Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Early Childhood Care and Education

This issue has dominated headlines and is a cause of increasing concern. I have a personal interest in the matter as the parent of a young child attending childcare and the spouse of a childcare provider. Although my wife does not operate her own facility, she works in the sector. I have received a significant number of emails and calls on the issue and will meet several providers this week in Leopardstown and Stepaside. The services in those areas are totally oversubscribed. Without an abundance of childcare facilities, parental choice is limited.

There is confusion among providers regarding the regulations and requirements and shifting dates. Although I fully acknowledge the need to have the best standards of care for our most vulnerable, particularly our children, the current situation is of significant concern. It is my worry that many facilities will not reopen in the new year. Several facilities have written to parents to inform them that they do not have the resources to comply with the regulation requirements or complete the relatively onerous online portal.

I am appealing to the Minister to provide clarity and guidance such that I can go back to the providers and underline that this is not an attempt to punish or disrupt services but, rather, aims to ensure the best level of care is provided, and that it will incorporate an element of flexibility such that services can be delivered in a timely manner and, crucially, parents will not go through a period without a childcare provider. We must all work together to ensure that children are protected in a way that allows such flexibility.

I welcome Senator Richmond's question on the re-registration of early learning and care services and the opportunity to update the House on the current arrangements. I appreciate the spirit in which he raised the matter and will attempt to provide the clarity he requests.

As he is aware, the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 provided for the establishment and maintenance by Tusla of a register of early years services providers. All services are required to re-register every three years and the majority are required to re-register by 31 December 2019. This deadline has been known to providers since 2016 and appears on their registration certificate. Over the past 18 months, Tusla has been engaging with providers regarding requirements for re-registration, including through a consultative forum of stakeholders. In August 2019, Tusla issued further guidance to service providers on specific planning permission documentation required as part of the re-registration process.

In recognition of the difficulties many providers were experiencing in completing re-registration, Tusla decided to revise the timeline for submission of supporting documentation for re-registration. Under the revised arrangements, although providers must apply to Tusla by 12 December, they have until 30 June 2020 to provide some of the supporting documentation required, including documentation on fire safety and planning requirements, which stakeholders identified as the most onerous.

My Department has been working closely with Tusla on the matter. Although the health and safety of children is the primary concern in decisions on the regulation of early learning and care services, I recognise that a balanced approach to the re-registration process is required. In that context, I fully support Tusla's decision to extend the period. On 27 November, my Department issued a letter informing providers that Tusla has revised the timeline for submission of supporting documentation for re-registration. The letter provides clear guidance on what documentation is required by the 12 December deadline and what can be submitted up until 30 June. Although the 12 December deadline is close, I am confident that the changes announced by Tusla mean it is very achievable for providers. I urge all providers to complete their applications on time for this important legal process in order to be on the register of services in January. If they do not do so, they will not be eligible for public funding.

My Department has been working closely with Tusla to ensure adequate numbers of staff are in place to process applications on time and ensure effective communication with providers. In addition, my Department has supported city and county childcare committees to give advice and assistance to providers that need help with re-registration.

Most services are compliant with fire safety requirements and have not faced additional costs for re-registration. Those that are not compliant have to make changes. I am sure we will all agree on the importance of addressing fire safety concerns. In recognition of this, my Department awarded €330,000 in capital funding to community-based, not-for-profit services in 2019. This has helped to address fire safety issues that had been highlighted in inspection reports. A further, related round of capital funding will be provided in 2020 for the same purpose. When the Tusla early-years inspectorate identifies fire safety issues during inspections, it notifies the local authority fire services, which have responsibility for this.

On 12 December, providers will have to provide documentation that they should have such as proof of Garda vetting, proof of identity, a safety statement and proof of insurance cover. This is reasonable and necessary to ensure the safety of children.

I appreciate the Minister's clarification, particularly on future capital funding that is coming on stream. However, a couple of issues still need to be addressed, one being communication with providers. We have to remember that the vast majority of childcare providers are not even SMEs; they are one- or two-person operations. They are facing an administrative tsunami. When dealing with Tusla, the only way to get through to it is via the portal. This can be frustrating when someone only has half an hour or 45 minutes in the day and there is a deadline, albeit extended.

I have raised other issues in the House regarding delays in Garda vetting. I realise this subject is not under the remit of the Minister's Department but I have raised it multiple times. Vetting causes delays when planning to take on temporary staff or other new staff. I refer to circumstances that might have happened in recent months, including in respect of insurance companies providing only minimal documentation. It all adds up and causes considerable concern. I welcome, however, the Minister's clarity and the progress. I urge her Department to do anything it can to lean on, or work with, Tusla to make it a little more front facing and responsible. I am not necessarily referring to major chains but to independent providers that are struggling to deal with this issue, despite the fact that everyone involved wants the best conditions for our children. There are those within the sector who need a little more help than others.

I thank the Senator again. I appreciate the spirit of his question and the manner in which he has raised further concerns. Tusla and my Department were aware of the issues he raised, especially those affecting smaller providers. There has been an attempt to ensure flexibility. My Department has tried to make sure staff are available to support the providers. There has been communication. Providers have known what is required of them for some time, as I understand it.

Having said that, I acknowledge what the Senator is saying about paperwork and processes concerning Garda vetting and insurance. It is important to be aware of this. I will communicate with my early years unit. We have had this exchange. The Senator's request is that we make sure there is additional support, provided in whatever way possible, especially for the small providers. We must determine their circumstances and whether they need additional support so they can remain open. Of course we want them to remain open. As he said, the providers with just one or two staff are running a business. There are certain requirements to ensure children are safe. At the same time, however, it is a matter of supporting the providers in the best way to meet those requirements. I will go back to the Department and make the request.

Schools Building Projects

The Minister of State, Deputy English, is very welcome, as ever.

I am delighted the Minister of State is present. He is a hard-working Minister of State and a neighbour from only up the road. I am delighted to see in the Visitors Gallery a prolific author, Councillor Mattie Ryan, the man who wrote the book, Cuttin' or Atein' the Bushes. He is accompanied by a few friends from Tipperary.

The Minister of State will be well aware of the specific problem faced by Stepping Stones school, Kilcloon, County Meath, which is close to his backyard. Many representations have been made on this matter by his Oireachtas colleagues, including Deputies Thomas Byrne and Shane Cassells, and Councillor Damien O'Reilly. There was huge fanfare six months ago and great news was delivered, but nothing has followed since. The Minister of State might be able to put some flesh on the bones in regard to this and harden up some of the deadlines. I would appreciate that.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue of Stepping Stones school, Kilcloon. It is a school with which we are all very familiar. It is providing a great service and great opportunity to many young people and young adults going through the system. It represents all of County Meath and even beyond that. The issue has been raised with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy McEntee, the Senator, Deputies Cassells and Thomas Byrne and others. We are all familiar with families who have great success stories and who have had a great journey through Stepping Stones school. When it first opened many years ago, it provided an opportunity for young children who might not have had the opportunity before that. It leads to positive outcomes. It is a positive school and we want to build on that.

I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, who is not available. He would like to have been here. I understand he visited the school.

He did six months ago.

He has an interest in it and certainly wants to try to make progress on plans, if possible.

Stepping Stones is a special school located in accommodation on a site provided by the school authority. The school currently has a principal and five teaching posts. The school caters for students ranging in age from six to 18, or young adults. The current enrolment is 30 pupils, which is consistent with enrolment numbers over the past five years.

The most recent correspondence from the school, in November 2019, requested formally the provision of a new school building. The current position relating to the school's request is that the school is not included in the Department's current building programme, set out a couple of years ago. It is not officially in that but the Minister is committed to working with the school in that regard. In the meantime, the Department approved an additional temporary mainstream classroom for the school earlier this year. I understand the school authority has begun the process of applying for planning permission for this room.

I advise the Senator and others who are listening that it is open to Stepping Stones school to apply to the Department for additional temporary accommodation to cater for its immediate accommodation needs or an emergency works grant to address any health and safety works at the school. The bottom line is that, on a temporary basis, the Department will work with the school to accommodate it and meet its needs. If it needs additional space, that can also be addressed.

With regard to the new school applied for in November, departmental officials will be in contact with the school authority to arrange a meeting early in the new year in the Department's offices in Tullamore to discuss the schools future accommodation needs and plans. There was talk of a site visit but that is probably not necessary just yet. It is more important that we get everyone sitting down together around the table in the offices in Tullamore to ascertain the exact needs and design. There are some lovely designs for special schools around the country. I am familiar with the work St. Mary's special school is doing in Navan and the design it has opted for. The Department will be interested in engaging on that. The first process is to agree on the aims and then to get the project into the capital plan. The Minister, who visited along with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, is committed to trying to help the school with its long-term plans.

I appreciate the answer. As the Minister of State said, the school takes children from a wide area. There is a child in attendance who is from not too far up the road from me. I am delighted the Department is to take some temporary measures and that its officials were happy to meet to push this forward. I thank the Minister of State.

I again thank the Senator for raising this important issue.

Electoral Register

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, here and thank him for coming to the House.

This Commencement matter is on the plans to reform and maintain the electoral register. I was reminded again why I brought this issue up by the very low turnout in the recent by-elections. I spoke to a number of candidates who could tell me that people were five, ten or 15 years on the register of electors. We have a very bad system in place. It does not serve democracy and politics well that we have such an archaic system. I was also reminded of the fact that on Thursday, 22 September we had an opening statement by the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, in which he set out all of his ideas and reforms and told us that we were going to have legislation on the electoral commission. A memorandum was presented to us and it talked about independence, membership, accountability, the streamlining of the electoral registers, there was a regulatory analysis done on this Bill, and finally we had the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, expressing serious concerns on the whole electoral process.

There are challenges. SIPO called for the electoral commission in respect of legislation to deal with digital political campaigning. It talks in its recent report about the influence outside of this State and stated that the unregulated nature of social media campaigns, and I am quoting SIPO directly here, "allows for foreign actors to influence Irish elections and referendums, with potentially significant consequences". We have serious issues in this regard.

The last time I made some inquiries into the franchise section, there were between eight and ten people working in that section in the Custom House, who effectively run the elections and the referendums. That is a great pressure on them, albeit they do a good job. The time has come where we need a proper, structured and independent oversight of how we conduct our elections, how we manage and deal with SIPO and financial returns and all of these issues. The body politic has received a lot of blows recently and it is time we put in place the necessary legislation and Bill for the governance of any election or referendum in the State. More importantly, the key issue is what are the Minister of State's plans to clean up, smarten up and have an up-to-date and fit-for-purpose register of electors in this country?

I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this issue here today. He is right, as anyone who spends time canvassing the doors knows that the register is not always in perfect condition. One can come across people for different reasons, of their own accord, who may not have taken time out to be registered, or might have tried in the past and failed. There are often complications. They may be on the register but in a wrong way or in the wrong catchment area. I try to engage in door-knocking most weeks all year round, election or no election, which is always an enjoyable experience. When it comes close to an election, people become very concerned if they are not on the register or something has gone wrong with their processing. It is important therefore that we do have that right and up to date. The Senator referred to the turnout for the recent by-elections being low and there can be different reasons for that. If, however, we wish to encourage people to come out and vote, the first step is to ensure that people are registered properly and have the option to vote in the first instance. It is then up to us to convince them to come out and vote for some of us along the way. It is not always about voting for people, as people often vote for other issues as well, such as in referendums and so on. It is important therefore that the register is in order.

While the existing electoral registration system has served us well and enjoys a high level of public confidence, successive Oireachtas committees, as well as Senator Boyhan himself and external reports, have identified a number of improvements that could be made to the process. In March 2017, the Government decided that work should commence on the modernisation of the voter registration process and I believe I also took a debate on this in this House at the time. This project will give effect to improvements that, along with improving our national registration process, could also ultimately facilitate the registration of voters resident outside the State, in the event of the referendum on extending the franchise in presidential elections being passed.

The key policies being proposed are largely based on recommendations by the then Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht in its report on the establishment of an electoral commission published in January 2016. This report considered the electoral register in some detail in the context of it being a function for the proposed electoral commission. The aims of the policy proposals are to enable a better service to the public, modernise the administration of the register and maintain and enhance the integrity of the register, which is of the utmost importance.

Following an initial consultation with local authorities on a set of policy proposals, my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, launched a public consultation on the electoral register modernisation project in December 2018. Some 187 submissions were received from a broad range of stakeholders and a report on the consultation will be published very shortly. The seven key policy proposals included in the consultation document were the simplification of the registration process and the forms used, the introduction of a rolling electoral register rather than the current annual one, optional online registration and secure self-service, a move to individual registration only, enabling a single national electoral register database with unique identifiers, a move to verified identity using one's personal public service number, PPSN and the provision for some limited data-sharing between public bodies and electoral registration authorities to maintain accuracy and comprehensiveness.

As well as proposing the removal of the provision that requires an edited register to be produced, three further policy proposals have also been put forward with the aim of making the register more accessible to all. These are the provision of a system of anonymous registration for people whose safety may be at risk if their details are included on the register available for inspection, improved provision for registration for those with no fixed address and pre-registration for 16 and 17 year olds, with the registration becoming active on their 18th birthday. We are all very familiar when we are out campaigning and one comes across a person who is going to be 18 on the date of the election and would be very anxious to have a vote. Certainly, if they are going to vote for the person canvassing, one would be happy to help that person get that vote. It is important that that is cleared up as well.

The responses to the consultation are informing ongoing work in the Department on various aspects of the project, including, most immediately, the development of a simplified, standardised registration form. The Senator is right in saying that the franchise section of our Department works extremely hard and are very honourable and detailed in their work. It is a busy section but it is committed to doing this, as is the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan. We will have a further update for Senator Boyhan shortly.

To wrap up, I thank the Minister of State for that reply and I note he is aware of the issue of modernising the administration of the register of electors and enhancing the integrity of those registers. I do not believe we will have all of this in place for the next general election, looking at the political landscape ahead of us.

I will make one further comment. It is important that we do not keep reinventing the wheel. A very significant and important body of work was done by Professor Richard Sinnott, the Geary Institute, John Coakley and John O'Dowd and I have brought a copy along here today. I will put it in the post to the Minister of State. They prepared a very detailed and substantive document in UCD on a whole range of the issues that we have discussed this morning. I have been in touch with them and it is important to tap into this very expert resource, where we not have to spend any more money on committees and research. This is very important document which should be worked into the process. I again thank the Minister of State for his very detailed response.

I have no doubt that the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, will be happy to avail of the document, and I have no doubt that the gentlemen may have submitted it as part of the consultation process, which I hope they did because it would have then fed naturally into the consultation process. We, in our Department are very open - as we always are in all matters, be it in the franchise, housing or planning sections - to take on board outside analysis, information, ideas and data. We believe in tapping into the world of academia, which has much to offer when it comes to research. We do not, as a country, avail enough of their expertise. We certainly will in our Department. If the document is there, I am sure the officials already have it but if not, I will ensure that they do.

Home Loan Scheme

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber.

One undoubted fallout of the financial crash, which happened not too long ago, is that many of our citizens ended up getting into both mortgage and personal debt and some of them even lost their homes. Thankfully many people have managed to get through a very difficult time and have gone through the debt resolution process. We see also that unemployment figures have gone from 16.1% to the all-time low figure of today. People are in a much better position as to their finances and can afford to service loans.

The problem for some people at this juncture is that they find that they cannot borrow. These are people who have gone through the debt resolution process, settled their debt - they are not just people who went bankrupt - but who now wish to acquire a house, buy a home, as opposed to renting, and have found they cannot get a loan from the high street banks.

I know the Government has provided the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme to allow first-time buyers to acquire a home mindful of the market and to encourage more housebuilding and house ownership. However, as the Minister of State is aware, this does not apply to people who are second-time buyers. This might arise where people have lost their homes and have gone into mortgage debt. They may find that their credit ratings are shot or poor and they cannot get loans. I am asking that such people are catered for under the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme. I believe this is required to facilitate the increasing number of people who have gone to the mortgage-to-rent scheme. The scheme in its current incarnation has been far more successful than the original scheme, for which there was poor take-up. Basically it is a scheme for people who had owned houses but cannot afford the mortgage. They now rent the property but at some time in future there is the prospect of buying it. These people equally need to be catered for in terms of how they will borrow to buy their houses. This is another cohort of people who need to be catered for.

As part of the solution the Central Bank and other banks should be pressed to make their position clear in respect of lending to people in this situation. The banks should make it clear to people that there is a finite time for the credit record to be blackened. After that the people should have a clear and clean slate. There is much confusion and people are missing out. Many people are frustrated. The scheme should operate in keeping with the philosophy that people did not cause the financial crash. People lost their jobs through no fault of their own and could not service mortgages. Now, they have put themselves on an even keel and need a fresh start. We need to support policies that allow them the fresh start we envisage for all our citizens in the wake of the financial crash.

I thank Senator Mulherin for raising this issue of the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme and the issue in general of people who have gone through difficult times in this country but wish to get back on their feet again.

Senator Mulherin mentioned the mortgage-to-rent scheme, which I will come back to in a moment. It is another important scheme. I am glad we were able to reform it to make it more workable and user-friendly. Many more people are now interested in using that scheme. They are finding it as a solution to remain in their family home. That is what it is about. The mortgage-to-rent scheme is about keeping people in their family homes. It is a successful scheme and I hope more will avail of it. Despite the scaremongering some go on with, we are in the business of protecting people in their family homes. The courts respond to that. Certainly, as a Government we have responded to that and changed legislation to accommodate it.

The Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme enables creditworthy first-time buyers to access sustainable mortgage lending to purchase new or second-hand properties in a suitable price range where they cannot obtain sufficient mortgage finance from a commercial lender. To be clear, the lending criteria in terms of creditworthiness is probably the same for the Rebuilding Ireland home loan as it would be for the banks. It is to do with making it more affordable because there is a lower interest rate. It is for people who could not get enough money from the bank.

As with the previous local authority loan offerings, the Rebuilding Ireland home loan is available to first-time buyers only. The availability of loans through local authorities are for first-time buyers. This is set out in the regulations governing the scheme and ensures the effective targeting of limited resources. Like the help-to-buy scheme, we are trying to intervene for first-time buyers because we do not have the resources to stretch for everyone. The taxpayer cannot be involved in everyone's home. We try to match the resources where they are needed most. Historically, that is where the schemes have been targeted.

If an individual has previously defaulted on a mortgage he or she is obviously not a first-time buyer. That is why such a person would not qualify for the scheme as it stands. We do not have any immediate plans to change this provision because it has been in place for a long time. Again, it is about trying to stretch our resources as best we can. That does not mean we cannot try to find other solutions for that category of people. This is something we can look at again and I will be happy to engage with Senator Mulherin on it.

Applicants for the Rebuilding Ireland home loan must be of good credit standing and have a satisfactory credit record. The Housing Agency provides a central credit assessment service to local authorities and credit checks are undertaken as part of the credit assessment process. A person who has been discharged from bankruptcy and is eligible in all other respects, including being a first-time buyer, for a Rebuilding Ireland home loan may apply for a loan and will be subject to the same credit assessment process that applies to all applicants. Even if such a person is involved in other debt-forgiveness mechanisms and insolvency arrangements, being a first-time buyer will not preclude the person from being involved in the scheme. The final decision on loan approval is a matter for the relevant local authority and its credit committee on a case-by-case basis. Decisions on all housing loan applications must be made in accordance with the regulations establishing the scheme and the credit policy that underpins the scheme to ensure prudence and consistency in approaches in the best interests of both borrowers and the lending local authorities.

The Senator referred to the credit history of people. I have been involved in helping several people in recent years through difficult times. I have worked with them as a Deputy and I have a general interest in the area, coming from a finance background. Many are able to turn their affairs around, clean up their credit rating and go back to a bank to secure finance, whether through the bank or credit union. I urge people not to despair. If someone has had difficult credit times or credit history it is possible to turn it around and work with professionals to clean up the credit rating and credit history. My understanding is that there is a time limit and a point when the position changes. The banks only look back for a given number of years. The banks have different proposals but we can get clarity on that for the Senator. If people have been through difficult credit times it is important that they immediately try to correct the situation and keep their affairs in order in future. Banks generally focus on the most recent years and whether people have managed to pay bills on time and manage their accounts. Everything is looked at when it comes to credit history. It is not only what happened in the past but what is happening at present as well.

The mortgage-to-rent scheme is successful. We have changed it. The initial scheme did not have the best design although it had the best intentions. We made changes during the past year or two. There are now more players or stakeholders in the market. I believe the mortgage-to-rent scheme is an opportunity for families who are still living with an unsustainable mortgage. The mortgage-to-rent scheme is a good scheme to keep people in their family homes. These people end up renting their home from the local authority or housing body, but the option is available in the years thereafter to buy back the house if they wish. It is a good scheme and a great solution for many families who are stuck with an unsustainable mortgage and who do not see any plan. Generally, the banking and lending institutions work with people to try to find a solution to keep them in their home. I always find that. We always hear stories in the media about those affected but if people engage with the banking system and try to find a solution then an effort is made by all sides. The courts look for that and judge that. Anyone being brought forward is asked to try to find a solution to enable them to stay in their family homes. The mortgage-to-rent is a good solution thereafter. If everything else fails the mortgage-to-rent is a good endgame solution.

I thank the Minister of State. We have covered a good deal. I am bringing up this issue because I am aware of several constituents who are having this difficulty with the banks and with their credit rating. One person has sorted out a previous mortgage debt after falling into arrears. The mortgage is now settled and the person is looking for a fresh start but the high street banks are not playing ball. Perhaps as the Minister of State suggested, we can get some clarity from the Central Bank. It is appropriate for the Central Bank to send out the message that a poor credit rating or history is not a life sentence. The banks should be monitored in respect of how they are operating the rule or consideration when they are deciding whether to give someone a loan.

One of the conditions for the mortgage-to-rent scheme is that applicants in future might be able to buy back the house when they get into a sounder financial position, which is fantastic. However, some of these people will get into the same problem that I have described if they have lost a home previously.

More work needs to be done in this area. I welcome the fact that the Minister of State is willing to engage. I know that is his general disposition. He might provide clarity for me on several of those points. I would appreciate it. It would enable me to go back to people and give them some comfort about their situation and give them hope. It is important that they are not stuck in limbo, renting forever when they can financially afford to get a loan.

I will absolutely engage to get some more answers for Senator Mulherin. We will address some of the questions to the Department of Finance. I cannot comment for that Department but we will certainly engage with the Department of Finance.

Senator Mulherin is right to say a poor credit rating is not a life sentence. It can be cleaned up and corrected over time. Time is a great healer in this regard. Banks are in a position to make judgments on the existing record of people and how they are handling their affairs at present. It is important that people know that.

We went through difficult times when probably everyone was affected in some way by what happened. It is not that long ago, although most people seem to have forgotten it. It was only seven or eight years ago when some of the people I met while out knocking on doors were concerned for the future of the country. Thankfully, this has been turned around but there are still many individuals who have difficulties. They are still dealing with legacy debts from the past.

We need to help them through that journey and get them back on the right track.

Sitting suspended at 11.10 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.