Childcare Services Staff

Question No. 7 replied to with Written Answers.

Questions (6)

Robert Troy

Question:

6. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the ongoing issues regarding remuneration and conditions within the childcare sector; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22689/19]

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Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Children)

Has the Minister’s attention been drawn to the ongoing issues regarding remuneration and conditions in the childcare sector? Will she make a statement to the House on this matter?

I am acutely aware of the pay and conditions issues that exist within the sector. I take every possible opportunity to highlight the importance of the work the sector does for children and how we must value it for this. Current hourly pay rates, as well as availability for many practitioners of only part-time-part-year contracts, do not reflect the level of responsibility that early learning and care professionals hold, nor the increasing qualifications required from them.

While we have a long way to go to rectify this situation, I am doing everything in my power to do so. I have set out my vision for the sector, as well as a roadmap to achieve it, in First 5, the whole-of-government strategy which I launched with the Taoiseach last November. Within First 5, there is a commitment to develop a workforce development plan which will ensure appropriate levels of early learning and care, ELC, and school-age childcare, SAC, staff at all levels in the sector. The rate of employees at graduate level currently stands at 22%. First 5 aims to increase this level to 30% by 2021 and to 50% by 2028.

The steering group for a new workforce development plan for the sector will meet for the first time on 30 May. The plan will include actions to move to a graduate-led workforce by 2028 and to raise the profile of careers in the sector. It will have regard to the development of a new funding model which will also seek to address workforce issues.

As the State is not the employer, I cannot set wage levels or determine working conditions. I have instead repeatedly called for the sector to pursue a sectoral employment order, which offers a viable mechanism to establish appropriate wage levels. My Department will readily co-operate with such a process when it is under way.

In the interim, I have introduced a range of measures to support employers to improve pay and conditions. These include a 117% increase in investment over the past four budgets; a 7% increase in early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme capitation in 2018; higher capitation payments for graduates and for inclusion co-ordinators; and annual programme support payments of over €19 million to recognise administrative demands.

The early childhood care sector is in crisis. It is a significantly high cost to parents and providers are facing significant challenges with overheads, commercial rates etc. The staff, who are well-educated, earn little more than the minimum wage. Staff turnover in the sector last year was 24.7%. Many childcare workers who have got a third level degree are forced to go on the dole and be in receipt of social welfare benefits for several weeks during the year when they are not paid.

I recently met a lady who has childcare qualifications and has worked for ten years in the same childcare centre. With the exception of the minimum wage increase, she has received no other rise in her remuneration.

I met another young lady with a first-class honours degree in childcare who had to move back from Galway to Westmeath. She has to commute every day to Galway to work because she is on such low wages that she cannot afford to pay the high rents in Galway.

The Minister talks about valuing this workforce. The Government, however, is not demonstrating that it values them because they certainly do not feel valued at the moment.

I am building for the first time a radical new infrastructure for our children and families. The passage of the Childcare Support Act marks the first time ever parents and families have been entitled legally to a financial subsidisation. I am correcting decades of underinvestment in this arena. It takes a long time to correct that.

As I have already indicated, we have had an increase of 117% in investment in this sector over the past four budgets. Those kind of statistics demonstrate we are interested in both the children and their families, as well as the workers in the sector.

I have indicated to the Deputy the ways in which we have invested more money in the services and the providers, particularly with raising the ECCE capitation rate. It is hoped that this will ultimately be passed on to the sector and to the people who work in it.

Several times I have called on the sector to pursue a sectoral employment order.

I call Deputy Troy.

That must be initiated by the sector and not me to ensure it can complement my efforts to get more money to the sector.

The Minister must watch the clock. We all have a responsibility to do so.

I am usually very good at that.

The workers in the sector do not feel valued. Anybody working ten years in a sector who has had no pay increase in that time will not feel valued. A young girl, who went to college, got a first-class honours degree but has to move home from Galway to commute to Westmeath, does not feel valued. Despite the rhetoric and the promises, there is still a bureaucratic regulatory system requirement on the providers. They are still being charged commercial rates despite the fact they are essentially providing a State service.

There are things the Government could do that are not being done. To talk about 2028 is simply not good enough. It is only 2019. Young people who have qualified want to work and make a contribution to this sector but they do not feel valued. They are leaving in their droves. If corrective action is not taken now rather than in 2028, the Minister will have a greater crisis on her hands.

First, one of the reasons some people in the sector have higher degrees is because of the investment made by my Department in providing additional training for the people. That is one of the ways in which we have valued the people working in the sector. I am fully aware of the challenges those in the sector face because I meet and speak to them when I travel across the country. I am from the sector also and I have worked closely with it in recent years. I am aware of what is happening.

As already indicated, after decades of underinvestment, there has been a significant amount of investment, with as much of it as I can ensure going towards supporting the pay, conditions, professionalisation, qualifications and training - for example, training to work with young children with special needs in particular. These are all the different ways in which we - while not being the employer - have invested in the people to the extent that we can. Admittedly, we need to do more. I am not stating that we do not. I am aware of that as much as the Deputy but I do not accept the fact that the changes we have made across the board demonstrate that we do not value those who work in this sector.

Question No. 7 replied to with Written Answers.

Affordable Childcare Scheme Implementation

Question No. 9 replied to with Written Answers.

Questions (8)

Niamh Smyth

Question:

8. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the status of the affordable childcare scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [21810/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

Will the Minister comment on the status of the affordable childcare scheme?

On 11 March, I launched the national childcare scheme - our pathway to truly accessible, affordable, quality childcare.   The scheme is scheduled to open to applications later this year in October-November.

We are making progress in preparing for the scheme's introduction. Following the enactment of the Childcare Support Act 2018, detailed secondary legislation and policy guidelines are now being finalised.  Intensive work is also progressing on the scheme’s supporting IT system.

A national communications campaign on the scheme is under way to ensure that providers and parents are ready for the scheme when it opens.  This involves a sequenced programme of information, training and supports. Key elements of the campaign include the launch of a new website, www.ncs.gov.ie; the distribution to date of 5,000 information packs and 50,000 parent booklets to providers, libraries, Government offices and other key stakeholders; and a major nationwide training programme for providers, offering more than 12,500 training places across 600 venues. I am happy to report that there is very strong interest in the website, the parent booklets and the training.

In September and October, my Department will run a large information campaign across a number of media channels to ensure there is full awareness among parents of their potential entitlements under the new scheme.

The agreement for service providers to participate in the scheme will be published shortly, and will be available for signing in June. To support providers who enter into contract for the scheme, I recently announced capital funding of €3 million for the provision of ICT software and hardware for providers. Individual services will receive between €500 and €2,000 depending on the number of children who are actively registered on one of the Department’s childcare programmes. Applications for this funding will also open in June.

I will continue to work intensively to deliver this landmark scheme which will alter the landscape of childcare in Ireland, support families, provide a sustainable platform for investment and, crucially, allow us to continue to invest in children.

To start on a positive note, it was great to see the Minister in County Cavan last week for the second arts festival the county has had. Ms Kim McCafferty and the other volunteers were delighted about that. It was great to see the Minister taking an interest in that area.

In the context of the single affordable childcare scheme, it is likely that families receiving very low levels of subsidy may be worse off than they were prior to its introduction. Childcare costs are cripplingly high. The average household spends approximately 35% of its income on childcare costs alone. The average cost of a full-time early years place in Ireland is €167 per week per child and this rises to €214 in certain areas. It is a large amount and accounts for a major chunk out of parents' incomes. With the astronomical burdens on families in terms of the costs of housing, rent and electricity and other bills, how will low income families be able to cope with the cost of this scheme?

I appreciate the different numbers the Deputy provided. I am probably more aware than most of the challenge of the affordability of childcare for parents. That is the reason I have worked intensively during the past three years to ensure that there has been such an significant increase of investment for families. That is not to say the costs for families are as affordable as we would like. With services and the subsidies being provided under the national childcare scheme in a new way from October and November onwards, it will make it much easier for future Governments to make investment in streamlined and targeted ways in future years, especially for those families who are on the lowest incomes in order that they receive the highest subsidies. I am aware of what the Deputy said and that is the reason we have made such intensive efforts and have increased the investment 117 % during the past four years.

The Minister referred to the ICT requirements and the infrastructure that must be in place for this scheme to come into play in September. Will those in the childcare sector be given adequate time and training to use this system? Will childcare providers be compensated for the non-contact hours they will have? It is no surprise that certain parts of the country do not have broadband connectivity. My constituency of Cavan-Monaghan is badly affected and has black spots in terms of such access. What provision will be in place for childcare providers to be able to deal with this ICT system? Is the Minister confident that the system will be up and running and that those in the sector will have time to be trained in the use of it? In addition, will childcare providers will compensated for the non-contact hours they will have?

As indicated, training will continue to be provided. We are also providing moneys to those childcare providers who sign up to the contract with the national childcare scheme, as I indicated, to receive the appropriate software and hardware and support in the use of it. Considerable training in taking place and I am confident that they will be ready. That is not to say that some might not be but, generally speaking, there is an intense effort and an awareness that this is what needs to happen. That addresses the Deputy's first set of questions.

As she will be aware, in recent years I put in place and then increased the amount of what we now call programme support payments, which used to be called non-contact time payments, for providers by way of recognition of the amount of time required to do the administration work. Ultimately, the time involved should reduce under the national childcare scheme we are implementing.

Question No. 9 replied to with Written Answers.

Illegal Adoptions

Question No. 11 replied to with Written Answers.

Questions (10)

Catherine Connolly

Question:

10. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs further to Parliamentary Question No. 311 of 4 April 2019, the status of the final report on illegal birth registrations; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22253/19]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Children)

I have a straight question for the Minister. What is the status of the final report on illegal birth registrations and when will it be published?

I expect to receive the final report of the independent reviewer, Ms Marion Reynolds, this week, as it is the end of May. I had previously expected that this report would be submitted to me by Easter. In her third report, which I published, Ms Reynolds informed me that this would now be delayed until the end of May.

I understand the reason for the delay was that the fieldwork carried out by both Tusla and the Adoption Authority of Ireland was complex, forensic and resource intensive, and took longer than anticipated. This fieldwork has now reached a conclusion. In addition, there were considerable challenges in respect of data protection that had to be overcome, which also delayed the process at one point. I am pleased to say that these issues have been resolved.

The two previous interim reports from the reviewer have also been published on my Department's website.

The purpose of this review, which I initiated following the discovery of cases of illegal registrations in the St. Patrick's Guild records, is to determine if similar evidence of illegal birth registrations can be identified from the records of other former adoption agencies and other relevant bodies. The final report and its findings will provide information to assist me in identifying the necessary next steps. I am extremely conscious of the impact that news of an illegal registration can have on those affected. This is particularly true in circumstances where those impacted had no indication of any irregularities.  It seems to me that this must be one of the most difficult and traumatic episodes that anyone would have to deal with in a lifetime. I will study the independent reviewer's report closely as soon as I receive it, and will reflect carefully on what to do next to assist all involved.

I take it that the Minister has confirmation that she will have the report by the end of the month, because there have been previous dates that moved. It was to be done by October last, then it was to be done by April, I think Easter was mentioned somewhere, and now the end of May. Can the Minister confirm that she will have it in two days' time, at the end of May? Can the Minister then give a date for its publication?

The Minister will realise that this came from the discovery by Tusla of 126 cases. However, that is based on much previous work. The adoption association of Ireland brought matters to a previous Government's attention. The Irish Examiner deserves an award for all the work that newspaper and Conall Ó Fátharta have done. All of this has been wrought out. I welcome what has happened, but it was not a proactive decision by the Government. It was wrought from the pain of people and from the good work done by the newspaper. It is important, as with the previous question, that we have trust and if a date is set, that the Minister has the report and a date is given for its publication.

I agree with the Deputy. I have been told that I will have the report at the end of this week. That is what I can confirm.

I have tried to describe in my answer to the Deputy the reasons, even though I understood it was coming earlier, it was delayed. The Deputy would be aware, especially in these circumstances but in other contexts as well, that our GDPR legislation can be challenging, although that is not the only reason.

I will publish it. As with previous such matters, I will need to study it first. It is the final report. I will be bringing it to my colleagues. I will be publishing it and, therefore, it will be able to be debated here.

I agree with Deputy Connolly. I acknowledge and recognise the previous work that underlies what we are now looking at. On other occasions in this Chamber, I have acknowledged also the work of Conall Ó Fátharta, whom I know. We try to work as closely with him, and other journalists, as we can as we move forward on these issues.

I appreciate that. I hear the Minister saying that she will publish the report and I welcome that. If the Minister could give an indicative date, that would be helpful.

When I refer to the previous work, the point I am making is that this is a scoping exercise that was wrought from the pain of people. The information the Minister is looking at was available way back in 2010. I could go further back but I will not - my time is limited. On every occasion, the then Government refused to act on it. That is the difficulty we have. I will not labour the point.

The Minister is telling me she will have the report by the end of the month and it will be published. Could Deputy Zappone give us an indicative date of the publication?

I would like to be able to do that but I do not feel I can, just right now. I do not know what it will say. Depending on what it says, that might mean I need more time with it. However, I absolutely commit that I will publish it.

I accept the Deputy's other commentary. Not unlike the Deputy, I have people coming up to me who tell me their stories too. They have not any paperwork but they have knowledge of illegal adoptions or registrations - whatever language we want to use.

I have some sense of the breadth of the issues that this touches on. It was an effort of this Government, under my direction, to begin some systematic analysis to understand and see the extent in terms of evidence. On the basis of the evidence, as the Deputy will be aware, we can do additional things. I would love to see that be able to continue.

Ceist Uimh. 11, tá an Teachta Fiona O'Loughlin as láthair. Rachaimid ar aghaidh go dtí Ceist Uimh. 12 in ainm an Teachta Boyd Barrett.

Question No. 11 replied to with Written Answers.

Childcare Services Provision

Questions (12)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to deal with the accelerating crisis in relation to childcare places; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22690/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

There is a growing crisis in childcare in this country. The crisis is threefold: the extortionate costs of childcare, often reaching over €1,000 a month; the staffing and pay for workers in childcare, which is low and precarious or seasonal; and increasingly, the major problem in accessing childcare places. What is the Government intending to do to address this crisis, particularly the lack of spaces?

The annual Pobal early years sector profile is based on a survey of all services which participate in State-funded early learning and care and school age childcare schemes.

The latest report, containing data from May 2018, indicates that while the sector is experiencing significantly increased demand, it is broadly meeting this demand nationally.

I am, however, fully aware of the challenges many parents experience to access high quality and affordable places, particularly for younger children. This is why I have worked intensively with my officials to introduce a number of measures to address the situation.

The substantial increase in investment in childcare over the past four budgets has delivered a range of improvements, including a doubling of capacity in the sector for both ECCE and the birth to three years age group, but clearly more needs to be done.

I am taking a number of steps to address capacity issues. I have provided €9.6 million in capital funding for the sector in 2019 to focus on increasing the number of places available.

My Department is also helping services to get ready for the forthcoming national childcare scheme. This capital funding, decisions on which will be published very shortly, is expected to produce approximately 1,300 new spaces for birth to three year olds and 2,300 new school age childcare places this year.

The national childcare scheme, which will be introduced later this year, will also be a major incentive for providers to expand capacity. The scheme will provide a progressive system of subsidies starting with the highest subsidy rates for children under one - up to €5.10 per hour - and the next highest subsidy for one and two year olds - up to €4.35 per hour.

As I have mentioned in responses to earlier questions today, I will publish a childminding action plan in the coming months that will set out the actions my Department will take to support more childminders to offer high quality and subsidised childcare.

I am sceptical that the efforts the Minister has outlined will deliver the affordable childcare that we need. There is already evidence that the childcare scheme may merely push up the prices charged by the private providers and wipe out the value of the subsidy. That highlights the overall problem. A little like the housing crisis, the Government's plans for childcare depend on the private sector. I am not sure the private sector will deliver. It may merely increase prices but also not deliver the places.

To my mind, unless the State directly provides affordable childcare places, which will also deal with the issue of precarious work and pay, we will not get the sort of affordable childcare that we desperately need.

In my area, there is a large new housing development called Cualanor and Honeypark. A crèche was supposed to be provided as part of planning. It was never provided because when we are depending on a private developer to do it, it just does not happen.

I will address the first couple of issues there. As I said to some of the Deputy's colleagues, I appreciate that childcare is not yet fully affordable. That is because of decades of underinvestment in childcare. Even though we started from a very low base, we have 170% more investment in the development of a systematic effort over the last couple of years - to look at ways in which we can enable a financial entitlement to subsidisation of childcare for families, which we have now, and build a capacity, as well as provide the providers with the qualifications required to offer the quality that we require. That is going on.

On the second issue, I, too, have that concern on the raising of fees that meets the subsidisation. A certain increase has happened since we have been monitoring this, but costs have increased too. I will actively discuss this concern with my Department over these coming weeks.

Is it not the problem that because we are relying on the private sector, this will inevitably happen? The evidence is there and the Minister acknowledged it. As to the provision of places, the issue was highlighted to me in my area where there was a crèche in the Holy Child school in Sallynoggin. For reasons I do not understand, the school closed the crèche in the middle of the year, leaving a number of mothers, children and families high and dry with nowhere to go. They were told to find somewhere else, which they simply could not do. People in Sallynoggin were told to go to Rathfarnham, which was totally unsustainable for people working in education and so on. There are simply not the places. The local childcare committee and the council acknowledge the problem but does not have the resources because we are not directly providing the affordable childcare places. That is the only way we are going to get the affordable childcare on the scale we need to address this need.

My heart is with the Deputy in what he said. It is correct to say that we are going in a different direction. On the Deputy's comments on places, in answering a number of earlier questions, I have stated that we have a systematic approach, especially in our work with Pobal, to try to identify where we need to increase capacity so that the supply meets the demand. That does not sometimes always work. I am happy to listen to what the Deputy is saying about his particular area and we need to be refocused on that. I accept that it does not always work but it is an exaggeration to say that it does not work across the board. That is not the case.

With this model and a higher percentage of private providers than community not-for-profit providers, I have looked at many different ways to see how we can maintain in a better way the level of affordability for parents. What we have arrived at as part of our First 5 approach is to develop a way of using public funds to ensure that fees increase more reasonably for parents but in a way that can assure that the providers, namely, the professionals, are paid what they are worth. That will take a longer time to develop. That is part of the vision of the First 5 and ultimately that will happen.

Childcare Services Provision

Questions (13, 33)

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

13. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to expand the availability of ECCE places in Cork city and county; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22686/19]

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Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

33. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if parts of Cork city and county with rapidly growing populations will be prioritised for funding for the creation of new ECCE places; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22687/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

The second year of the early childhood care and education programme, ECCE, has been a positive move. The value of it is diminished when people are not able to gain access to the scheme. Recent parliamentary questions show that in Cork there are 1,300 people who are waiting, while at the same time there are 1,300 vacancies. Clearly, there is an imbalance and the spaces are not where the demand is. We need to establish what the plan is to expand the provision so that people can get access to the ECCE scheme in their area when they need it.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 13 and 33 together.

One of the key priorities for my Department's capital programme is supporting private and not-for-profit childcare providers to extend their existing services, or to establish new services, where the need or the demand exists.

Each year my Department reviews the early learning, care and school age childcare sector to determine how the capital funding available can best be invested. For the 2019 capital programme, grants will be allocated to applications of the highest quality.

The decision on where to target capital spending is informed by an analysis of the current state of the childcare sector, learnings from previous capital programmes and feedback and input from stakeholders, including childcare providers, and data from Pobal and other sources. While the prioritisation of a particular area or region has not formed part of the capital schemes to date, the design of the scheme has regard to Pobal's geosparsity index.

Early years providers from Cork compete alongside services from all other parts of the country and all applications are appraised in a fair and impartial manner and solely on the basis of the quality of their application.

As regards capacity issues more generally, each year Pobal conducts research on behalf of my Department to examine a number of factors related to childcare services in Ireland, including capacity. The latest early years sector profile report, based on a survey completed in May 2018, outlines a 7% vacancy rate as a percentage of children enrolled in Cork. It simultaneously reports a 12% waiting list rate, indicating both under supply and oversupply but in different areas or for different age groups.

Pobal reports that nationally the trend for waiting lists suggests a reduction in waiting lists for older children and an increase for under twos but cautions that its data on waiting lists cannot by itself be used to inform capacity decisions as parents often place their children on more than one waiting list.

Finally, if the Deputy is aware of any specific cases of parents having difficulty accessing childcare places, they could make contact with their local city or county childcare committee who will be pleased to assist them.

The figures the Minister outlined are consistent with those furnished in the replies to parliamentary questions where people are waiting and there are vacancies in different parts of Cork. There is a mismatch and availability needs to be provided locally. People are having to travel further. One service provider, a person on the edge of the city, has people coming from more than a 22 km radius because people are not able to get a service in their area and are having to travel greater distances.

These issues should have been visible to the Minister before the scheme was launched. Providers should have had the opportunity to get ready for this. Looking a year or two ahead, this will be a serious challenge for parents because they will only have one year or two years benefit from the scheme. There needs to be faster response to ensure that the spaces are available locally and that people can gain access to the ECCE programme in their community.

I appreciate what the Deputy said and he has drawn attention to these issues in particular areas previously. We are aware of that. Matching supply and demand is not an exact science, as the Deputy is well aware. I do not accept that in planning forward we have not identified, to the extent we can, where demand will surface and supply will need to be met. There are at least two factors operative here. One has to do with our planning, efforts and investment. In 2017 and 2018 we have invested more than €1,304,000 in developing the supply in Cork city and county.

The other part of it is the providers and ensuring they are ready to step up and to increase the capacity and the places for the delivery of more services in the areas where children live. We are trying to support them to do that to the best of our ability but we must work together to move forward in order that there will not be the mismatch identified by the Deputy.

One area of which the Minister does have control is the availability of capital funding and the ability to ensure that the various providers are able to get access and to build and that services could be built in areas where they do not exist. I understand that €9.6 million is available this year but when one spreads that across the country, it is only a couple of hundred thousand euro per county. The scale of the funding is mismatched with the demand and a lot of catch-up is needed. Is the Minister in a position to provide further funding to address those gaps and to have the services provided in time for parents, given there is only a short window of opportunity in a child’s life when he or she is able to benefit from the scheme? One must have the facilities available for them to learn at that time.

As for the identification of where the money will go and what it is for - let us say it is €9 million this time - our policy is to target the under-three cohort in particular this year. We know there is a capacity issue in that regard. That affects the design of the scheme. The assessment for capital applications also has regard to Pobal’s geosparsity index, which means we also look at geography.

When the applications come in they must be of a certain quality for us to be assured that the money invested will deliver what is required. We try to support that too. All of those things need to be in place.

The Deputy asked whether we can provide more investment. I would like to see that. Let us see how the first round goes. If there is a need, we can request additional applications from providers that are ready to ensure they can provide facilities of the quality that is required.

Homeless Persons Data

Questions (14)

Gino Kenny

Question:

14. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her views on the rise in the number of children and young persons experiencing homelessness in 2018; her further views on whether the 12.5% rise in the figure for homeless minors indicates that radical action needs to be taken to prevent the trauma and profound negative impact that homelessness has on young lives; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22693/19]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Children)

I wish to ask the Minister about the crisis of continuing childhood homelessness and the impact it is having on the 4,000 children in emergency accommodation. As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, what are her views on it?

I thank Deputy Gino Kenny for asking my view on the devastating crisis of homelessness among children and young people. The fact that, as of March 2019, there are 1,733 families experiencing homelessness in Ireland, and 3,821 children and young people is, quite frankly, heartbreaking. Although ultimate responsibility for addressing the homelessness crisis rests with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, my Department and Tusla are continuing to make every effort to alleviate the difficulties experienced by children and families who are homeless.

Homelessness is a traumatic experience which, as the Deputy suggests, can have a profound impact on young lives. There is no doubt that the effects of this crisis will be felt for many years to come. To mitigate the trauma as far as possible, I am using my Department’s powers and resources to the greatest possible extent in providing supports for children and families experiencing homelessness. I have ensured that free childcare is provided for the children of families experiencing homelessness, including a daily meal for each child. A total of 312 children have been registered under this scheme in the current programme year.

I have also succeeded in having young adults leaving State care included as a separate category for funding under the capital assistance scheme, CAS. That provides targeted assistance to the most vulnerable care leavers by enabling approved housing bodies to acquire residential units to accommodate them. I am pleased to report that as of last Friday, 24 care leavers have availed of places with various approved housing bodies, including 15 with Focus Ireland, six with the Peter McVerry Trust, and three with Don Bosco. Additional placements have been secured and are expected to come on stream within the coming months.

In addition, I have supported and resourced Tusla to support families who are homeless. I have secured an additional €1.5 million in 2019 to enable the further roll-out of family resource centres, which provide facilities to support families who are homeless in order that they can have a safe, warm environment for homework and relaxation and nutritious food.

I do not doubt the Minister’s sincerity when it comes to this issue, but the facts speak for themselves and the fact is that since this Government has taken office in 2016, child homelessness has increased by 70%. That is more than 1,800 children in emergency accommodation. As the Minister stated, it has had a profound effect on each child and on their families, who are in a completely unnatural environment.

As an Independent Member, who is not affiliated to Fine Gael, has the Minister thought of withdrawing her support for the Government? It is obvious that the Government’s policy on housing and giving shelter to citizens of this country is profoundly wrong and is going nowhere. Child homelessness has risen exponentially in the past three years. Has the Minister considered her position in supporting the Government?

The question is not relevant to what we are looking at here but as an Independent member of the Government, I regularly review my participation with my Government partners. That is a fact. This is a significant issue. I have put forward a number of recommendations and suggestions, some of which the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government has taken on board, to increase security of tenure for those renting and to have more of a focus on affordable housing, in addition to increasing the amount of social housing. I have also put forward suggestions in respect of looking at models used in other countries. Recently, I have been investigating what is going on in Germany in terms of co-operative housing. By staying in, I am continuing to use my every effort and thought to support the overall actions that are needed to move us beyond where we are. In respect of the areas for which I have responsibility - it is not just my sincerity - what I have put in place has led to a number of actions and resources that are mitigating the harm for the children who experience homelessness in the context of their families.

The Minister has run out of superlatives when it comes to this crisis. It is obvious that the current housing policy of the Fine Gael Government is an abject failure and not only for the 10,000 people in emergency accommodation. The vast majority of people find that figure absolutely staggering. Somebody has to bear responsibility. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs must surely have had sleepless nights in the last three years in respect of the 4,000 homeless children. It is not her fault personally but it is the fault of the Government she upholds.

There are two more Deputies waiting. Does the Minister wish to respond?

I think I have already answered the question.

Childcare Services Funding

Question No. 16 replied to with Written Answers.

Questions (15)

Bobby Aylward

Question:

15. Deputy Bobby Aylward asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the level of engagement between her Department and the community-managed not-for-profit childcare service providers with specific reference to negotiations for funding agreements and funding rules in the context of recent compliance audits by Pobal (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [21739/19]

View answer

Oral answers (5 contributions) (Question to Children)

I wish to ask the Minister the level of engagement between her Department and the community-managed not-for-profit childcare service providers, with specific reference to the negotiation for funding agreements and rules in the context of a recent compliance audit by Pobal.

I am pleased that we have managed to increase substantially our investment in childcare over the last few years. I want to continue increasing this investment but, in doing so, we must have an appropriate level of oversight and accountability.

Subsidies for all early learning and care and school age childcare programmes are paid based on the level of attendance of a child. These rules differ slightly across different schemes, reflecting the varied needs and circumstances of families.

My Department has been proactive in communicating these rules to service providers through our monthly e-zines, general guidance, letters and discussions with representative bodies. The 30 childcare committees nationally have also given support in this area.  Pobal administers these childcare programmes on behalf of my Department and carries out compliance visits. Findings of non-compliance may affect a service financially, but I believe our approach to protecting Exchequer funding is balanced appropriately with the supports we provide to community services to enable them to continue to deliver a sustainable and high quality service. My Department worked closely with Pobal in developing processes and policies to prepare for any potential sustainability impact of correcting non-compliance.

I appreciate that community childcare services provide a critical service to children and families across the country. Significant supports, including financial supports, are available through a case management system to bring them onto a more sustainable footing, while being necessarily compliant with scheme rules.  This includes a strand of funding which will be available to the services facing the most serious threats to their sustainability due to community childcare subvention overclaims, subject to a financial assessment. Pobal’s case management team has aimed to contact all of the affected community services to engage with them concerning any supports required. This has included one-to-one engagement to ensure services are aware of the supports available to them, including financial supports.

I re-emphasise that Pobal's recent compliance reports and audits are causing great distress on the ground to community managed and operated childcare providers. My information comes first-hand from childcare providers in Carlow-Kilkenny. They have told me that the recent loss of funding arising from Pobal's compliance reports will result in staff reductions and the loss of service and parental supports within the sector. That is first-hand information from the people providing the service. They are telling me that this important service will be lost if they do not get more funding.

Is the Minister satisfied that the sector will not sustain mass closures and a reduction in services? Many not-for-profit community managed and operated childcare providers are reporting that is what is going to happen. Service providers and members of the Carlow Kilkenny Community Childcare Forum have communicated to my office that they are disappointed with the lack of engagement from the Minister's Department. I will be interested to hear the response from the Minister. I am being told one thing from people on the ground and she is telling me something else. Something is wrong somewhere in between. I ask and plead with the Minister to take this on board.

I certainly will take that point on board. I will investigate the issues Deputy Aylward has raised regarding services in his Carlow-Kilkenny constituency. The Deputy is stating he is being told that the service is going to be lost in light of the compliance audit. I expect that the Deputy accepts the basic principle that audits are required. I indicated that my Department has spent much time supporting service providers to ensure that they are aware of what is required to comply. Having said that, there are services that, for whatever reasons, have been found wanting in this respect. I also understand that supports are there, particularly and most recently financial supports, to ensure the sustainability of these services, where required. Deputy Aylward, however, is telling me that information has not reached his area or that it is not part of what the county childcare committee is doing. I will investigate the situation.

I stated what I have been told first-hand. These services will be lost to the community and the children who have need of them. Will the Minister meet a group from Carlow-Kilkenny to explain the situation so that we can thrash this out one to one? I thank the Minister.

Question No. 16 replied to with Written Answers.

School Completion Programme

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.

Questions (17)

Denise Mitchell

Question:

17. Deputy Denise Mitchell asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she is satisfied with the progress of the school completion programme; her views on whether there are an adequate number of education welfare officers in place; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22202/19]

View answer

Oral answers (4 contributions) (Question to Children)

Is the Minister satisfied with the progress of the school completion programme and does she believe that an adequate number of education welfare officers are in place?

I am conscious that the school completion programme, SCP, continues to deliver a valuable service for some of our most vulnerable young people. Currently, the SCP receives annual funding of €24.7 million. My Department works with the educational welfare service, EWS, to ensure that necessary resources are available to support this programme and to ensure staffing levels are sufficient to deliver a high quality service for those young people most at risk of early school leaving. A number of long term complex issues continue to exist, however, regarding both the governance and the staffing of the programme.

In this regard and in recognition of the need for a strong policy platform for educational welfare services, including the SCP, I requested my officials establish a task group to support the further development and integration of these services. The work of this group is near completion and I am eager to ensure that output will result in a clear blueprint for the development of the three strands of the EWS, including the SCP. A consultation event on the blueprint will be held on 10 June. Those working with vulnerable young people as part of the EWS will then have an opportunity to express their views and help shape the policy blueprint prior to its publication.

As part of the implementation of the actions contained in the blueprint, I have requested that a new SCP scheme be scoped out and developed to ensure that its reach, resources and impact are maximised in supporting young people. I will also continue to examine options concerning the employment status of SCP co-ordinators and project workers. I am also aware that the EWS requires adequate staff numbers to ensure the three strands - home schooling, SCP and EWS - can meet the increasing demands on the service.  The EWS has advised that it employs 89 education welfare officers who are managed by 12 senior educational welfare officers and that a service is provided to 3,952 schools. The most recent school enrolment figures stand at just over 920,000 students, with an average of 10,300 students per educational welfare officer. My Department continues to work to ensure necessary resources are available to support the EWS in its work.

Ms Tanya Ward of the Children's Rights Alliance was before the committee and she stated that we need more education welfare officers. She made the point that many of the children in Oberstown had not completed school and that if there had been early intervention many of those children would not be there. I welcome what the Minister stated about the task force and the blueprint policy. There seem, however, to be ongoing issues in respect of the understaffing of the school completion programme. That has been the case, particularly, since responsibility for the programme was transferred to the Minister's Department from the Department of Education and Skills. Are we really going to increase the numbers of these education welfare officers? Has the Minster given any consideration to this programme moving back to the Department of Education and Skills?

I do not know if there will be a rise in the numbers, so I cannot say "Yes" or "No" right now. I can state that we have had a really intensive focus on the education welfare service in general. It is part of Tusla. We started that focus, as Deputy Mitchell knows, with the review of the school completion programme itself. When I looked at it more deeply, however, I realised that we could not just look at that issue in isolation. We had to look at the other two aspects of the education welfare service as well. That in turn brought us to the wider examination and the belief that we need this overall blueprint to move forward to ensure better integration and a better way of supporting our young people staying in school. That may require more people or it may not. I respect the views of the Children's Rights Alliance and Ms Ward. We will listen to those views and perhaps Ms Ward may even participate in a consultation event. We have done much work which will be put in front of the stakeholders and we want to hear back from them before we move forward on decisions.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.