Vote 40 - Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (Further Revised)

Before we begin, I wish to inform members of the committee that the Minister has another engagement this afternoon and therefore needs to leave this meeting not later than 3.20 p.m., but I think we will have plenty of time.

I welcome the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, and his officials, Dr. Fergal Lynch, Ms Carol Baxter and Mr. Dermot Ryan.

I remind the Minister that he is protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentation he makes to the committee. This means he has an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything he says at the meeting. However, he is expected not to abuse this privilege. It is my duty as Chairman to ensure this privilege is not abused. Therefore, if his statements are potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, he will be directed to discontinue his remarks and it is imperative that he comply with any such direction.

We are meeting this afternoon to consider the Further Revised Estimate for Vote 40, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, which was referred to the committee by Dáil Éireann on 4 November 2020. In accordance with Standing Orders, discussion should be confined to the items constituting the Further Revised Estimates.

I invite the Minister to make his opening statement after which I will call on members for questions in the order they have indicated.

I appreciate the Chairman's indulgence on time. I am going to the first meeting on the national Traveller and Roma integration strategy and want to be there on time.

I am very pleased to be here today to discuss my Department’s Further Revised Estimate for 2020. As members will recall, I appeared before the committee on 6 October when I presented the Estimate for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs for 2020. I noted at that stage that additional functions were to be transferred to my Department and that I would appear before the committee with a Further Revised Estimate to include the new departmental functions.

The expansion of the Department arose from the discussions on the programme for Government and the establishment of new Departments where it was decided to reallocate a number of functions to this Department. As part of that, I assumed ministerial responsibility for the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and a range of other responsibilities coming from the Department of Justice, including gender equality; disability policy; migrant integration policy; Traveller and Roma inclusion policy; LGBTI+ inclusion policy; work-life balance and supports for working parents and caring responsibility; and the funding streams associated with policy work transferring.

The following significant work stream areas transferred into the Department: the Magdalen restorative justice; international protection accommodation services; and international protection procurement services. The second and third of these are in the area of direct provision. The following areas transferred out of the Department: the bail supervision scheme; the Greentown project; and the research evidence into practice project. Approximately €220 million of budget transferred in and €3 million transferred out. In this regard and taking account of the additional €3 million in further capital funding that has been secured, the allocation for my Department is increasing to €1.837 billion, which is an increase of €221 million from the Estimate approved by this committee in early October. My Department will be spending €1.796 billion on current expenditure and €41 million in capital expenditure during 2020.

At the previous meeting, I outlined the pressures that Covid was placing on the provision of services across my Department, with the early years learning sector and Tusla being particularly affected. I recognise that Tusla and the early years learning sector are working very hard at this time. All areas of my Vote have been impacted by Covid as have all areas of society.

The area of accommodation for international protection seekers has been particularly impacted. My officials have been working hard to ensure that users of direct provision centres are properly protected. This has involved a need to identify specific processes and resources, such as activating separate accommodation to prevent and deal with outbreaks of the virus, reallocating shared accommodation to reduce the number of residents sharing rooms, purchasing PPE and enabling older residents to cocoon as well as deploying staffing resources to meet the increased workload. I acknowledge the tremendous efforts made across my Department in response to the pandemic.

I turn to the Vote. Members have been provided with a brief on the Department’s Vote. In the brief, I have set out the funding allocations across the different programme areas along with a summary by subhead to include details of the allocation and any changes over 2019.

In the select committee meeting at the start of last month, I dealt with the children and youth affairs elements of the Vote. I spoke in detail about Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, and early learning and care. We then had an extensive discussion on youth services.

The key changes in the Further Revised Estimate are the inclusion of the former Department of Justice elements of the Vote to a value of €120 million; the additional €100 million of Exchequer funding for direct provision; the redeployment on a temporary basis of €40 million from early years, with €20 million going to Tusla and €20 million to direct provision; the transfer out of small elements of the youth justice remit to the Department of Justice; and an increase of €3 million in capital funding to Tusla, early years and the youth sector.

I propose to briefly address the areas of change before opening the debate up to members. The areas transferring into the Department encompass equality, disability and integration. These are very important and challenging areas and with the additional funding being allocated as part of the Further Revised Estimates process amounting to some €220 million of taxpayer investment in services.

Part of these funds will continue to focus on reducing inequality. Programme D, an equal and inclusive society, contains funding streams for areas such as the National Disability Authority, refugee and migrant integration, gender equality, LGBTI+, and Traveller and Roma initiatives.

Most of the funding is for the delivery of accommodation under our international protection services. The allocation to this area is contained in programme E, a fair and efficient system for international protection seekers. The aim of this programme is to provide accommodation and related services to persons in the international protection process. A total of €200 million is allocated to subhead E4 which provides funding mainly directed towards the costs of accommodation. We have seen a significant increase in numbers applying for international protection in recent years. The increased demand has stretched existing dedicated centres and the Department has increasingly needed to rely on other premises such as hotels and guesthouses to provide accommodation on a short-term basis.

The increased demand and use of emergency accommodation have had a significant impact on costs. In addition, the effects of Covid in 2020 have led to additional costs through the need for social distancing, the opening of self-isolation facilities and the purchasing of PPE.

As members know, the programme for Government commits to end direct provision. Work has begun on the White Paper that will outline the new system of accommodation and how we implement that. That paper will be published by the end of 2020.

These changes to bring us to that new system will take time and, in the meantime, sufficient funding needs to be provided for those in accommodation at the moment. I am absolutely committed to moving away from the existing system and developing this new model. I think Deputies and Senators in all parties join us in that.

I am happy to provide any further information Deputies may want on any areas of the Vote as we go through the various subheads. I thank the Chairman and the members for taking the time to listen to my short introduction.

I thank the Minister.

I thank the Minister for the briefing. A document was released today by a group of masters students in the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland Galway. I believe the Minister has received a copy of the report. The study is called Direct Provision's Impact on Children: A Human Rights Analysis. It was undertaken in collaboration with the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, MASI, and as part of the international human rights law clinic under the supervision of Dr. Maeve O'Rourke. The results of this report are very stark. It shines a light on the impact on children of living in direct provision and emergency accommodation.

The report argues that the children's rights are being breached in areas where accommodation in isolated areas creates barriers to accessing specialist services, including mental health services and social care, and that a lack of proper food and nutrition in centres where self-catering facilities are unavailable hampers children's health and development. The prohibitive cost of educational materials also creates barriers to accessing education. The report lists a range of areas where children are impacted by the conditions we place them in when we put them into direct provision or emergency accommodation.

I am aware that this is an area the Minister is prioritising, which is very welcome. I understand that a significant amount of money is being put towards that in the Estimates. Are there any targeted measures provided in these Estimates that will address the specific issues of children in direct provision and emergency accommodation?

The Minister has said that a lot of the money and additional costs this year are because of the need for the emergency accommodation. Will the Minister outline for the committee the differences in regulation between direct provision accommodation and emergency accommodation? Quite a number of my constituents are coming to me with concerns on this, particularly around the emergency accommodation provision, where they feel that there is a lack of transparency in how those services are monitored. It is very difficult to ascertain the kinds of conditions in which people are living in those emergency accommodations.

I have not had a chance to go through that report in detail. It was sent to me yesterday and I received it this morning. I welcome the report and I welcome the engagement of academics and NGOs in continuing to highlight what we all know is the absolute unsuitability of direct provision and the need to move to a new system. I look forward to engaging with them further. The fact that they are putting a spotlight on the specific issue of children is really important. This follows on from work that was done by the special rapporteur for children in his report this year, and the very detailed report by the Ombudsman for Children on the impact of direct provision on children.

The report sets out a number of issues, some of which are related to the particular problems of emergency accommodation, which the Deputy highlighted in her questions. We absolutely, in the short term, need to move away from the use of emergency accommodation. Nobody thinks that is acceptable even as a medium-term solution.

The reason the Department increased the use of emergency accommodation over the past year was due to the significant increase in the number of people seeking international protection in 2018 and especially in 2019. Obviously, the circumstances this year are different.

The Department has changed the way in which it now seeks to tender for non-emergency direct provision accommodation, which are the longer-term direct provision centres. We are hoping to see the benefits of that. The committee may be aware that we have identified a new direct provision centre, opened in Galway some months ago, which is based on own-door accommodation that we now see as the standard for direct provision in the medium term.

One of the issues highlighted by the academics in the NUIG report is Tusla's involvement with children in direct provision. I am currently undertaking the strategy for Tusla for next year. The Department and I prepare jointly a strategy for Tusla's priorities for each year. I specifically asked that they look at the particular issue of Tusla's engagement with children in direct provision. Tusla would already have significant engagement with children who have gone through the Irish refugee protection programme or those children who have arrived at our ports as unaccompanied minors. I have asked that Tusla look at its responsibilities with regard to children in direct provision.

The education issue is absolutely fundamental and we are working on it in the context of the White Paper. I was at a senior EU officials group meeting today about the White Paper, including the issue of education, and especially primary and second level education and ensuring that children have access to schools.

The Dr. Catherine Day report said that schools need to be resourced for the specific needs of children who are in direct provision. One of the Deputies in this committee has experience, in a former profession, of teaching children who were in direct provision. Schools need to be assisted because additional supports are needed. We have identified that.

I will commit to engaging further in my Department on the quality of food in emergency accommodation. With regard to the differences in the regulations between direct provision and emergency accommodation, the regulations that come into effect in January 2021 and which we will be asking HIQA to monitor do not apply to emergency accommodation. It is another indiction of why we need to move away from the use of emergency accommodation. As far as I understand, my officials can still inspect emergency accommodation locations. If there are issues, our officials can also undertake unannounced inspections as well as the programme of announced inspections. I hope this addresses the Deputy's questions.

One of the things that strikes me when looking at the Estimates is the context and impact indicators and some of the key outputs we are trying to measure. In some areas of the Vote they actually seem to be proper targets and helpful measures, but my concern is that under programme expenditure A, the children and family support programme, a lot of the impact indicators we measure are just totally wrong. For example, one indicator is the percentage of children across all care settings who have a care plan. While it is important that the children have a care plan, it is a number that can be massaged very easily. I have seen cases where a social worker is allocated, does the care plan and then is unallocated, as it were. The box is being ticked but there is not necessarily any meaningful engagement in care planning. A plan is all well and good on paper, but this does not necessarily mean it is being implemented.

On page 14 we see the number of children in care and the number of referrals. We do not seem to have any measurement for their outcomes. There is no link of the outcomes of children in care to the outcomes in the Better Outcomes, Bright Futures policy. We are not looking at things like children in care who are in education, the number of placement moves or the number of social worker changes. These are three key indicators that would speak to stability of placement and much better quality outcomes for young people in the care system. We will not know this. The more placements the child has and the more changes of social workers, the harder it is for the child to have a decent outcome. These are the sorts of indicators we should be measuring, even if it is just tying them in with the Better Outcomes, Bright Futures outcomes an measurements.

I have a slight frustration in that I asked a parliamentary question on the number of children in care placed outside their local health office, LHO of origin.

I was told by Tusla that it does not have metrics on this, which was quite frustrating for a couple of reasons. One is that our colleague, the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, got those numbers for kids in foster care last year. Another is that Tusla has that information. We spent much time, money and effort getting the national childcare information system, NCCIS, right. As someone who used to labour under the old social work information system, which was rubbish, this is an excellent IT system. We took a long time to implement it because we meant to get it right. This database is filled with numbers that can be anonymised and run off as reports and real, detailed research into the flow of children in care, impact indicators and assessments of quality interventions could be done. For me, the markers in this are wrong. What is Tusla is doing with this repository of data? It could be powerful.

I have three more quick questions. Is there a timeline for the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures: the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People, BOBF, replacement? I know it is due to end at the end of 2020. I do not see anything in the legislative programme about work starting on a replacement.

Is the Minister happy in terms of Brexit and his Department?

In fairness, it is the Estimate. We must stick to the Estimate.

I do not see anything on Brexit within section C, on the policy and legislative programme. That can be an answer for another day but is the Minister happy about Brexit? I will leave the final question.

Is he happy about Brexit? We could be here for the day.

Many children get placed in England under Brussels II bis, which, obviously will not apply anymore. Will we still be able to access special services?

I confirm I am not happy about Brexit so that is on the record. I take Deputy Costello's point and we will have a small piece in the Brexit omnibus Bill about the national childcare scheme and its application for British citizens living here post Brexit. The Deputy raised this point with me previously and I will come back to him about it if that is okay.

At our last meeting, the Deputy raised the point about the indicators. It is a fair point. Obviously, it is not something we can change. These are the figures and metrics that were used for 2019 and 2020. Going forward, however, I am definitely open to looking at a wider set. Much of that material is there. I recently received from Tusla its annual review of the adequacy of childcare and family support services for 2019. This is an overall statistical and progress-based analysis Tusla must provide to the Minister each year. It has a nice little infographic setting out various metrics, including one the Deputy noted, which says 75% of 18- to 20-year-olds in receipt of aftercare services were in education or accredited training. It breaks it down in those steps. The Deputy is correct and that information is there. Perhaps, part of what we need to do when we present these figures is to show the wider range of information on progress that has been made.

Another detail is that the number of cases requiring social workers, which this committee will have looked at closely in the last Oireachtas, is down significantly. Some of this might concern the presentation of information but I take the Deputy's point on making sure the outcomes we look at are based on individual impacts and benefits for children and young people. He is right and we are happy to engage further on what we measure and how we present that material.

I agree with the Deputy on the NCCIS. It is a beneficial system and one we should use to its full potential. It is still being developed and is substantially complete. There is, however, still work to be done and some of the significant additional allocation to Tusla this year will go to continuing work on the development of the NCCIS.

I do not have a direct timeframe on when the successor strategy to BOBF will be ready but my Department is already beginning the process of work of replacing it. As I said previously, we will look at it in the context of the issue of child poverty and setting ambitious figures on the reduction of child poverty. We wanted to wait until the new equality section of the Department joined us and look at it in that context because there are synergies, particularly in areas such as direct provision and looking at some of the groups we address like LGBTI+ and the Traveller and Roma communities. Having the equality section in my Department will bring about real synergies as regards how we tackle children and young people with particular vulnerabilities in the context of the successor strategy.

I have a couple of comments and, perhaps, a couple of questions as I go along. I am from Clondalkin which, as the Minister will be aware, has a big direct provision centre. While we have advocated and pushed for years to move away from people not having their own door in the area, this still brings up fears within the community in the direct provision centre that because of this policy, they may be moved outside an area into which they have assimilated well. They are involved in the local schools. Some of the residents work and are involved in local clubs, including my own local club in Clondalkin.

Is there any policy in this regard? Is there anything to relieve those fears that if they move to an own-door direct provision centre, all efforts will be made to ensure they are kept within the area in which they are comfortable? They have made a home for themselves and have assimilated well within the community in Clondalkin.

I wish to bring up another issue. I am not sure if it falls into the Minister's remit but it crosses between justice, education and integration. As the Minister mentioned, one of the biggest aids for people to assimilate and integrate when they first come into the country is to get young people into school as soon as possible. We are coming up with a blockage. I only became aware of this yesterday and sent off a couple of parliamentary questions regarding personal public service numbers, PPSN, for new people coming into the country. There seems to be a delay in the Department giving out PPSNs. Some of the schools say they are a mandatory requirement for them to process the school application. It is a blockage. Will the Minister bring that issue up with the relevant Minister or does he have an answer? Is there any way we can make this process a little bit easier for people who are coming into the country?

I will raise an old issue about people who have gone through the process and received their stamp 4 permission but who are still in direct provision because of the lack of housing. Will anything within these Estimates provide extra resources for people to move out of direct provision and into their own homes?

The Minister mentioned the added pressures of Covid-19 in direct provision, especially around communal living, kitchen, laundry and play spaces and so on. I thought I would mention that.

I will finish by picking up a point raised by Deputy Costello, which I have mentioned previously. I have worked in care planning and have held managerial positions within the community, especially in the role of addiction when I worked with addiction services. We were given care planning and logic models to fill out, which were all box-ticking exercises to prove the work we did was necessary in order to get the funding needed to keep the service going. They ended up as box-ticking exercises. To follow up on what Deputy Costello said, a care plan is needed and someone needs to be in charge of it. Real and tangible outcomes are needed at the end of these care plans so they do not end up as just box-ticking exercises. Those are just a few comments and statements.

I thank the Deputy. There are a couple of points. Obviously, people are living in direct provision centres at the moment and some have been there for a long time. We all recognise that is not right. In living there for a long time, however, they have become involved in their local communities and we welcome that. One of the goals of the new system is that people will not be waiting such a long time to have their application for international protection decided on.

People are living for maybe two, three, four or more years in direct provision while they are waiting on a decision. One of the focuses will be that decisions will be made quickly and people will know definitively whether they have asylum here. I hope we can speed up the process, and that by doing so those who have been living in places like Clondalkin for a long time will be able to get a decision as to whether they have asylum. If they have asylum, they will have clarity, stability and security and be able to continue to build a new life for themselves in communities. Obviously, many of them will be moving onto local authority housing lists.

That ties into Deputy Ward's third question. He is correct that approximately 800 people in direct provision who have status to remain have not been able to move out because of the wider housing crisis. A number of points can be made on that issue. We have been working individually with certain NGOs to support to the movement of people who are in such a situation out of direct provision and into independent living within the community. De Paul and the McVerry Trust, in particular have been working on the issue with my Department and previously with the Department of Justice. I wish to recognise the great work being done by those two NGOs. There is provision in the Estimates for the continuation of that work. My Department is doing a wider piece of work with local authorities and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to ensure that where people have status to remain, we are in a position to move them out and onto local authority housing lists. That work is ongoing and I have spoken to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage about the issue.

I agree with the Deputy on the issue of care planning. He will know that my Department and Tusla have to monitor what is being done on the ground. There is a balance to strike between getting good, valuable data back from the social workers on the ground about their individual cases that we can feed up to see if our national policies are working with the need to avoid overburdening social workers and social care workers to an extent that they are taken away from front line work and end up just filling out forms. I definitely take on board the point made by Deputy Costello about the importance of making sure that we are asking the right questions and measuring the right things.

On the issue relating to PPS numbers, we will follow that up with the Department of Social Protection. I ask the Deputy to send me an email and we will follow that up. It is a matter for the Department of Social Protection, but we can also follow up on it because if it is blocking somebody who has come to the country seeking international protection from accessing school, we want to get that resolved as quickly as possible.

I thank the Minister for his time. It is fantastic for the committee to have frequent engagement with him and we appreciate it. I will be brief as there are only two points I wish to raise. On the issue of work-life balance and supports for working parents, which is in the Minister's remit, I ask him to outline his priorities in this area and on the extension of parental leave and benefits. While working in collaboration with the Department of Social Protection, is there any proposed legislation in the Department in this area and, if so, when can we expect it?

I would also welcome any developments in the area of work-life balance, as I am sure other Deputies would.

I thank the Deputy and the Chair for their points. On the wider issue of work-life balance, there are a number of initiatives that we are looking at, particularly in the context of work and gender. As the committee is aware, in the previous Dáil the gender pay gap legislation made significant progress, reached Report Stage. However, when the new Dáil reconvened, it was put back onto the Order Paper and the legislation was not allowed to fall or die, so it only remains for Report and Final Stages to be completed, and work is ongoing in my Department at the moment. I hope that when I next come before the committee, I can give a more precise update on that. There is not much work to be done on the Bill so I will push to get it over the line. It will be significant legislation because it will mean that companies and agencies will have to give information on the gender pay gap among their employees. That will shine a light on the public and private sectors as regards the differences in pay between male and female employees. Once we have that information, policymakers can respond and moral pressure can be brought to bear to rectify the still very egregious gender pay gap that we see in large parts of society.

On the issue of parental leave, I am working on a memorandum on that today. We will bring that memo to Cabinet soon. It will increase the time that each parent of child can claim. At the moment, each parent can claim two weeks' paid parental leave in addition to maternity leave, and it is paid at a rate of €245 per week. The legislation will increase that from two weeks' leave to five weeks' leave per parent, thus providing an additional three weeks' leave per parent. Our goal is to get that measure through the Oireachtas and legislated for early next year, with a view to having it fully operational by April 2021. We are talking with the Department of Social Protection to investigate the possibility of bringing it forward to March and have it fully operational at that stage. I am hoping we can get the legislation through the Oireachtas as quickly as possible. It is a fairly small Bill and we may have a situation where people can take this leave as soon as the legislation is passed, and maybe claim the payments back from the Department of Social Protection subsequently. If we need to go that way, we will do so in order that people can be guaranteed the leave even earlier than March 2021. I hope to bring a memorandum on that point to Cabinet very soon. I am happy to keep Deputies updated on that issue.

I will raise one or two points. The Minister's opening statement refers to the temporary redeployment of €40 million from early years provision to Tusla. Will he provide us further information on that? On the new money announced in the budget for Tusla, will a breakdown be provided on where exactly in Tusla that money will go?

As the Chair is aware, when Covid hit in March 2020, services in all areas of society, including early years services, shut down. As a result, payments under the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme, the national childcare scheme, NCS, and the other saver schemes ceased.

We have lost the sound.

Payments ceased for a number of months during the year. They resumed for services that deliver a service over the summer on 29 June 2020, and for the others, at the end of August or the beginning of September. That meant that there was a saving, particularly in the ECCE scheme and the NCS over the course of the year where payments were not being made. As the committee knows, we brought in the childcare wage subsidy scheme, the wage subsidy scheme and the employee wage subsidy scheme, in which a significant amount of money has been invested over the course of the year. The vast majority of that was direct Exchequer funding. As regards the initial allocation in my Department for childcare, a chunk of that was not spent between March and June 2020. We are using some of those savings from this year to address some of the overspends in Tusla. The reason is that there was a period of underspend when those schemes shut because of Covid.

As members will be aware, we put significant money into supporting childcare, particularly supporting workers through the wage subsidy schemes. We will continue to do so until 31 March next year.

As the Chairman noted, we are making a very significant additional investment of €61 million into Tusla next year. I am currently working on the performance statement, which is a document the Minister sends to the agency every year outlining priorities for the coming year. In the context of the performance statement, Tusla will outline how much it will spend on the various areas. The Chairman may be asking about domestic violence services. Providers in that area are eager to see increases similar to previous years and to ensure that the additional €2 million allocated due to Covid-19 is maintained. When I spoke to the chief executive of Tusla, Mr. Bernard Gloster, and the chairman, Mr. Pat Rabbitte, at the time of the budget I explicitly said that I wanted significant investment in sexual and gender-based violence services. I do not have an explicit figure for the committee today but we should have clarity on the expenditure on various services in the next fortnight. Because of the significant extra investment in Tusla, I have identified areas I want to see Tusla particularly prioritise in 2021 such as residential care and support for unaccompanied minors coming from Greece and other trouble spots. There are lots of other things going on in the domestic violence sphere. Those measures specifically concern the finances for refuges and services.

I would like to ask a follow-up question on the parental leave the Minister mentioned. It would be welcome if he could facilitate a system whereby parents could take the leave from January and claim the benefit later. That would be an excellent solution. When will he know if that is possible? As he will be aware, parents will need to make plans. We are coming into the Christmas season, which is a very expensive time. Many parents are under an awful lot of stress. It would be great if they knew that parental leave was available to them from the start of 2021.

I take that point. I am not sure if we will know from 1 January. It might be a little bit later. We hope to know in early 2021 if parents can take the leave at that point and claim the benefit later. We intend to have everything squared away by 1 April to allow parents to take the leave and claim the payment. We will look for clarity on that point as soon as possible. We are working to give parents that extra flexibility. I will work closely with my colleagues, the Ministers for Social Protection and Public Expenditure and Reform, to provide that. It is an important step, as the committee will be aware. It will offer six weeks of paid leave per child, available to either parent. Making this investment and ensuring it is available to both parents is significant to the work-life balance of families.

Absolutely, but there are many families without two parents involved. When these policies are discussed and developed, that is sometimes forgotten. I do not know if the Minister has considered allowing lone parents to access the full allocation. I ask him to keep the large number of lone-parent families to the forefront of his mind when discussing the policies.

I take that point. As the Deputy will be aware, my Department provided additional support for lone-parent families under several headings in the budget.