is not enough time.

There is a difference between child care, covering the period from birth to three years, preschool services, between the ages of three and six years and care during schoolgoing years. That debate has never happened and it must. There is no point in saying this is the first Government to deal with the issue. I was on the other side of the House when the expert working group was set up in 1992. In 2006 the newspapers and media again highlighted the issue. In 2007 there was a media debate on what had gone wrong in a crèche. It is not new. I congratulate the Minister on what she is doing. We must look out for false reporting as major issues arose in that respect. I will not go into detail now on that matter.

There should be emphasis on training to degree standard and turning it into a professional service. Children are more important than anything else. We have seen inspections of farmers' markets far more frequently than of crèches. The Minister gave an update on Garda vetting. I am tired of talking about that topic, about which we have spoken for years. The research is available to show the benefits of child care and preschool education for socially disadvantaged children. Some preschools and crèches have online video systems and offer the service to parents who can log on at any time of the day and see what their children are doing. If people have nothing to hide and be afraid of and the regulations are being adhered to according to the book, why not offer the service? For €199, as it was a few years ago, we can set up and maintain the system. Parents can then go to work feeling easy.

When discussing the cost of child care, we must discuss the issue of parents going to work. We must shift the focus from a cost benefit analysis to a proper debate on how child care bills should be paid, the onus on the family and the State and further investment and providing more support for families. Parental leave arrangements should apply to both parents. It is not the case that daddies make babies and mothers care for them. If we are looking for equality in the workplace, we need to provide for both paternal and maternal leave. The debate must move towards the modern realm of duality when it comes to employment and both parents caring for their children. The models of support require to be fully debated, including tax exemptions, tax credits and refundable credits. We have never had the right debate. Since taking office, the Minister has put children and child care to the fore, on which I congratulate her. In appointing a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the Government has shown its commitment to dealing with the issue.

I refer to the turnover of staff in preschool and other child care facilities because of low wages. This turnover is not good for the psychological development of children.

Victoria White wrote in an article: "Our children do not need corporate crèches; they need love". One corporate crèche featured in the programme made a profit of €1.6 million and it was grant aided. This also needs to be debated.

I move: "That the debate be extended with the Minister to be called on to reply for five minutes at 1.20 p.m. and the debate to conclude at 1.25 p.m."

I welcome the Minister to the House. Her presence enhances the role of the House and she has given a comprehensive statement in response to the shocking scenes we witnessed on Tuesday night. It is sad that it has taken such a programme to activate all the responses we have heard over the past 48 hours. I agree with the sentiments expressed about Deputy Fitzgerald as a person but we are debating her role as a Minister and my comments are not personal.

Will she liaise with the relevant agencies, including the Garda and the HSE, to ensure those who appeared to be culpable and responsible for child abuse in the television programme are brought to justice? One of the perpetrators has been dismissed but that is not enough. I do not go round seeking people's heads but this is such a serious issue that those who have been found to have engaged in child abuse as a result of the programme should be brought to justice and charged before the courts. Has the Minister liaised with the agencies in this regard? According to today's newspapers, the Garda is investigating parental complaints. I appreciate this is outside the Minister's remit but she may have a comment on that. These people should be brought to justice. The fact that this has happened in Dublin should not lead people to think they are in a comfort zone in which they believe these practices are only going on in Dublin. If cameras were taken undercover into other crèches throughout the country, I wonder what the outcome would be. The scenario outlined was horrific.

Leitrim is mentioned as one of the counties that has not been subjected to an inspection. The media coverage of child care facilities nationally focused on 15 child care services, which is less than 0.5% of the total nationally and did not reflect the position in all child care services. In County Leitrim, 206 staff work directly with children in child care facilities, 92% of whom are trained to FETAC level 5 standard, caring for children, or level 6, supervision in child care, while 89% have completed an occupational first aid course and 81% have completed the recommended HSE Children First child protection training. In addition, 59% of services are currently doing curriculum training with further courses for both preschool and after school, 75% of services are engaged in Síolta, the national quality framework for early childhood education, while 48% of services have completed an early years health promotion programme.

The standard of care and education in the county has always been reported as high and both child care services and the county child care committee have a good working relationship with the HSE inspection team. Leitrim county child care committee liaises regularly with parents and child care services on queries, information, policy development and recruitment processes. All parents are regularly encouraged to talk to the person looking after their child, as outlined by Senator Henry and others, and to request from the manager the most recent inspection reports, which are publicly available, to reassure themselves about the quality provided.

I acknowledge there has been significant investment by the Department in child care nationwide, including direct investment in child care places, capital support and local county-based programmes such as county child care committees and the national voluntary child care committee. Continued and increased investment is vital for the enhancement of quality and the sustainability of services in the child care sector. In rural areas, the local child care facility is of the utmost importance as children in these areas often have no other option available to them. However, as quality improvement in child care is a continuous process, I would like to highlight that the lack of a public health nurse on the inspection team in County Leitrim since February 2012 has meant that only half of the inspection process has been carried out since then. There is an urgent requirement for the full inspection team to be put in place. In addition, the current EHO is covering County Sligo as well as Country Leitrim, thus making inspections less frequent. Will the Minister examine this in the context of resources?

I raised the issue of financial assistance towards the cost of fees for access to part-time degree courses in early years child care and education on the Adjournment earlier this week. A total of 204 people in County Leitrim have taken FETAC level 6 and they want to go on to do a bachelor of arts degree in child care, which would cost them €12,000 for a four year part-time course. Most of them work part time at home or in the workplace but all the Government's job creation initiatives and resources are geared towards those who are unemployed and who want to take up full-time education. Will the Minister use her good offices to seek a subsidy or support for these people if she is serous about enhancing the educational qualifications of those working in child care?

I refer to the roll-out of the early childhood curriculum framework and increased investment to complete the formal roll-out of Síolta, which as Senator van Turnhout said, has not been rolled out nationally because sufficient resources have not been put into it.

Four Senators wish to contribute and the Minister has kindly agreed to reply for five minutes at 1.30 p.m. Is it agreed that the remaining Senators have three minutes each? Agreed.

I move: "That the debate be extended until 1.35 p.m. with the Minister to be called on to reply at 1.30 p.m."

I also welcome the Minister and thank her for attending the House. I thank Senator van Turnhout for having the foresight to ensure the debate took place today.

I was shocked and horrified by the events I witnessed on the television programme. Certain crèches were highlighted. I watched it with a particular interest because my son was in respite care that night and my initial reaction was to think of my own child and of the facilities in which he was being cared. This issue is about vulnerable children who cannot speak up for themselves. I welcome that the Minister was straight up and came forward to address it. I also welcome her statement that she will publish the inspection reports. Reports were made on one of the crèches featured in the programme a month previously but six years ago we had this debate. It is not good enough to just publish reports; they must be followed up and double checked. I worked as a teacher when whole-school inspections were introduced. The school received two weeks' notice and everything was cleaned up and written up to ensure everything was right for the inspection. It is important that checks should be strenuously carried out and that we do not find out six years later that recommendations were not implemented. An example should be made of the people who were caught on camera and they should be brought to justice because our children are our most precious commodity.

The issue of qualifications was highlighted in the programme. Most people have a FETAC level 5 qualification but that must be a requirement across the board.

We must examine strenuously qualifications, background checks and Garda vetting. Pay should be appropriate to qualifications because, as has been pointed out, people are frequently working for pay just above the minimum wage. If there is no value attached to the child care or the worker providing the service, we must address this and ensure staff are paid appropriately so crèches will not just be for profit. Let us face it - most of them have operated for profit.

County Louth is one of the counties that has not been included. Have supports been put in place for the parents and children featured in the programme some nights ago? If one of my children were involved, I would want such supports.

I thank the Minister for attending at short notice. It is important that this kind of debate happen in the Seanad. I thank my colleague, Senator van Turnhout, for requesting it. There is much expertise in the House, as the Minister will have already noted.

I welcome the Minister's commitments and action points. Senator O'Brien indicated the great language in the Minister's speech and the commitment of the Taoiseach. There has been a breach of trust. Wonderful words in this regard have been crafted by my colleague and friend, Dr. Noreen Hayes, a leading human rights advocate and academic in the field. Much needs to happen to ensure there will not be another breach of trust, particularly in terms of our lawmaking. Others have mentioned that we need to have legislation in place as soon as possible so parents can have the confidence again to entrust the care of their children to others.

The Minister has started a national debate on early years education and care. We will have the strategy published and we will return to many of these issues when that is done. Irrespective of the time that will have elapsed in that regard, we will look forward to hearing the progress made in some of the action points the Minister has outlined. I am certain that, with her leadership, it will happen.

What is the nature of the inspections? What do the inspections of the diversity of early child hood care providers cover? As with other Senators, I was struck by the incredible contrast between the gorgeous buildings and the internal physical environments, and the appalling lack of standards in care and education. What do we inspect?

The Minister outlined the guidelines that were developed in terms of Aistear, the early child hood curriculum framework, and Síolta, which pertains to quality care and standards. As far as I am aware, while there is a requirement to inspect according to both of these frameworks, the inspectors have not been trained on them. What is inspected or enforced determines to a large degree what is done what should be done.

The Minister indicated that new national preschool standards are about to be rolled out. What is the relationship between these and the standards in Aistear and Síolta? We need to ensure the standards in the other two frameworks are being implemented at least at the same time as the ones that are being developed.

My second area of questioning concerns where the Government should focus the next tranche of investment in this developing sector. It is imperative that the Government get it right. The Minister has outlined a major policy shift from direct cash payments to development of the sector. Let us say this is the Minister's pre-budget speech. One aspect has been outlined already. As others have said, we need a workforce that is fit for purpose. Are we satisfied that our current training system provides this? Professionals need strong qualifications not unlike those of primary school teachers. Child care is and should be a profession. The majority of those teaching in primary schools today have benefited from a State-funded B.Ed. As with Senator Mooney, I ask why this should not also be the case for those working in the early years education and care sector. Particularly for mature and part-time students, can the State justify the investment in and training of primary school educators who educate children of four years of age and not make a similar investment in the training of those involved in early years education?

I welcome the Minister and thank Senator van Turnhout for ensuring an early debate. Like everybody else, I was absolutely horrified by the findings in RTE's "Prime Time" programme some nights ago. I am absolutely confident that the Minister will and is continuing to address the many issues that arise in respect of child care.

Given that I was involved with the community child care project in Ballinasloe and had the pleasure of welcoming the Minister to open that fine facility recently, I was very surprised to learn HSE inspections were not happening in the facilities highlighted in the programme. I am aware that our new facility in Ballinasloe has been inspected regularly. This is a matter of quality assurance and inspection. I am sure the Minister will be homing in on these issues very much. It is worth highlighting that when the last Fianna Fáil Government introduced the free preschool year in 2010, which I very much welcomed, not one cent was allocated for quality assurance and inspection. Money could have been allocated at the time. The early child care supplement was abolished, making a net saving of €300 million. If €5 million or €10 million was allocated for inspections and quality assurance, some of the incidents in the programme some nights ago might not have happened. I urge the Minister to ensure that adequate resources are found within her budget for quality assurance and inspection so what we saw some nights ago can never happen again. The training of staff and ensuring that the workforce is fit for purpose are crucial, as previous speakers have said.

I am concerned that corners are being cut by for-profit facilities. This is in stark contrast with what we see in the community crèche facilities. The Minister has considerable work to do but I am confident we have the right person in the job to ensure that every child who is left at a crèche at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. will be in safe hands and receive education and care of the standard we have come to expect and in which the taxpayer is investing. I wish the Minister well in a very challenging Department and congratulate her on the great progress she has made to date.

Is díospóireacht iontach tábhachtach í seo. Tá mé sásta go bhfuil mé ag fáil deis labhairt. I agree with almost everything that has been said thus far. However, I would like to draw attention to the areas where there are no inspectors at present. I include the local health offices in Dublin south city, Sligo, Leitrim, Louth, Cavan and north Monaghan. This could and should be addressed immediately. Inspectors should be put in place in those locations. Having been chairman of Galway City and County Child Care Committee for three years and as director of a community crèche in Connemara, I note that the number of inspectors is still insufficient around the country. In Galway, for example, the inspectors are totally snowed under with the amount of work that must be done. This must be addressed.

I noted what Senator Mullins said about having €5 million or €10 million made available for the quality assurance regime. I hope that in the budget in October, or even before then, we will see that money made available. I remind the Senator that his Government has had two years in which to put the money in place but it has not done so. Let us hope we see the money allocated in the forthcoming budget.

Issues arise over the privatised model. Certain companies are making handsome profits from it. I wonder whether we should be returning to more community-based models. There is an over-emphasis on the business side.

All the Government Senators who have spoken have done so very passionately but I put it to them that there is a budget coming up in which many of these issues can be addressed. There is no point in their coming in here on budget day wringing their hands and saying they are tied by budgetary measures. Pressure has to be put on every Minister to make this a priority.

We are doing so. That is the reality of the state of the country.

I applaud the Minister for maintaining-----


There are priorities.

If there are cuts to child care and the associated regimes, we will be reminding the Government parties that they were jumping up and down today looking for the opposite.

There is a backlog with regard to Garda clearance.

I have been told it is still trying to clear applications made last February. We were told the waiting time would be shortened but it has to be examined. Should funding be withheld from organisations that have not passed inspection regimes?

The pay scales of those employed in these areas need to be examined. Is JobBridge being exploited? In a previous budget, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, promised investment in child care when she attempted to make cuts to lone parent payments. Where is the child care she promised?

Last week we debated a Bill on animal health and welfare. There was a lot of debate on looking after animals, and rightly so. I feel we examined that issue more closely than we have examined that of child care. We need a much longer and fuller debate on these issues. The Minister has made great reforms. I hope my questions can be addressed.

I thank Senators for their contributions. It is extremely important that we have had the opportunity to discuss this issue. The public debate under way is probably the first real national debate we have had on the early years sector. We have had this type of debate on child protection in a broader sense, but it is good to focus on the early years.

I regret what has precipitated the debate - that is, the contents of the "Prime Time" programme. As Minister I have been very alert to these issues since I took office. That is why I have a programme of work under way. I established the early years group to examine the range of issues on which we have touched today. For too long child care was seen as a solution for working parents, rather than a key input for children and their development. Clearly, that is the focus we need to have.

My job and that of every Senator is to ensure we have a new attitude that values early childhood care and that people understand the sector, what it is about and its importance, and the importance of quality of care for children in the early years. As was said, we have Irish research on the importance of the sector. We have some superb interventions and services for children around the country which are making a difference to the lives of families and children. Today we are focusing on areas of difficulty.

It is not correct to say, as the Opposition has said, that services are controlled, organised and managed by the State. There are 4,600 private and community-based preschool services currently meeting the child care needs of parents. As I said, the vast majority operate to a very high standard. I want to focus on areas of particular concern to Senators and respond to some of the points made.

On inspections, in 2011 and 2012 more than 2,600 child care providers were subject to inspection. Senators asked about the regulations. I have a booklet which contains the statutory instrument. It is very detailed. Section 5 is about the development and welfare of children, which are an aspect of inspections. It is not always about inspection; enforcement, follow-up and the quality agenda in the sector are important. The inspection rate we have is 60% of all providers in each year, which compares favourably with comparable jurisdictions such as England, where OFSTED operates a policy of inspecting child care providers on a three- to four-year cycle. I take the points Senators have made about particular parts of the country in regard to inspection services and will address them. I have asked the HSE, which is currently reviewing the regional spread of resources, to determine the measures required to ensure that inspections are carried out on a consistent basis in all areas and whether additional resources or reassignment of staff are required. I have spoken to Mr. Gordon Jeyes in the past few days. I have liaised with the HSE and have spoken to its head of quality assurance and the head of inspectorates to ensure this will happen. We cannot have a situation in which areas of the country have not had inspections because no staff members are available. To make sure this happens, Mr. Jeyes is taking a national approach to the issue in order that he can redeploy staff on a national basis to areas where they are needed. That is currently being examined and will happen.

Is there a timeframe for that?

It is happening right now. Mr. Jeyes is establishing a national approach to inspection which will give him the opportunity to redeploy staff to areas where they are needed. I have spoken to him directly about that.

I also want to see greater attention being paid to risk information in judging the timing of inspections. If complaints have been made about a service, inspectors need to return to it and follow up. Providers that have very good reputations and track records have been examined, and are meeting the children's needs and working effectively. They may not require as much inspection as those where problems have been identified. Some services need to be followed up repeatedly in order that problems are dealt with. We need a basic inspectorate available at all times.

Issues have been raised regarding prosecution of providers. The preschool regulations set out a range of requirements for providers. The inspection process draws attention to areas requiring improvement. There is a very important difference between non-compliance with the regulations and serious incidents which warrant prosecution or closure. We have to be clear about that.

High standards are expected from services and, as in many other areas, few services are found to be fully compliant with the regulations and inspections. Services are expected to rectify faults immediately. As a result, ECCE funding is withdrawn from services only where there are serious non-compliance issues. To cease funding to ECCE services on minor grounds would not be appropriate, would cause disruption for children and parents and would not be the right thing to do.

Where there are serious breaches of the regulations, providers are prosecuted. We need robust prosecution of providers that do not address failings, as in any other area.

Does that include the perpetrators rather than the providers?

I do not want to prejudice any investigation or make any comment on the investigation. A serious investigation on the part of the Garda and HSE into incidences of alleged abuse is taking place. Senators have all made comments on whether they consider it to be abuse but I do not want to prejudice what is a very serious investigation. It will take its course.

As I said, there have been prosecutions. Services can be closed and funding can be withdrawn. In the case of serious non-compliance and prosecutions, funding should be withdrawn. Ms Annie Callanan, who will be head of quality in the new child and family agency, will deal with that issue.

On legislation, the child and family support agency Bill, which is the biggest public sector reform on the management of services for children, is being finalised. It has come back from the Attorney General and is being finalised in my Department. The Bill will go before the Cabinet in a few weeks and before the Dáil during this term. That is major progress. It is a huge piece of work.

Will the Bill come before the House before the recess?

Yes. There are well over 100 heads in the Bill and a serious amount of work has been done on it over the past year. It represents major reform.

The Children First Bill is also very complex legislation. I have had the benefit of the committee's responses on that. We need to bring revised heads of the Bill to the Government. I hope that will happen before the end of this term. The Bill will be introduced later in the year. The Children First legislation raises very complex issues. It involves huge reform in regard to mandatory reporting of concerns about child protection and has major implications for organisations, professionals and individuals. The committee pointed out, in its 600-page examination of the Bill, the series of issues involved. We have worked through them. A huge amount of work is being done. I do not want to rush the legislation. We have to do the work on this properly because we cannot get it wrong. It has implications for medical professionals, teachers and all professionals working with children. It is being progressed.

In regard to training, it is important to note that there have been substantial improvements in this regard since the introduction of the early childhood care and education scheme. This is a difficult and stressful time for the parents of children who featured in the RTE report, for whom counselling services have been made available. I understand RTE was very sensitive in its dealings with parents in the course of the making of the programme, with careful efforts made to avoid undue intrusion into the lives of their children. I am, of course, concerned for those people who have received stressful information about the care given to their children in the facilities in question. I did not see the programme in advance of its airing on Tuesday night. I was available to participate in it but, as it confirmed the other day, RTE did not choose to invite me to do so.

I thank Senators for their contributions to the debate. I hope I have dealt with the major issues that were raised.

Before the Minister takes her seat, will she comment on the allocation of funding for inspections?

Given the legacy economic issues we inherited and the requirement to borrow €1 billion per month, I was very pleased last year to succeed in ring-fencing funding for the proposed child and family agency to the tune of €600 million, which includes the inspection budget. In addition, I secured the additional €9 million necessary to retain the universality of the ECCE scheme, as well as an additional €6 million for child care services. I have maintained funding in this sector, and secured additional funding in particular areas, at a difficult financial time in order to ensure the sustainability of existing services, including universal eligibility for the ECCE scheme.

Having said that, I accept that the issues outlined today necessitate action. We need to ring-fence a portion of investment to tackle training issues and build on the various initiatives we have discussed.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House for this debate.

Sitting suspended at 1.45 p.m. and resumed at 2.05 p.m.