Child and Family Agency (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, to the House.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak on the Second Stage of this important legislation. The purpose of this Bill is to give full effect to the Taoiseach's announcement on 27 June 2020 that education and welfare functions would return to the Department of Education. These functions, namely, the functions vested in me, or under the Education Welfare Act 2000, and the administrative functions in relation to the administration of the home school liaison scheme and the school completion programme, were transferred to the Minister for Education by the transfer of functions order SI 588 of 2020, with effect from 1 January 2021.

Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, is responsible for the delivery of these services under the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, through the Tusla education support services, TESS, and the alternative education and registration service, AEARS. The Child and Family Agency Act 2013 currently provides for my governance and oversight of Tusla in respect of all Tusla functions. This Bill is to provide the Minister for Education with appropriate powers to provide policy guidance, direction and prioritisation parameters for Tusla in respect of education welfare matters.

Following approval by Government on 22 June 2021, I sought a waiver of pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill in order to publish it before the end of summer session, because the Bill is intended to provide the Minister for Education with the appropriate statutory oversight in respect of education welfare functions, which are exercised by Tusla, and does not represent any new policy objective. The request for a waiver was approved by the Oireachtas joint committee on children at its meeting of 29 June 2021. I now turn to the provisions of the Bill.

Section 1 provides the definition of the principal Act as the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, while section 2 provides a definition of educational welfare functions in respect of the Child and Family Agency and the Minister for Education. Section 3 amends the principal Act for the purpose of including a reference to the Minister for Education into the standard expenses provision of principal Act. Section 4 amends section 8 of the principal Act, which sets out functions of the agency. It provides that the Minister for Education may request the agency to undertake or commission research into matters in respect of his or her education welfare functions and that the agency may give information, advice or make proposals to Minister for Education in respect of its education welfare functions. Section 5 amends section 13 of the principal Act and provides the annual report of the Child and Family Agency shall include any particulars that the Minister for Education may require, and will be submitted to the Minister for Education at the same time that it is submitted to me.

Section 6 amends section 14 of the principal Act by placing an obligation on the agency to furnish the Minister for Education with information that the Minister is likely to consider significant for the performance of his or her functions under the principal Act or otherwise. The amendment further provides that the agency must provide information regarding any other occurrence or development that falls within a class of occurrences or developments that has been specified in writing by the Minister for Education, having regard to his or her functions under the principal Act or otherwise. The agency shall when required by the Minister for Education submit a report on matters connected with the education welfare functions of the agency and specified by the Minister for Education.

Section 7 amends section 15 of the principal Act to provide that the Minister for Education may require the agency to furnish certain information and documents where he or she considers it necessary in the public interest to so, for the performance of his or her functions under the principal Act or otherwise. The agency is required to provide the information with any period specified by that Minister and in any event, without delay. Section 8 amends section 16 of the principal Act by inserting references to the Minister for Education in order to enable the Minister to share certain information or documents received pursuant to sections 14 or 15 of the principal Act in the context of any examination or inquiry.

Section 9 amends section 17 of the principal Act by inserting a reference to the Minister for Education for the purpose of enabling that Minister to use any information or documents furnished under sections 14 or 15 as he or she requires for the performance of his or her functions. Section 10 amends section 18 of the principal Act by inserting a reference to the Minister for Education into the saver section, to clarify that nothing in sections 14 to 17, inclusive, limits the power of the that Minister contained elsewhere in the principal Act or otherwise to require information from, or issue directions to, the agency.

Section 11 amends section 19 of the principal Act and provides that the Minister for Education will nominate a person to be a member of the board who, in that Minister's opinion, has experience of and expertise in matters connected to the education welfare functions of the agency. This section further provides that the Minister will appoint the nominee of the Minister for Education no later than 24 September 2023. Section 12 amends section 20 of the principal Act with a similar provision should a casual vacancy arise in respect of a board member with educational welfare experience appointed in accordance with section 19(2A).

Section 13 amends section 21 of the principal Act, by providing that the board of the agency is accountable to the Minister for Education in respect of the performance of education welfare functions. It places a requirement on the board of the agency to inform the Minister for Education of any delegation or revocation which relates to the education welfare function of the agency. It further provides for the Minister for Education to issue directions to the board. It also requires the agency to bring any matter to the attention of the Minister for Education that it considers requires that Minister's attention. Section 14 amends section 29 of the principal Act. The purpose of this amendment is to place a requirement on the chief executive to provide the Minister for Education with information that he or she may require relating to the performance of his or her education welfare functions and the implementation of that Minister's policies and priorities with regard to those functions.

Section 15 amends section 40 of the principal Act. The purpose of this amendment is to provide for a person making a disclosure of confidential information to the Minister for Education. Section 16 amends section 41 of the principal Act and provides that the performance framework shall include such policy guidance, direction and prioritisation parameters for the preparation of the corporate plan of the agency as the Minister for Education in respect of his or her education welfare function shall provide. Section 17 amends section 42 of the principal Act to provide that the corporate plan of the agency will accord with my policies and objectives, and those of the Minister for Education and the Government, as they relate to the functions of the agency. The corporate plan will be submitted to the Minister for Education at the same time that it is submitted to me. Furthermore, within the timeframe specified, the Minister for Education may, insofar as the corporate plan relates to the education welfare functions of the agency, issue directions regarding amendments to the proposed plan.

Section 18 amends section 44 of the principal Act, by providing that the Minister for Education shall, in respect of the education welfare functions of the agency develop an annual performance statement. This performance statement will provide the agency with specific policy guidance, direction, prioritisation and resource parameters, in respect of each year for the preparation of its annual business plan. Section 19 amends section 45 the principal Act to provide that the Minister for Education will, in respect of the financial year of the agency, determine the maximum amount of net expenditure that may be incurred by the agency in respect of its education welfare functions for that financial year, and notify the agency of the determination of net expenditure in the context of the performance statement developed under section 44(1A).

Section 20 amends section 46 the principal Act to provide that within the timeframe specified, the agency will submit a business plan to the Minister for Education prepared in accordance with the performance statement developed by that Minister. The business plan must contain any other information specified by the Minister for Education in respect of education welfare functions of the agency and accord with the policies and objectives of that Minister as they relate to the functions of the agency. The Minister for Education may, in certain specified circumstances, direct the agency to amend the business plan.

Section 21 amends section 47 of the principal Act and provides that the Minister for Education may, in respect of the education welfare functions of the agency, give an additional direction in writing to the agency with which the agency must comply. Section 22 amends section 48 of the principal Act by providing that the Minister for Education may at any time issue additional guidelines in writing to the agency in respect of the education welfare functions of the agency. Section 23 amends section 51 of the principal Act by placing an obligation on the agency, if required to so by the Minister for Education, to furnish him or her with information in respect of the education welfare functions of the agency as that Minister may require in respect of any balance sheet, account or report of the agency.

Section 24 amends section 52 of the principal Act and provides that the Minister for Education may advance sums to the agency for the purposes of expenditure by the agency in the performance of education welfare functions.

Section 25 amends section 56 of the principal Act to provide that a direction issued by the Minister for Education under section 47 is one of the matters to which the agency may have regard before entering into any arrangement with a not-for-profit service provider. The amendments also provide that the Minister for Education may make regulations in respect of arrangements between the agency and education welfare service providers.

Section 26 amends section 59 of the principal Act by inserting a reference to the Minister for Education with respect to not-for-profit services that are supplemental to services provided by the agency.

Section 27 amends section 70 of the principal Act in order to provide that the agency will submit, as part of its annual report, a general report to the Minister and the Minister for Education on the performance of its functions under Part 9 of the principal Act.

Section 28 amends section 94 of the principal Act by providing that if the agency adopts a report which relates to the education and welfare functions of the agency it shall submit a copy of that report to the Minister for Education.

Section 29 amends section 95 of the principal Act by inserting a reference to the Minister for Education in order to provide that where the agency is performing its functions related to education welfare the agency may, with my consent and that of the Minister for Education, make regulations specifying such charges as it considers necessary and appropriate.

Section 30 is a standard provision that provides for the Short Title and commencement of the Bill.

I would like to thank the Minister for Education and her officials for their engagement and collaboration with officials in my Department and Tusla during this process. Both Departments worked closely together to enhance and develop supports for vulnerable children through the critical links and synergies with other areas of Tusla and the Department of Education. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to outline the provisions of the Bill and I look forward to hearing the views of Senators on its contents. I commend the Bill to the House.

The Minister very welcome. This is a technical Bill, but it would be a mistake to think that it is not significant because it is. One of the first things I called for when I was elected was that some of these services would move back to the Department of Education. Having engaged, as a homeschooling mother for ten years, with some of the services in this area of Tusla it always seemed quite strange to me that things to do with education were put under Tusla. That happened in the 2013 Act. When Tusla was formed in 2014 a lot of these things came under the remit of the Minister for children, Deputy O'Gorman. There was a period where there was quite a lot of stakeholder engagement with many parents and young people who were availing of some of the services. There was no ability under legislation to do that through the Department of Education, which again does not make any sense.

Nothing in the Bill changes the fact that parents are the primary educators, regardless of which service they are using. They are legally entitled to home educate. Several of these things are about supporting children and families who want their children to be in school but who are struggling. The entire community is supporting them in their return to school or having an out-of-school experience that is related to the school community.

I welcome the Bill. From speaking to the Minister, I understand it is a tidying up operation. I previously asked for some of the services to be moved back to the Department of Education, and that has already happened. A difficulty was created when legislation was not in place to back that up and the current and future Ministers for Education did not have the powers required in order to be able to do the accounting, oversee stakeholder engagement and report properly on what was happening.

We know that the pandemic has created a different kind of experience for families around education. Having been chair of the Home Education Network, I know a lot of families around the country. There has been a huge rise in the number of families who are home educating. Apart from that, I know instinctively that there has been a rise in the number of people who have been struggling in school and have had difficulties. Children have felt the brunt of the pandemic, and I would like to hear from the Minister in his closing statement what the Department has done in order to address that. These things should be under the remit of the Department of Education because they are matters of education. The Minister has a responsibility, which I know he takes very seriously, for the children who have fallen through the cracks over the past year.

I will not list everything I believe the Government has done. It is quite appropriate for the Minister to outline to Senators what he has done in that regard.

I support the Bill and I hope it has cross-party support. It is something that is already happening and legally could happen through statutory instrument. In order for every child to get what he or she needs, we need to have this Bill in place to ensure that the Minister for Education can do her job in overseeing all of that work.

The Minister is again welcome to the House. This is a technical Bill providing the Minister for Education with a direct line for policy direction and oversight of Tusla in respect of its education welfare functions. The functions vested in the Minister for Education in last year's statutory instrument cover the home school community liaison scheme, the school completion programme and the Educational Welfare Service, which make up the three strands of Tusla's education support service.

Tusla stated that all three strands share the same national outcomes, that is, improved attendance, participation and retention. In short, these programmes are about not letting children fall through the cracks. That is the most important fundamental role of the Government. We as politicians are transient custodians of this country and we bequeath it to the children of this country. We have a duty to each child to allow him or her to reach his or her full potential through education.

Whenever I think about education I am reminded of Plutarch's words, "The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled". While some filling is necessary in order to pass the leaving certificate, the system has rightly received renewed scrutiny in the past few months. Would we all not rather a passion for learning be instilled in our youth? Who will be better served by this inspiration then students who are at risk of not reaching their potential in the education system because of economic and social disadvantage and children and young people who have been identified as potentially being at risk of early school leaving, are out of school or have not successfully transferred to an alternative learning site? They are the two target demographics of the schemes now under the remit of the Minister for Education.

I speak with some experience on this issue. Over the years many children have come into my home on an emergency or short-term care basis. They may not have been in education and may have gone from house to house for a year or year and a half before they can find a forever home and, therefore, a forever school. I am delighted to see this Bill finally going through the House and somebody taking the issue seriously.

I understand social workers in Tusla are extremely busy. One area over which I constantly fight with social workers is getting children into school. They already have had disruption to their family life and having them pulled away from school life is another disruption for them. It can be very traumatic.

I support the Bill and the Minister for Education in her very important task of looking after these children. I hope she can cause our youth to receive the inspiration that can be so transformative in attitudes towards education and the experiences that our children have in our education system.

I welcome the Minister. I hope to see a lot more of him during the session, given that we have a lot of legislation to go through.

I welcome the Bill. It is common sense. I was not educated through homeschooling. The Minister's Department and Tusla had sole responsibility for homeschooling, and that did not make sense to me.

It is wonderful that all education and welfare functions will be with the correct Department. As mentioned by other Senators, we must ensure every support is in put place for the families of children who are being homeschooled . We must also ensure that, as mentioned by Senator Keogan, the children who are falling through the cracks are supported at every opportunity and that the right people are in place to support them.

In his opening statement, the Minister listed the many sections in the Bill. He also mentioned in oversight and said that all of the expertise will be on the board. Everything is falling into place. Hopefully, this legislation is the piece of the jigsaw that will make a difference in many lives.

It has not been always plain sailing with Tusla. I commend the Minister on the hard work he has been doing with Tusla to improve the service and on the funding allocated to the agency in budget 2021. Tusla has a major role to play in the context of much of the legislation that will come through the Houses this session. It is hoped that every social worker is adequately trained to deal with whatever need presents at the agency's door. I ask the Minister to ensure that procedures are reviewed and that staff or upskilled and 100% aware of all of their responsibilities under this legislation and the proposed Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2021. We heard from Aitheantas previously. It recently published a report setting out the fears of members about having to go through the doors of Tusla and the Adoption Authority of Ireland because of their previous trauma, the lack of legislation and us, as a State, not catching up with their needs. I hope that Government and State organisations such as Tusla can catch up with their needs, listen to them and make sure the system in place is more caring than structural and procedural.

I welcome the Minister back to the House. In the two days the Seanad has been back, he has been here more than I have. I thank him for his commitment to always be in the House for Commencement matters, which is appreciated.

I get the logic of this Bill. There is no question about that. It is wieldy, technical legislation. I do not envy the Minister. I want to address the education welfare issue with regard to homeschooling. It is intuitive that all of that will be under the remit of the Department of Education. However, I am taken by and committed to the Minister's leadership of the Department of Children, Disability, Equality, Integration and Youth and his vision, and that of the Department, in having all of those areas dealt with under one roof. I am taken by all of the moves that he has made over the past year. In some ways, it is counter-intuitive that in moving that welfare concept to the Department of Education we do not have the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, here to assure us that everything will be okay and that she will deal with the issue in the same way and with the same vision, although I have no doubt she will do so.

There are many technical provisions in this Bill. My hope is that school attendance for children will be monitored and provided for in a holistic manner. That begins with preschool. It begins with our vision, the investment we make and the programmes we put in place at preschool level, as well as at school level and in respect of homeschooling. This afternoon, many of us received an email regarding a particular case. It is not unusual that we have children with special needs and disabilities who get only a couple of hours per week in school because of a lack of SNAs or particular provisions, the particular needs of the child, or some other reason and that this is deemed to be sufficient by the system, when it is not. It is that child's right to have an education as well. There are potentials for gaps where we have different Departments, that is, the Department of Education and the Department of Children, Disability, Equality, Integration and Youth, involved in the welfare of children and contributing to the issues as to why a child might not be fulfilling his or her potential and being given full provision when it comes to his or her education. I am a little concerned about that oversight. If Tusla is accountable to the Department of Children, Disability, Equality, Integration and Youth and to the committee that works with it, then we need to make sure there are no gaps. We may need an interdepartmental group or meeting to which the Minister commits on an annual basis to ensure that we have that holistic provision for children which he has very well articulated in the last year.

Last September, the Tusla report on school attendance detailed the attendance for the years 2017 and 2018 and we saw that the schools where students were absent for more than 20 days per year were predominantly DEIS schools in Leinster. It is shocking that more than 12% of primary school children were absent for more than 20 days. While the number in respect of secondary schools was reducing, it was increasing for primary schools. This is where the Minister's Department comes into play. It is important that in childcare we prepare children for that socialising and experience. For example, we can ensure that the First 5 vision is feeding into and being informed by the education welfare reports produced by Tusla on an annual basis. The ECCE scheme, albeit welcome, is only operational for 38 weeks of the year. We have come through a policy lab within Fine Gael on the care of the child at which this was a significant issue. Children and parents do not disappear for the remaining weeks of the year. This week, we have heard from Opposition members and the Minister that there are employees in childcare that are on unlawfully renewed fixed-term contracts each year under the ECCE scheme. Those precious weeks where the ECCE is not operational could be preschool weeks wherein children are prepared specifically for the transition to school.

I am aware of the range and impressive qualifications of the staff within the education welfare area in Tusla but are they equipped for the hidden matters that contribute to absenteeism? I am chair of a drugs task force. In discussions at that forum, the professionals talked about identifying those factors within the home that will cause school absenteeism and the chaos for children in some instances. It is important that there is an ability and skill set to detect that hidden harm and that this informs the holistic developmental and socialising of children in terms of their education and the inhibiting factors to their education. The cessation of the community childcare subvention programme funding is having a particular impact in that regard on after-school services. The Dublin 8 Afterschool Alliance has articulated well how the manner in which the 20 hours is allocated disproportionately affects the children in areas where absenteeism is very high and more likely to be an issue and that after-school support and provision may be the very thing that keeps them in school and part of that welfare package that supports those children.

I am seeking reassurance regarding the change. While it is intuitive for the welfare aspect of Tusla to be governed within the Department of Education, I lament that movement away from the vision articulated by the Minister for his Department, which he has brought to fruition in the last year and which we all continue to work to under the programme for Government.

It is important to make sure that no child is being left behind or falls through the gaps, whether he or she is from a particular area or has a particular disability. I urge the Minister to attend to that.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I will not repeat what others have said but will focus my contribution on the school completion programme. Sinn Féin will be supporting this Bill.

As others have mentioned, the school completion programme was originally with the Department of Education but was transferred over to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs with the formation of the previous Government. The programme is a fantastic resource and is particularly crucial following the closures that have taken place over the last 18 months. It is clear that some students have been left behind while school buildings were closed. Recent reports show that some 4,500 students and young people did not return when schools reopened following Covid-19 closures last year. There is no doubt that contained within that number are vulnerable students who may have become disengaged through the closures. While the Covid learning and support scheme, CLASS, recently announced by the Government is welcome, it does not go far enough to ensure that young people who are at risk of becoming disengaged are supported and included. It is concerning that the Government thinks that potential regression can be reversed with a small number of additional teaching hours through CLASS. This temporary increase in hours is not adequate unless backed up by ongoing investment. Many schools that could benefit from the school completion programme do not have access to it due to the failure to expand DEIS, particularly band two, in recent years. Without an increase in funding for school completion programmes, many students will be at risk of becoming disengaged from education entirely. Sinn Féin believes that increased investment in the school completion programme is crucial to ensure that young people do not lose out, fall through the cracks and lose contact with education. We support the Bill today. I commend the Minister on it and thank him for coming to the House to discuss it.

Like others, the Labour Party will be supporting the Bill. I echo the sentiments of Senator Warfield regarding the school completion programme. I also commend the community homework clubs that are operating all over the country. I will focus my remarks on the budget negotiations that Ministers are completing at the moment. It is very clear that Covid-19 has disproportionately affected vulnerable students. Educational welfare officers and home school liaison officers in constituencies such as mine have found that kids are either not coming back at all or have had to be provided with massive levels of support. Last week the Dublin Economics Workshop discussed research conducted by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, IFS, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and Trinity College Dublin, TCD, that looked at the impact of school closures and the responses that policy makers such as the Minister could make in order to mitigate the impact on our most vulnerable students. In their contributions, researchers said that over the course of the pandemic there was evidence of a widening of inequality, which affects our more vulnerable students, and of significant learning loss. They also said that there were future challenges coming down the line in terms of high stress arising from unemployment of parents, particularly as the PUP is phased out and some industries do not come back.

My party colleagues, Deputies Bacik and Ó Ríordáin, have been campaigning for a catch-up fund for children in order to alleviate the worst effects of the loss of learning over 18 months when schools were closed. Unfortunately, the Government recently announced that €50 million has been allocated towards this, which equates to just €50 per child to make up for 18 months of disrupted learning. Compare that to the Netherlands, where €2,500 has been allocated per child. In the UK, the Tories have allocated £1 billion, equating to £85.47 per child. While that amount falls far short of the £3.5 billion that the Education Policy Institute in the UK calculated was needed, it is still much more than we have provided. We know that educational disadvantage and inequality does not just last for the course of a school year but lasts a lifetime. We also know that investing in children early, often and intensively reduces later rates of problems such as crime, unemployment, addiction and family breakdown.

The Bill before us is a technical one dealing with allocating responsibility for things that would naturally fit within the Department of Education and with Tusla personnel who would naturally be dealing with people who are employed in that Department. I ask that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and the Minister for Education negotiate intensively for the allocation of a catch-up fund for children of at least €100 million because the last 18 months might have a lifelong effect. It is important that the State makes up for the 18 months of disrupted learning, especially for those children who did not have access to computers or data and who were sitting at home in freezing cold flats and houses trying to continue to learn. My niece is a home school liaison officer in a school in the inner city and she has been dealing with the impact of that every day since the children returned in September.

I welcome the Minister to the House. While I acknowledge that elements of this Bill are very much technical in nature, I was struck by what Senator Seery Kearney said about the culture and leadership of the Minister. It is very clear that the Minister has stamped his own ethos, ethics and style on his Department and has shown real leadership. I share the hope that this will continue and that the culture the Minister has embedded over the last 12 to 18 months will persist. I have no doubt that it will.

Of course, it is appropriate that certain functions would sit with the Department of Education. The home school liaison and school completion programmes have developed over the last number of years and have had enormous success in certain areas where they have been targeted and where resources have been made available. We all have stories and examples of where the programmes have been successful but would also know of areas where they have been less successful. We need uniformity in terms of both of those programmes because they are exceptionally positive and beneficial.

Of course, legislation often needs to be tweaked. If the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, in collaboration with the Minister for Education, finds that this legislation needs to be tweaked and that certain functions have to revert to him, we should not be shy about doing that because his Department performed these functions well when it had responsibility for them. That said, it does make absolute sense that they would transfer and the fact that this legislation is getting cross-party support speaks volumes. I welcome that and believe this legislation represents a move in the right direction. I wish the legislation well but much more importantly, I hope the programmes continue to achieve what we all want them to achieve, namely to ensure that young people are protected, encouraged and ultimately achieve their potential.

Today the ESRI published a report on graduates with disabilities. These are students who went through the education system, got a third level qualification, including in some cases 2.1 degrees, but cannot get employment. It is shocking to think that we are the fourth worst in Europe in this regard. While this may not be directly linked to the issue we are discussing today, they are all our children.

They are people who come through the education process, get the points to go to college and succeed in getting a degree because the supports are there. However, when it comes to getting a job, which everyone aspires to to contribute to society, they are in a situation where it does not happen. I spoke about this problem on the Order of Business, as did my colleague, Senator Seery Kearney. This is an issue that needs to be dealt with. I know from discussions with the Minister in the recent past how committed he is to the area of equality. I believe actions speak louder than words. The Minister's actions in terms of equality and giving all our children protection, supports and belief speak louder than words. I have been quite taken by how he has conducted his Department since taking up office - keep that up. His actions are a shining example to others in Government as to how business should be done.

I thank the Senators for their contributions to this debate. I am pleased to hear the broad cross-party and cross-group welcome for the Bill in principle. I listened carefully to what the speakers said and I will consider some of the issues they raised. I will respond to a few of the Senators now.

The day-to-day responsibility for these services has been moved to the Department of Education by a statutory instrument, as the Chair said earlier. The essence of this Bill is to give a clear legal base or, as Senator Keogan said, a direct line from the Department of Education into Tusla on these specific functions so that the Minister for Education can appoint one of the board members. There will, therefore, be reporting lines so that the Department of Education will have a clear ability to influence policymaking in this area.

Senators Seery Kearney and Conway spoke about what we have tried to do in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth in terms of the importance of integration and looking at issues in an holistic way. I will be honest. When I learned these functions were leaving my Department I was actually disappointed because I am interested in this issue. I was chair of a board of management for a number of years. We had a fantastic home school community liaison teacher. The system worked very well. The nitty-gritty of how it works and can bring in children and, probably just as important, engage with parents for whom English is not their first language or who were disenfranchised from the education system themselves. All of that is important. While I was somewhat disappointed to see that leave my Department in terms of the policymaking role, it is important that my role in the oversight of Tusla and its general operations will now, I believe, be enhanced by the role of the Minister for Education. As a number of Senators have said, the natural place for the responsibility of these services to rest is with the Department of Education. However, there will be close and ongoing co-operation with my Department in that context. This Bill allows for an integrated approach between the two Departments and Tusla.

On the issue of Tusla and its wider role, which Senator McGreehan raised, I have just come from my quarterly meeting with the chief executive and a number of board members, including the chair. We had a detailed discussion on a range of issues. Tusla is an agency that is very much in transformation. It has had difficulties; that has been accepted. I have great confidence in its leadership team: Bernard Gloster, the chair and the board. I see huge ambition to implement the transformation document that was drafted a number of years ago. I am doing whatever I can to support them in doing that. In terms of other issues which it is hoped we will deal with in this term, we discussed information and tracing. I am very conscious of, and we discussed the importance of, the need for a range of skill sets beyond the very important social work skill set to deal with the additional workload the agency will have in information and tracing, and that is not the only necessary skill set in genealogy and identification, particularly for the tracing element. That discussion is ongoing and an area I have confidence in. I reaffirm my strong confidence in the transformation being seen in Tusla as an agency.

All of what we are talking about is in the context of Covid. Senators quite rightly raised the issue of the supports the Government is putting in place. Senators Warfield, McGreehan and Moynihan referred to them. The additional teaching hours are very important. I have visited several primary schools in my constituency in recent weeks. Principals are excited about the allocation and the degree of autonomy we are giving schools to identify the subjects and the students who need those additional supports. They are not the only available supports. The Department of Education has provided additional supports. Last September, significant additional supports in the area of well-being were provided when students were coming back after the long gap away from schools.

A number of Senators asked what I have been doing in my Department about this. I am doing my best to support youth services, initially in terms of new guidance, so that indoor services in particular can get back up and running as we go into October and November, when weather will not permit outdoor youth services. On financial support, we also gave an additional €5 million last year. I know additional supports are being sought this year. I will do my best in the context of the budget to deliver that.

As regards research we are doing on the impact of Covid on young people, a good piece of research was conducted in conjunction with mental health charities last year. This was the SpunOut How's Your Head piece of research. In addition, the Growing Up in Ireland longitudinal survey was conducted. It was a significant survey with thousands of young people surveyed at various times of life. That has been very beneficial to us by giving us information about the impacts on them. As a result of those groups being surveyed successively, we can compare like with like and see the immediate impacts. We are using that research to engage with Government colleagues in terms of the wider Government responses.

Senator Moynihan raised the issue of youth unemployment. My Department, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science will engage later this week with a range of groups about the issue of youth employment.

Senator Conway mentioned unemployment affecting persons with disabilities. That partially falls within the remit of my Department. We will introduce the assisted decision-making (capacity) (amendment) Bill later this year which will be important in getting the decision support service up and running. That Bill will also increase the obligation on public services to employ persons with a disability. The current level is at 3%. We will double that to bring it up to 6%. That will be tough because the public service in total is at a level of just over 3% at present. We are, therefore, setting an ambitious target which all State agencies and bodies will have to work hard on to deliver. That is one part of the answer to the important issue of employment of persons with disabilities.

On the subject matter of the Bill before us, as Senators will know, the National Educational Welfare Board merged with Tusla on its establishment in 2014. The educational welfare responsibility is now fully integrated into the whole of Tusla approach to service delivery for the protection and welfare of children. Having educational welfare services within the Tusla service structure gives the Tusla education support service, TESS, immediate access to expertise and a wide range of supports to meet the presenting needs of children and families referred to both TESS and the alternative education and registration service, AEARS. I believe that is the integrated approach a number of Senators referred to.

It is important the critical links and synergies developed between TESS, AEARS and the other key areas within Tusla continue to be enhanced and developed to strengthen the supports to vulnerable children in the educational context. In addition, it is important that critical links and synergies are developed between TESS and AEARS and other key services under the remit of the Department of Education to enhance and develop the supports to vulnerable children in the educational context. This Bill provides the Minister for Education with the appropriate statutory oversight for educational welfare functions carried out by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. My Department will work with the Department of Education and Tusla to support this objective with the core principle of the best interest of the child. I look forward to engaging further with Senators during the passage of this Bill through the House.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 28 September 2021.
Sitting suspended at 5.51 p.m. and resumed at 6.45 p.m.