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Child and Family Support Agency Establishment

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 26 September 2012

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Questions (1)

Dara Calleary

Question:

1. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the number of special needs assistants being provided to children availing of the free pre-school year this year; and the way this compares to the number of SNAs provided to children availing of the free pre-school year in 2011; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40667/12]

View answer

Oral answers (5 contributions) (Question to Children)

I am firmly committed to the transformation of Ireland's child protection and welfare services and to the establishment of a new child and family support agency. The necessary legislation is being prepared by my Department as a priority. It is anticipated the Bill will be published and enacted in the course of this session. It is my intention that the child and family support agency will assume statutory responsibility for services for children and families in January 2013. The final report of the task force that I established to advise on the necessary transition programme to establish a child and family support agency made recommendations on a number of key issues, including the range of services which, in the opinion of the task force, should fall within the remit of the new agency. These recommendations are being given detailed consideration by me and my Department in preparation for the establishment of the new agency.

The new agency, which will assume responsibility for children and family services that are currently provided by the HSE and the Family Support Agency, will be a dedicated agency with a sole focus. It will have approximately 4,000 staff and a combined existing budget of over €590 million. The agency will be headed by Mr. Gordon Jeyes, as the chief executive designate, who will be supported by a senior management team. The recruitment of this team is at an advanced stage. This is at the heart of our programme of reform of child and family services. The establishment of a single agency, underpinned by legislation and incorporating key child and family services, will provide a focus for the major reforms that are already under way under the national director for children and families, Mr. Jeyes. This reform programme contains a number of critical elements, including the continued and urgent implementation of a comprehensive change programme to improve the quality and consistency of these services. I have spoken on a number of occasions in this House about the lack of consistency in approach when families throughout the country look for services.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The reform programme also provides for the introduction of legislation to place Children First on a statutory basis; the establishment for the first time of a dedicated budget for children and family services in order to bring transparency and accountability to the use of resources to meet national priorities; the transition of existing HSE child protection and welfare and services into the new agency, the merger of the existing Family Support Agency with a budget of over €26 million into the child and family support agency and the consideration of the potential for further rationalisation of services for children under the new agency. At the heart of the new agency will be a new service delivery framework, which will differentiate between child welfare and protection cases so that family and child welfare concerns can be responded to by new multi-agency, community-based models for early intervention and family support. The new agency will represent the practical application of a new approach towards proportionate service responses, an approach which is central to the constitutional amendment on child protection which will be put before the people on 10 November.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I welcome her continued commitment to this agency. I ask her to clarify exactly when she hopes the legislation will be in place. As she knows, the timeframe between now and the end of the year is very tight. If she wishes to have the new agency up and running by January, she will have to bring legislation before the Oireachtas soon. The Minister will agree that early intervention is crucial. It is important to ensure there is early intervention in cases of child neglect. Will there be any additional recruitment for the new agency? How many staff have been transferred from other Departments so far? I presume this process has already started so that the January deadline can be met.

As I said, the new agency will have approximately 4,000 staff. We have established a shadow agency - an agency within an agency, in effect - within the HSE. Mr. Jeyes has been managing that process over the last year. We have reduced the number of managers from 34 to 16. We have provided for more direct accountability to Mr. Jeyes as manager. Those on the front line are now in much closer contact with their managers. The 4,000 staff will include staff from the child care and residential sectors and the Family Support Agency. A great deal of work has been done in the HSE to identify those members of staff who will fall within the remit of the new agency. The Deputy will be aware that my Department is responsible for services like the Family Support Agency, the National Educational Welfare Board, youth services and adoption and fostering services. Ongoing work is being done to identify the point at which other services might make the transition to the new agency. As the Deputy knows, the task force made a wide series of recommendations in its report. The new agency will be established and will be dealing with its core services by January 2013. Certain other services will move into the agency in the medium to longer term. It will depend on the outcome of the analysis and the decisions to be made by the Government. Ms Joan Carmichael of the IMPACT trade union is working as an independent chair to help staff to make the change. I welcome the broad support I have received across the sector as I have overseen the transition to the new agency.

Is it still the Minister's intention to maintain a governance structure similar to that of the HSE? She mentioned that the agency will be answerable to its new director, Mr. Gordon Jeyes. Will it be directly answerable to the Minister of the day? Political accountability is crucial in this regard. I raised this issue when the Minister launched the agency earlier in the summer. Given that the HSE is disbanding its current governance structure, it is regrettable that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is seeking to develop a similar structure in this instance. The Minister has said that the new agency will have a budget of approximately €590 million per annum. Will the new agency start with a clean bill of health? I hope that a deficit will not have to be carried by the new agency as it begins its work. That would not be a welcome move.

There will certainly be political accountability. The Government has yet to make a decision on the exact model of governance for the agency. Obviously, that will form part of the legislation, which will be brought to the Dáil before December. The Deputy will be aware that the task force which examined the various forms of governance in operation among international child protection services was strongly of the view that the agency should have an independent board, especially in light of the nature of its child protection work. I have not made a decision on that yet. The agency will certainly be accountable to me as Minister. Of course there will be political accountability. The Deputy also asked about the starting budget. I hope the agency will start its work in a strong budgetary position. We are all familiar with the economic situation and the financial pressures that are faced by all services at present. Members will appreciate that there are big demands on these services. The HSE child and family budget and my Department's budget both increased last year. I hope the agency will start its work in a strong budgetary position. I will work to that end.

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