Commencement Matters

Hospital Waiting Lists

I also welcome Councillor Coyle to the Chamber. I thank the Minister for coming to the House to discuss this very important issue. As he is aware, my patients are in fear because the treatment they so badly require could be in jeopardy due to the constant staffing crisis which is crippling our health system.

I have listened with great sadness and shame, as has the Minister of State, to the stories of very young children and adolescents with scoliosis who are waiting inexcusably long times to receive treatment. Today, however, I am raising the issue of adults with scoliosis who are also at the mercy of long waiting lists.

It was brought to my attention by Councillor Walter Lacey that a patient of Mr. Pat Kiely, consultant orthopaedic surgeon in Tallaght hospital, was recently advised that he was no longer working in the hospital and the waiting list would be outsourced to a different hospital under a different consultant. Unfortunately for some, that is the sum total of the communication they have received.

One woman was diagnosed with scoliosis in 1995. In September 2014, she had a two-part operation carried out under Mr. Kiely and requires further treatment on her spine, specifically an injection and a fusion of the spine. In June 2016, more than one year ago, she was advised she would be seen as a priority case. In January 2017, she was advised by her doctor that Mr. Kiely had moved on and she would now be under the care of a different consultant in a different hospital. She has yet to receive any further update on her case. In the meantime, she struggles on and minds her three children despite her disability. Her GP telephoned the hospital on her behalf to be told not to ring any more. It is frustrating and is not acceptable that a health professional who is advocating for a patient was dismissed in such a fashion. Patients like her are being left in a painful limbo.

As the Minister knows, the management of scoliosis is complex and determined by the severity of the curvature and skeletal maturity, which together predict the likelihood of progression. According to the HSE's action plan for scoliosis treatment, to achieve the target of a four-month waiting list, 447 patients will need to receive treatment before the end of 2017. As the Minister will probably agree, these targets will not be met. Some 447 patients need treatment before the end of 2017. It is a significant ask for the staff of the theatres concerned to facilitate that number of patients. To lose one consultant is a major blow.

I would also like to put on the record of the House my acknowledgement of the work of Mr. Kiely. He does fantastic work in this field. He is the co-founder of Straight Ahead Ireland, which operates on a voluntary basis. Surgeons perform operations on a pro bono basis. They change the lives of children who might otherwise have to wait longer for treatment or surgery. They do this selflessly and give up their personal time. The operations are conducted on weekends and Christmas during down times in theatres in Our Lady's Hospital in Crumlin. Mr. Kiely and the Straight Ahead team are fighting a battle against waiting lists which is not theirs to fight.

Does the Minister agree that a new approach is needed in the field of recruitment and that the current recruitment process is not working at the pace or rate which is required? When will Mr. Kiely be replaced? Will his list be addressed in Tallaght hospital or off site in a different hospital? When will the young mother of three to whom I referred be accommodated for her surgery, along with the approximately 70 other patients still on the waiting list?

The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, is not the line Minister for most of these issues. He may not have all the answers.

I would be grateful if the Minister of State could convey my concerns to the Minister.

I am sure he will. I should not predict the answer.

I thank Senator Swanick for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to provide an update to the House on the matter. I will address some of the Senator's specific queries with him directly.

Improving access to scoliosis services for patients is a priority for the Minister for Health, the Government and the HSE this year. The Senator will be aware that the HSE, working with the Children’s hospital group and the Department of Health, developed a scoliosis waiting list action plan which was finalised and published in May of this year. In tandem, the HSE is working to develop a long-term sustainable solution for scoliosis and paediatric orthopaedic cases.

The number of patients on each of the waiting list categories is being taken into account in planning future service requirements. The Minister is aware of particular concerns raised in regard to adolescent patients waiting for scoliosis surgery in Tallaght hospital. The HSE has included this cohort of patients in the scoliosis waiting list update and service development plan which sets out a short to medium-term strategy to ensure no patient will have had to wait more than four months for surgery by the end of the year, where that is appropriate clinically.

The HSE has informed the Department of Health that a process is under way for the transition of adolescent scoliosis patients from Tallaght to the Mater hospital. This has commenced, with 16 patients transferred currently. Further patients are being clinically reviewed in Tallaght with a view to transferring to the Mater. It is envisaged that a similar process will be undertaken for OPD patients and that the patients overall will remain in the care of the Mater as part of a longer-term solution for patients with scoliosis.

In respect of spinal services at Tallaght, the hospital is the principal provider of elective orthopaedics in the Dublin Midlands hospital group. The hospital’s spinal orthopaedic service provides emergency and elective access for a varying degree of acute degenerative and scoliosis spinal conditions with a tertiary referral base. It is acknowledged that spinal orthopaedic activity levels at Tallaght Hospital have fallen in recent years. There has been a reduction in consultant staffing numbers in this sub-specialty area due to consultant departures and difficulty in recruiting replacements.

However, I understand from the HSE that approval has been given by the Dublin Midlands hospital group for an additional consultant, and a new consultant is due to start following completion of his fellowship in September 2017. While the hospital currently has constraints around in-house activity, approval has also been given by the HSE for an initiative to provide an inpatient and day case spinal service in a private facility with a Tallaght Hospital spinal orthopaedic consultant, as part of its public contract, accessing facilities in the private sector to reduce waiting lists.

In addition, the reconfiguration of theatres at Tallaght hospital is being reviewed to facilitate the creation of a spinal theatre available for spinal procedures. I am confident that this range of actions will improve access to scoliosis services for patients. I will answer some of the Senator's queries in my response.

I thank the Minister of State and I appreciate his response. I appreciate the fact that he mentioned the adolescent scoliosis patients being transferred from Tallaght Hospital to the Mater Hospital. My concern today, of course, relates to the adult scoliosis patients. I am glad to hear that approval has been granted for a new consultant to be appointed after September 2017. Will the Minister of State confirm whether the 70 patients who are currently on Mr. Kiely's list will be transferred to the private sector to complete their treatments or if they will be transferred to the new consultant's list after he or she is appointed in September? These people have been waiting far too long and it would be my preference for them to be transferred to the private sector as a priority.

I thank the Senator again for raising this issue. It is an issue I had occasion to raise in the other House numerous times myself, particularly in respect of waiting lists for children. Thankfully significant progress seems to have been made on that front but I would be concerned to see any knock-on effect on the adult patient. I am not sure of the answer to the Senator's question. I will look into it for him in the Department of Health and I can get some answers for him.

On some of the specific issues the Senator raised, I would be concerned about a GP being told not to call back when they are advocating. They are the principal advocates, more so than the Senator or myself are as public representatives. A general practitioner should not be told not to call back. If the Senator would like to give me the details of that case I would be interested in pursuing it as part of my role in the Department of Health. If he sends those details to me I will follow up for him and find out why that happened. Hopefully I can get an assurance that it will not happen again.

I concur with the Senator in paying tribute to Mr. Kiely. I also dealt with him in my capacity as a public representative in the other House when I was trying to make a case for children with scoliosis. I always found him to be a very straight man, a very good man and somebody who was spoken of extremely highly by all of those who dealt with him. I wish him well.

I cannot answer specifically about the 70 patients the Senator referred to but I will find out whether they will remain in the public system under the new consultant or whether it is intended to move them to the private system. I will get that information sent over to the Senator.

I thank the Minister of State and Senator Swanick. I hope progress can be achieved in that area.

Unemployment Data

I thank the Minister of State. The Minister has seen my Commencement Matter. A very disappointing article was published during the week regarding the South East Economic Monitor, which showed that the south-east region is being left behind. The monitor was compiled at Waterford Institute of Technology by Dr. Cormac O'Keefe, Mr. John Casey and Dr. Ray Griffin and is actually frightening. As someone who lives in Carlow and as a Carlow person, I know that we could all see the signs. I was very disappointed because one comes into the Seanad every week and hears that the recession is over.

The figures and statistics mentioned in the article and the monitor itself are definitely on the ball. The article notes "While there has been a drop in unemployment the south east is the only region not meeting the Government’s Action Plan for Jobs target" and that "The region has experienced a large drop in unemployment (from 12.5% in Q1 2016 to 9.3%) with 9,900 net new jobs - the first time unemployment is below 10% in eight years". The unemployment significantly relates to the economic decline. It quotes Dr. Griffin as saying:

The South East is the only region (of the eight) not meeting Government’s Action Plan for Jobs target (to have regional unemployment less than 1% of national rate). There is very little variation between the counties in the region.

It also reports that "the government’s Action Plan for Jobs commitment to bring every region’s unemployment rate to within 1% of the national average has been achieved everywhere but the South East" and quotes Dr. Griffin as saying that "We cannot see any Government action aimed at closing that gap".

The article mentions that although "the national policy approach is focused on the crisis being over; the economic crisis is still unfinished business in the South East.". Businesses in the south east still need to be looked at. It quotes Dr. O'Keefe as saying that “The South East region is home to 10.7% of the national population, yet it is clear there is no plan to turn the regional economy around,” and that "Low income, low skills jobs are driving the employment growth; it is pretty simple, the good jobs lost in the recession are being replaced by poorer jobs". That is crucial. That is what is happening. The good jobs are being replaced by the poor jobs. The article notes that:

The quality of jobs in the South East is dramatically lower than the national average, and there is no evidence of this improving. This means incomes, disposable income and consumption in the South East is lower than the rest of the country.

I know that in terms of unemployment there are different remits in different areas, but I think it is crucial to bring up the article's contention that "the agencies charged with economic development, IDA and Enterprise Ireland, are underperforming with regards to the South East". It notes Mr. Casey as saying:

They now have specific objectives to promote a more regional distribution to their activities, however we do not see any evidence of this in the South East. We can see what these highly effective organisations can do when they put their mind to it. They need to give more support to their regional offices and target this gap in their activities.

Another piece of the report I felt was crucial. The article states that "the South East’s economy will not get back into step with the rest of country while there continues to be a cap on higher education capacity". Carlow has two excellent third level colleges. Mr. Casey is quoted as saying that "It beggar’s belief that €1.7bn was spent on new university buildings over the past five years, and not one of these State supported investments was made in the South East". Not one penny was spent there. We have been looking for that constantly because that it part of our employment problem.

The article also notes that:

Despite steady decreases in the Live Register in Carlow (17.1% year-on-year decrease), Census 2016 shows that Carlow had the third highest rate of unemployment in the country. Carlow is home to 1.2% of the population of the State but to 1.6% of those on the Live Register.

To go back to the IDA, it created 51,793 net jobs across the country but we only got 0.9%. Just to finish on a final quote from the article, "There is also evidence of low job quality as the returns for taxes on work (PAYE, USC, and self-employed taxes) in Carlow are 54% of what one would expect based on population share". That is a massive issue which really needs to be addressed going forward. We in the south east and Carlow are being totally forgotten again.

I am sure the Senator will not be forgotten.

I will not forget it anyway.

I call on the Minister of State to respond to that in so far as he can.

I thank the Cathaoirleach and I thank the Senator for her attention and care on behalf of the people she represents to ensure that they get their fair share. I commend her on that and thank her for her efforts on their behalf. The Government is conscious of the particular problems facing Carlow and the south-east region more widely. The most recent official figures from the CSO, for the first quarter of 2017, show that the unemployment rate in the south east was 9.3% as compared with the national average of 6.7%. Although official unemployment estimates are not available at the county level, the rate in Carlow is likely to be in line with the regional total, and thus also above the national average.

There is some basis for optimism in the most recent figures, in that unemployment in the south east fell more rapidly than nationally over the last year. Continuation of this trend would see a substantial narrowing of the unemployment gap between Carlow, the south east and the country overall.

Government policy to reduce unemployment, both nationally and regionally is twofold. First we aim, through policies set out in the Action Plan for Jobs, to create an environment in which business can succeed and create jobs; and second, through Pathways to Work, we aim to ensure that as many of the new jobs and other vacancies which arise in our economy are filled by people taken from the live register, including young people.

The Pathways to Work strategies, initiated in 2012, determine the Department of Social Protection's approach to helping unemployed jobseekers return to work. Since the inception of Pathways to Work in 2012, employment and entitlement services have been brought together in "one-stop shop" Intreo centres; new schemes and employment supports have been introduced, while some existing schemes have been expanded; and there has been a transformation of jobseeker services through Intreo, with the scale and frequency of engagement with registered jobseekers being greatly increased. A social contract of rights and responsibilities between jobseekers and the State has been implemented.

In accordance with the Pathways to Work strategy, activation resources are concentrated on those most at risk of long-term unemployment. This in turn leads to a concentration of the Department of Social Protection's resources on areas of high unemployment. Within Carlow, the Department has seven activation case officers together with an activation support team. These officers work closely with other stakeholders including the Carlow and Kilkenny Education and Training Board to identify suitable training and educational opportunities for jobseekers in Carlow. Each month, case officers meet an average of 700 jobseekers to discuss the training and employment opportunities available to them. Case officers also work closely with employers to ensure that suitable people are matched to appropriate vacancies and in promoting the back to work enterprise allowance for those wishing to pursue self-employment. The promotion of the back to work enterprise allowance also involves close co-operation with the local enterprise office.

Locally, the Department maintains close links with a range of stakeholders through its participation on the Carlow local community development committee and the south east regional skills forum. There are almost 370 places available on community employment schemes in Carlow along with a further 160 places on the Tús programme. The deployment of this wide range of resources has seen the number of jobseekers registered at the Department's offices fall by 2,501 or 36% since May 2012 and by 903 or 17% in the last 12 months alone.

I am informed by my colleague, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, that there are significant regional policy responses in respect of IDA and Enterprise Ireland activities. These are now brought together with other relevant support policies in the Action Plan for Jobs for the south east. Among the 194 actions in the plan to be delivered over the period 2015 to 2017 are a 30% increase in the number of start-up SMEs; a 30% to 40% increase in investments by overseas companies in the region by 2019, meaning at least 44 investments in the region over the coming years; a 20% increase in jobs in exporting companies, in particular in manufacturing, agrifood, business services and biopharma-medtech; a strong focus on the advanced manufacturing sector, which has been the traditional strength of the region; an 85% increase in exports over the next ten years through a range of measures in the agrifood sector; building on the success of companies like Eishtec, an industry-led forum for the business and financial services sector in the region, developing a financial service hub; and to promote closer co-operation between employers and training and education bodies continue to progress the development of a technological university for the south east and boost apprenticeships in the region.

The south-east region has 72 IDA Ireland client companies which collectively employ 13,369 people. Seven of these companies, employing 800 people, are in Carlow. The main clusters are in high value manufacturing - pharmaceutical, medical devices and engineering - along with international financial services. IDA Ireland is now targeting a minimum of 30% to 40% increase in the number of investments for each region outside of Dublin. These investments will be a combination of new name investments, expansions from existing overseas companies in Ireland and research and development investments. Advanced technology buildings, ATBs, are an important support for attracting these investments and an ATB is planned for Carlow, to be completed this year.

We are over the time limit so the Senator should be brief in her reply.

I thank the Minister of State. I am very disappointed by the figures, of which we are aware. It is important. I am very disappointed by IDA Ireland. It made one official visit to Carlow last year. I am not sure if its representatives came down once or twice. Perhaps they had meetings I was not aware of. Its performance in Carlow is very bad.

University status for Carlow and Waterford institutes of technology is crucial. The Institute of Technology Carlow is Carlow's biggest employer. We have over 700 staff in the institute and it provides great employment to Carlow. University status is crucial. The Government should focus on employment in Carlow and creating more jobs.

I will give some examples of activities supported by Enterprise Ireland in the recent past in the south east. Enterprise Ireland's competitive regional enterprise development €60 million fund was launched to support all eight regional action plans and provide investment of up to €60 million over the period to 2020 to support collaborative approaches. In 2017, Enterprise Ireland announced an investment in Suir Valley venture fund, a new €20 million venture capital fund located in Waterford. From 2011 to 2016, Enterprise Ireland approved innovative high potential support to 31 companies in the south east. These companies have been approved over €13 million in funding support. In 2016, Waterford Institute of Technology signed a €2.5 million contract with Enterprise Ireland, which will fund a significant expansion of the incubation facilities in ArcLabs. The extension will enable the institute to double its capacity to support technology startups in the south east. Regarded as one of Ireland's leading technology gateways, SEAM, located at Waterford Institute of Technology, currently provides assistance to more than 100 companies. Already, El has 85 client companies based in Carlow, which created 373 new jobs in 2016, bringing total employment by Enterprise Ireland clients in the county to 2,973. Client company Netwatch recently announced the addition of 85 new jobs over the next 12 months to recruit candidates for positions in software development, digital marketing, and sales and engineering as part of a €20 million investment. The recruitment drive will see the company's workforce grow to 250 people.

In summary, there is a wide range of activity in support of growing employment and reducing unemployment in Carlow and in the south east more widely. The Department of Social Protection provides essential supports to the unemployed. Significant effort is being made by the enterprise agencies on job creation and by the educational authorities in the operation of these schemes.

We will have to speed up or we will not get through all Commencement matters. That matter took 14 minutes and we are allowed eight. I will be slow to choose those who delay again.

Criminal Legal Aid

I will be very quick. This Commencement matter is on the need for the Minister for Justice and Equality to outline criteria for free legal aid eligibility and the need for reform. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, and congratulate him on his appointment. I am a little disappointed that the Minister for Justice and Equality or the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality is not present. I have raised this issue on numerous occasions in the past and nothing has happened.

Since 2009, €428 million has been spent by the State on free criminal legal aid. It cannot be allowed to continue. I fully understand the argument that everybody deserves a fair trial but criminals who have committed multiple crimes have been granted free legal aid on each occasion even though in some cases they have multiple assets. As far as I am concerned, they should be gone after. They rack up an obscene number of convictions, still end up on the streets committing more crimes and get free legal aid on each occasion. What can be done about it? In states in America, when people get three strikes, they are out. In the UK it is means tested and any assets the accused person has are realised as part of it. People should definitely be asked to contribute some of the legal aid costs.

I was reminded of it recently by two cases. When I mention these two cases I am not talking about whether the cases should have been brought. A Deputy in the House, who is on a salary of €87,000, was granted free legal aid because he is taking the industrial wage. He is not giving the remainder back to the State. The State is paying twice in this case. It should not be allowed. There is no contribution made by the said Deputy to his legal aid costs. It is not acceptable. It needs to be addressed. From what I can see, the money that is not being given back to the State is being given to his party, which organises more protests that lead to situations like the one we saw in Jobstown. I am not commenting on that. It has been tried and the justice system has operated totally independently in that case.

We also had a case in respect of white-collar crime.

The Senator should be careful not to speak in such a way that the person may be indirectly identified. He will walk us all into hot water so he should be very careful. The principle of what he is saying is fine but I would prefer if he did not identify anyone.

I am not commenting on the outcome of the cases.

Even though the Senator did not mention a name, the person he is referring will be as obvious as the nose on his face to some people.

There was a case recently of a white-collar crime and it was reported in the media last week that the legal aid was three times the normal fee allocated. It was in a case involving Anglo Irish Bank. I think everyone will know what I am talking about. If I have mentioned Deputy Paul Murphy, Seán FitzPatrick can also be mentioned.

I would prefer if the Senator did not mention any names. They are not here to defend themselves, so it is unfair.

I withdraw it. I am not commenting on the cases at all. I am merely commenting on the fact the State has so many demands on it. Here we have a situation where, in general terms, criminals are being given free legal aid on multiple occasions. In many of those cases they have assets and there does not seem to be any cap. It is time it was addressed.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I acknowledge at the outset he is doing his job as a public representative who is raising the air of disquiet that surrounds the issue.

I regret that the Minister for Justice and Equality cannot be present. As the Senator will appreciate, the Cabinet is sitting this morning. It was supposed to sit yesterday but was unable to do so. The Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality was not available this morning either. I ask the Senator to accept my apologies and to rest assured that I will convey his legitimate concerns directly to the Minister. I am sure he will receive any further follow-up that may arise.

I have been asked by the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, to respond to this matter as he is unable to attend this morning. As the Senator may be aware, under the Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Act 1962 and a series of regulations made thereunder, free legal aid may be granted by the court in certain circumstances for the defence of any person of insufficient means in criminal proceedings. An applicant for legal aid must establish to the satisfaction of the court that his or her means are insufficient to enable him or her to pay for legal aid. The court must also be satisfied that by reason of the gravity of the charge or exceptional circumstances, it is essential in the interests of justice that the applicant should have legal aid. Under the 1962 Act, the courts, through the Judiciary, are responsible for the granting of legal aid. The Minister has no function in these matters as they are determined by the Judiciary, which is independent in the exercise of its functions.

The provision of an effective criminal legal aid service to persons facing serious charges that could result in the loss of their liberty is of fundamental importance. The Supreme Court ruling in the case of State (Healy) v. Donoghue 1976, I.R. 325, effectively determined that the right to criminal legal aid is, in circumstances which are quite wide in practice, a constitutional right. An accused person who faces serious changes and who cannot afford to pay for legal representation has a constitutional right to legal aid. In addition, Article 6(3)(c) of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that every person charged with a criminal offence is entitled to defend themselves in person or through legal assistance of their choosing or, if they have insufficient means to pay for legal assistance, to be given it free when the interests of justice so require.

The Minister's Department is preparing a draft general scheme of the criminal justice (legal aid) Bill 2017. The key purpose of the draft legislation, subject to Government approval, is to transfer the administration of the criminal legal aid scheme from the Department to the Legal Aid Board, with the purpose of ensuring that best practice, financial management and control are exercised and to give effect to Government programme commitments on criminal legal aid. The following commitments contained in the programme for Government will be addressed in the general scheme, namely, to transfer responsibility for the operation of criminal legal aid from the Department to the Legal Aid Board, to introduce a contribution system, to introduce more rigorous and effective means testing and to provide for increased sanctions for false declarations.

I thank the Minister of State. I welcome the last part of his answer, which states that the new Bill will address the contribution system. This is a matter I have raised, along with means testing and increased sanctions for false declarations. By all means, it should be given if the accused is totally penniless or whatever. However, it should not be given in many cases. I look forward to the publication of the general scheme.

I thank the Senator. I have listened carefully to what he has said. The criminal legal aid scheme has been in operation for just over 50 years and is instrumental in enabling the State to meet its legal obligations including rights-based requirements under the European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR, to ensure access to justice and fair hearings and trials. The State dedicates significant resources to detecting crime and in prosecutions. We must be conscious also of the need to ensure the right to a defence. The proposed legislation is intended to uphold that right.

The long-standing criteria set in law, which are also reflected in international criminal justice systems and conventions, will be retained in the reforms, namely, the granting of criminal legal aid on grounds of the interests of justice and the financial circumstances of the applicant. Issues of control and eligibility need to be addressed in the general context of criminal legal aid governance. These concerns are reflected in the Government programme and it is proposed that the legislation will provide for more rigorous assessment of eligibility, contributions by those who can afford them and a system to allow a review of the financial circumstances of those who have received aid. The objective is to reduce the scope for any abuse and ensure that funds under the criminal legal aid scheme are directed towards those who need them. The scheme will also provide for increased sanctions for false declarations and other abuses. The Minister intends to bring the matter to the Government for its approval later this year.

Early Childhood Care and Education Staff

I welcome the Minister of State, although I am disappointed that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs could not be here this morning. This week is very significant for child care workers and early years educators throughout Ireland. It is the week in which they go in their thousands to sign on for the dole for the summer. Under the early childhood education and care programme, early years educators are employed on fixed-term contracts of 38 weeks per year, under which they typically work part time for 15 hours per week. Once the 38 weeks are over, educators go on the dole for the summer, after which period they may or may not receive another 38-week contract. There are no employment benefits such as pension, maternity pay or sick pay.

What a telling indictment of the current child care model this is. We cannot even provide full-time positions to the thousands of highly qualified child care professionals who raise our children. The precarious nature of the child care sector is policy driven as a lot of the providers are dependent on State funding which, frankly, is inadequate. Community not-for-profit providers were traditionally funded by the community child care subvention scheme, which provided for full-time, permanent positions with much higher rates of pay. This latter model shows that Government policy can be used in a positive way to drive employment practices.

I am afraid the facts about current pay and conditions in this sector speak for themselves. The average rate of pay is €10.27 per hour. To put that in context, one can get better pay making sandwiches in Centra. What does this tell us about the value we put on child care? Research carried out by Early Childhood Ireland at the end of March 2017 demonstrated the depth of the staffing crisis, as 86% of facilities expressed concern that problems recruiting staff will impact on the viability of their service. Moreover, 36% of those who tried to recruit staff in the last 12 months were unable to find anyone suitable. Of those who have had staff leave in the last 12 months, nearly 60% cited as a reason that working in the sector was not financially viable. It is no wonder, therefore, that the sector had a staff turnover rate of 28.4% in the last 12 months.

I ask the Minister of State to imagine the impact this must have on the quality and continuity of care for the children. Child care professionals are voting with their feet and leaving the sector. In many cases, they are also leaving the country. These statistics show what we already know, namely, that the sector is in crisis. To be fair, I acknowledge that the crisis is not of the Minister, Deputy Zappone's making. She has inherited the, situation which is the result of decades of Government neglect. However, it is fair to ask what steps she is taking to address the situation in terms of pay and conditions for workers in the sector.

SIPTU's Big Start campaign gives the Minister a roadmap to a better future of regulated early years education in which standards are underpinned by a sectoral employment order. I raised the issue of child care 12 months ago and nothing has changed since then. In 12 months' time, will we still have thousands of child care workers signing on for the dole? Will they still be working for one euro less than a living wage? It is not good enough and I hope the Minister of State will have something positive and concrete to say.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Zappone, I thank Senator Gavan for raising this important issue today, as it touches on a key area of consideration for the early years sector. Practitioners in the early years care and education sector play a critical role in delivering high-quality services for children and families and they deserve to be recognised, valued and respected for this. It is proven by the European Commission and others that for children to receive high-quality services, certain factors must be present. For example, a good curriculum and a good monitoring and inspection regime are essential but so too is a valued and respected workforce that is appropriately remunerated.

It is acknowledged that pay and conditions are major issues being experienced by the child care sector in Ireland at present and that these conditions lead to difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff. Alongside addressing affordability for parents, this needs to be addressed. There have been calls for a nationally agreed pay scale for the child care workforce. The State is not the employer and we must leave the negotiation of a pay scale to the Workplace Relations Commission, the Labour Court and the sector itself, both employers and employees.

An obvious mechanism to be considered is a sectoral employment order, SEO. Under an SEO process, organisations substantially representative of employers and employees come together to agree a way forward and submissions are sought from key stakeholders. As a significant funder, and with policy responsibility for quality, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs would be well placed to make a submission to this process. The Minister, Deputy Zappone, is aware that the trade unions are active in seeking to achieve a critical mass of representation on the employees' side to pursue an SEO.

The Minister welcomes discussions in the sector to identify an organisation substantially representative of employers.

The Government continues to invest in the early years sector. Budget 2017 saw a 35% increase in child care funding, which was on top of a similar increase in the 2016 budget. These increases reflect the emphasis being placed on developing a quality service with appropriately supported staff. To go some way towards addressing cost pressures faced by providers in the sector, €14.5 million was secured in 2017 to enable providers to be paid for non-contact time. For the average early childhood care and education, ECCE, service with 25 children, this will mean an additional payment of approximately €2,400 per annum. The Minister, Deputy Zappone, is pleased to inform the Senator that this payment will be issuing over the coming weeks. Only recently the Minister announced that an extra €3.5 million will be made available to child care providers in the form of a non-contact time payment. This will benefit child care providers participating in the community child care subvention and the training and employment child care programmes. All services signed up to deliver these schemes from September will be invited to apply.

The programme for Government also commits to carrying out an independent review of the cost of providing quality child care. This commitment aligns closely with work on the design and development of a new single affordable child care scheme, and the Minister and her officials are progressing this work in that context. The review will feed into future policy development, including with regard to levels of payments to services. In conclusion, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is grateful to the child care sector for the way in which it has engaged with the Department to seek to address quality, access and affordability issues. The attendance of child care providers and practitioners at recent information events around the country, their representation on the early years forum which the Minister established last year and their work on various working groups are greatly appreciated and are assisting in finding solutions to the many challenges. The Minister, Deputy Zappone, also wishes to acknowledge that while important first steps have been taken to seek to address key challenges for the child care sector, much work remains to be done. The Minister is committed to working with her colleagues in the Government to deliver on the many commitments in the programme for a partnership Government.

I ask Senator Gavan to be brief, bearing in mind that the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, is not the line Minister.

That is a fair point. I thank the Minister of State for the reply. This is the first time I have been given a reply that makes a positive mention of a sectoral employment order, which I welcome. I hope there is the political will to make that happen, because it is not good enough simply to say that it is up to the employers. The Department has a positive role to play in making it happen. It has happened in other sectors such as cleaning and security and with political will it can happen in this one.

The Minister, Deputy Zappone, inherited a model of child care that I do not believe she would have designed. Does the Minister of State believe that the current model, based on precarious work and low pay, is sustainable? If it is not, and I do not believe it is, are the Minister and the Department prepared to work with key stakeholders, such as Early Childhood Ireland and SIPTU, to develop a new model?

I cannot speak for the Minister but I will pass the Senator's questions to her and ask her to reply directly to him. The Department is not the employer in this case but I accept that it has a policy role to play to ensure there is sustainability in the sector into the future. I will convey the Senator's concerns and comments to the Minister.

Sitting suspended at 11.23 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.