Childcare Services

Questions (559)

Cian O'Callaghan

Question:

559. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the extent to which crèches can operate in February 2020; the persons who can avail of the services; if his Department is providing the funding in order that fees can be waived for parents; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7076/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

My Department is committed to ensuring that overall investment in the early learning and care (ELC) and school age childcare (SAC) sector is maintained and that services are sustained through this crisis.

On 26 January, the Government made the decision to extend the suspension of the free pre-school ECCE programme and to continue to restrict access to childcare services to the children of essential workers and to vulnerable children until 5 March, to help to control the spread of Covid-19 in the country.

On 27 January, the Department announced a new funding model for childcare providers from 1 February to 5 March. This new funding arrangement ensures that childcare services can remain open where they have demand for places for the children of essential workers and vulnerable children.

The package of measures introduced is designed to ensure that the significant public money which is being invested in services at this time is structured in a fair and balanced way.

Although the ECCE programme has been suspended, at least 70% of ECCE funding can continue to be claimed by all services, whether open or closed and NCS, CCSP, TEC and AIM Level 7 funding schemes continue to be payable at full rates.

Closed services, in return for this funding, will be asked to commit to waiving parental fees, retaining staff where possible, keeping places for children and undertaking remote engagement with children.

For open services, the remaining 30% of the value of the ECCE funding will also be made up, subject to services providing the same assurances mentioned above to the Department. Most services are doing this already and I warmly welcome this.

Central to this package is the enhanced employment wage subsidy scheme, which providers continue to be eligible to access with an exemption in place in respect of the turnover requirement. All providers are encouraged to avail of this scheme which significantly contributes to payroll costs, covering at least 80% of average wage costs in most instances.

I recognise that for some providers who are particularly reliant on parental fee income, the requirement to waive fees for families not using their service at this time presents difficulties. In these circumstances, a newly designed Covid-19 operating support payment (COSP) is being put in place that will support these providers to parental waive fees during this period while remaining sustainable.

Many childcare services refunded fees to parents whose children did not attend childcare in January and this new COSP funding package will support childcare services that choose to refund fees from 1 February to 5 March.

Eligibility for the COSP is determined on the basis of transparent, objective criteria, to support ease of administration for a scheme that is expected to operate for a short period of time. The criteria have been selected on the basis that services most reliant on parental fees will be identified.

It is acknowledged that some services that are reliant on parental fees may not meet the criteria – it is open to such services to apply for the Covid-19 sustainability fund if the service has sustainability concerns as a result of the current restrictions.

This sustainability funding will be in addition to the existing financial supports for services, including the EWSS and the COSP. Where a service has sustainability concerns as a result of the current restrictions, additional supports may be made available under the Covid-19 sustainability fund to ensure services can continue to operate. Further details on this fund will be issued shortly.

In the first instance, services with concerns are encouraged to get in touch with their local City/County Childcare Committee.

Early Childhood Care and Education

Questions (560)

Carol Nolan

Question:

560. Deputy Carol Nolan asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the efforts being made by his Department to improve the pay and working conditions of workers in the early-years sector, as outlined in the programme for Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7093/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

I am very conscious need for significant improvement in pay and working conditions for practitioners in early learning and care and school-age childcare services. The level of pay they receive does not reflect the value of the work they do for children, for families and for the wider society and economy. It also contributes to challenges of recruitment and retention of staff, which are key to the consistency of care provided to children. The most recent published data indicates that the average hourly wage in the sector was €12.55 in mid-2019.

As the State is not the employer, my Department does not set wage levels nor determine working conditions for staff working in the sector. My Department has, however, over a number of years provided a range of supports to service providers to enable them to improve wages and working conditions. However, wages in the sector remain too low. Given the importance of the issue, it is imperative that my Department continues to engage with provider and staff representatives.

The Programme for Government contains a commitment to “support the establishment of a Joint Labour Committee in the childcare sector and the drawing up of an Employment Regulation Order, which would determine minimum rates of pay for childcare workers, as well as terms and conditions of employment”.

To progress this commitment, in December 2020, working in partnership with SIPTU and CSI/IBEC, I began a short process in which interested parties were invited to discuss how best to address issues of pay and conditions in the sector and how a Joint Labour Committee might support this. Dr Kevin Duffy, former Chair of the Labour Court, chaired the meetings, which concluded in the last few days. Dr Duffy will shortly submit to me a report outlining the issues and possible solutions raised in the process, and making a recommendation on next steps. I am hopeful that implementation of his recommendation will support progress in addressing pay and conditions in the sector.

Parental Leave

Questions (561)

Brendan Smith

Question:

561. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth when the additional parental leave of three weeks will become effective; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7138/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

The Parent’s Leave and Benefit Act 2019 introduced two weeks of paid Parents' Leave for each parent to be taken in the first year after the birth or adoptive placement of a child. Under proposals approved by Government in December 2020, each parent will be given an additional three weeks of paid Parents' Leave, and the period in which it can be taken will be extended to the first two years after the birth or adoptive placement of a child. Legislation is currently being developed in this regard and it is anticipated that it will be introduced in early 2021.

Payment of Parents’ Benefit is a matter for the Minister for Social Protection and arrangements are being made for it to be paid with effect from 1 April 2021.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Question No. 563 answered with Question No. 545.

Questions (562)

Bríd Smith

Question:

562. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his plans to ensure front-line workers can access childcare and crèche facilities in a situation in which their usual provider is unable to offer them a place or the facility is currently closed (details supplied); if his Department or another body can organise alternative places for parents caught in this situation; if a register of facilities with vacancies can be made available in order that front-line workers can find alternative spaces for their children; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7183/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

Early Learning and Care (ELC) and School-Age Childcare (SAC) services, other than those which provide the pre-school ECCE programme only, are currently open for the children of essential workers and vulnerable children.

Childcare services that have demand for childcare from an essential worker or on behalf of a vulnerable child, should open and provide the care. If a service has demand for childcare for an eligible child and does not open to provide it, it will receive no funding under of my Department's childcare funding schemes for the period of unapproved closure.

Parents who are seeking childcare will receive support and advice from the national network of County Childcare Committees (CCCs), which are funded by my Department. The CCCs are currently maintaining lists of vacancies in their local areas and are providing a matching service for the parents of eligible children and childcare services with vacancies in the appropriate age group.

Parents can find contact details of their local CCC on www.myccc.ie.

Question No. 563 answered with Question No. 545.

Direct Provision System

Question No. 565 answered with Question No. 531.

Questions (564)

Pa Daly

Question:

564. Deputy Pa Daly asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if any providers of direct provision centres with contracts due to expire in 2021 have been contacted or engaged with in relation to the renewal of same. [7253/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

The Programme for Government contains a commitment to ending the Direct Provision system and replacing it with a new International Protection accommodation policy, centred on a not-for-profit approach. The Government has also committed to the development of a White Paper which will set out how this new system will be structured and the steps to achieving it.

My Department is currently developing the White Paper, which will set out options, together with the recommended direction, for the new model of accommodation and services for International Protection applicants and the transitional processes needed to implement the model. Options for developing a not-for-profit approach are currently being examined in this regard. I expect to submit the White Paper to Government later this month.

It is recognised by all involved that the replacement of the current system is complex and it will take some time. Therefore, in order to meet our legal obligations to provide accommodation and other support services for protection applicants, existing accommodation centres will continue to operate in the medium term while we progress to the new model. However, in doing so we will be focusing on the provision of own-door accommodation and facilities to allow for independent living (access to cooking and laundry facilities and communal family areas outside bedrooms) and working to cease our use of emergency accommodation in hotels and guest-houses.

In the interim period between now and the new model being fully operational and as current contracts reach their expiry date, an assessment will be undertaken with respect to the demand for accommodation services at that time and the capacity within the Department’s accommodation portfolio to meet that demand. Any decision to extend current contractual arrangements will be based on that assessment.

Question No. 565 answered with Question No. 531.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

Questions (566)

Thomas Pringle

Question:

566. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if he will report on the recruitment of data protection experts by his office for dealing with the records from the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7276/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation will stand dissolved in law on 28th February 2021 and is due to submit its archive of records to my Department by that date. Former residents of Mother and Baby homes will be able to make a Subject Access Request (SAR) to the Department under the GDPR for access to their record.

The fundamental principles of GDPR will apply to these records as they do to any others: a person has a right to their personal data, but this is not an unqualified right. The release of that data must also not adversely affect the rights and freedoms of others.

In relation to the transfer of the Commission’s databases and records, my Department is working intensively to ensure that it is properly resourced to handle subject access requests from people who were resident in mother and baby homes. In this regard, my Department has established a new Unit to look after this hugely important and significant volume of work. Work is ongoing to ensure that there is a range of appropriate expertise including data protection expertise within the Unit.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

Questions (567)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

567. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the process for survivors of the mother and baby homes to access information related to them from the home they were in; if this information will be redacted; if they can gain access to unredacted copies; if there are circumstances in which there is additional information which they will not be allowed to access; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7300/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation will stand dissolved in law on 28th February 2021 and is due to submit its archive of records to my Department by that date. Former residents of Mother and Baby Homes will be able to make a Subject Access Request (SAR) to the Department under the GDPR for access to their record.

My Department is working intensively to ensure that it is properly resourced to handle subject access requests from people who were resident in mother and baby homes when the Commission's database and records are transferred. In this regard, the Department has established a new Unit to look after this hugely important and significant volume of work.

Everyone has the right to access their own personal data and can make a subject access request to the Department in respect of their own personal information. Subject access requests must be individually considered and in providing each person with a copy of their personal data, consideration must be given to the overarching principle that the release of personal data must not prejudice the rights and freedoms of others. It is important to acknowledge that subject access requests may not necessarily provide all of the information that the requester wishes to see.

My Department is consulting with the Data Protection Commission in relation to the Department's policies and procedures. It is my intention to publish the Department's policies and procedures later this month in line with the principle of transparency and in compliance with the Data Protection Regulatory Framework.

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Question No. 569 answered with Question No. 537.

Questions Nos. 570 to 572, inclusive, answered with Question No. 531.

Questions (568)

Thomas Pringle

Question:

568. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if aspects of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child can be put on a legislative footing given the legislative lacuna despite Article 42A; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7308/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

While the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child does not form part of the domestic law of the State, the substance of many of the rights set out in the Convention (including the child's right to have their views heard and the child's right to non-discrimination) are protected by the Irish Constitution and by legislation such as the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964 (as amended by the Child and Family Relationships Act 2015) and the Domestic Violence Act 2018.

Article 42A of the Constitution obliges the State to make provision in law that in the resolution of relevant proceedings brought by the State, the best interests of a child shall be the paramount consideration. It also requires that provision be made in law for securing, as far as practicable, that in proceedings in respect of any child who is capable of forming his or her own views, the views of the child shall be ascertained and given due weight having regard to the age and maturity of the child.

I plan to shortly seek government approval for the general scheme for a new Child Care (Amendment) [Guardian ad litem] Bill. This Bill, similarly to the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2019, which fell with the last government, will introduce amendments to the wider Child Care Act 1991 in addition to the sections specific to guardian ad litem reform.

1. It will put new obligations on the Court to consider the best interests of the child. It will amend the 1991 Act by substituting a new section 24 for the existing section. This new Section 24 will focus on the child’s rights. The purpose of the amendment is to reflect the intent of Article 42A of the Constitution by confirming that in any child care proceedings under the 1991 Act, the court must regard the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration.

2. It will also insert a new section 24A, providing that where a child is capable of forming his or her own views in any proceedings under the 1991 Act, the court must determine how to facilitate him or her in expressing those views. It will be required to give any view the child wishes to express due weight, having regard to his or her age and maturity.

Providing for a more widespread appointment of guardians ad litem is also part of this response. Guardians ad litem are a tested and known methodology for ensuring that the voice of the child is heard in court. However, they are not the only way to do this. Under the Review of the Child Care Act, currently being undertaken by this department, we are also looking at how we can encourage the more direct participation of children.

Question No. 569 answered with Question No. 537.
Questions Nos. 570 to 572, inclusive, answered with Question No. 531.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

Questions Nos. 574 and 575 answered with Question No. 531.

Questions (573)

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

573. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if an audio version of the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes will be available for a survivor who requests one. [7360/21]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

The Commission's Final Report was made available in digital format in the first instance so as to immediately make it accessible to the widest possible audience. There are a number of tools available both on and offline that can provide assistance to individuals in accessing the Report by converting text to audio. This includes a read aloud function available on most devices which can be enabled through the accessibility settings on the device.

The Report has been uploaded to my Department's website in a PDF format. By accessing the Report in this way, users can avail of the read aloud function that is accessible through the Adobe software. My Department is preparing guidance in the form of an accessible tutorial to assist individuals in using this tool, and will provide this information on the website.

Questions Nos. 574 and 575 answered with Question No. 531.

Education Policy

Questions (576)

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

576. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans regarding increasing digital literacy among citizens and businesses, as detailed in the programme for Government.; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6430/21]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

In the Programme for Government ‘Our Shared Future’, there is a commitment to develop a 10-year strategy for adult literacy, numeracy, and digital literacy. I have asked SOLAS to lead on its development.

This new strategy will provide a framework to build on and streamline the substantial work that is already being done across a range of Departments and agencies, to increase awareness of services for the public and to capture the contribution that can be made right across Government to deliver better literacy, numeracy and digital skills in the adult population. The framework being provided through this new strategy will be used to embed the use of literacy friendly provision and plain language to ensure the most accessible public, civil and business services throughout the country

To support a whole-of-government approach, I established an interdepartmental stakeholder group on literacy, numeracy and digital literacy. This group is made up of Government Departments, Government agencies and stakeholder groups with keys roles in the areas of adult literacy, numeracy and digital literacy. The development of this strategy will include input from relevant Government Departments, agencies, and broader stakeholder groups. A technical advisory group is also in place to ensure the strategy is informed by relevant research and expertise.

Work is well under way, and SOLAS is currently developing the strategy under the guidance of the interdepartmental stakeholder group. The extensive research and consultation phases of the strategy's development are almost complete, during which views were sought from a broad range of stakeholders. I intend to bring the completed strategy to Government in the coming months.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Questions (577, 582)

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

577. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the engagement between his Department, CORU and education providers regarding social care students and their difficulties in relation to mandatory hours of placement; and the identified solutions and timeframe for implementation. [6483/21]

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Mick Barry

Question:

582. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans for students in third-level institutions who are required to undertake a certain number of placement hours to obtain their qualifications, such as those studying social care in TU Dublin (details supplied), but who have been hindered because of the Covid-19 restrictions; the steps he will take to ensure that those with work, childcare and other commitments who will face difficulties rearranging placements for the summer will be facilitated; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6572/21]

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Written answers (Question to Further and Higher Education)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 577 and 582 together.

I am aware that issues have arisen in relation to placement hours both for students of Social Care programmes and for placements more generally as the restrictions to combat the spread of Covid-19 have tightened. My Department is monitoring developments in this regard very closely.

From the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, significant work has been undertaken by a stakeholder group chaired by the Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), and including the representative bodies of education providers and students to address issues relating to the maintenance of the quality and standards of:

- teaching and learning,

- assessment, and

- qualifications.

This group has focused on the implementation of alternative arrangements and methods of delivery, where appropriate and necessary, to meet both these standards and, where applicable, the educational accreditation criteria established by Professional Recognition Bodies (PRBs).

In the case of Social Care, the awards standards in place for these qualifications reflect the accreditation criteria and placement requirements that have been set out by CORU, Ireland's multi-profession Health and Social Care Regulator and consequently the relevant PRB for this profession.

Since March 2020, QQI has facilitated engagement between members of the stakeholders group and CORU which have taken place in parallel to direct engagements between CORU and individual education providers at a local and regional level. The goal of these engagements has been to ensure that, where possible, necessary alternative arrangements are in place to maintain the standards of education and training in this area and that these issues are actively managed. These efforts are to ensure that students can progress in their programmes from one academic year into the next, or, where relevant, graduate with the necessary professional competencies that have been set out by CORU.

While I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the efforts that have been made by CORU, QQI and our educational institutions to identify and implement flexible solutions for students up to this point, I am conscious that further efforts are now necessary.

The current timing and the likely duration of Covid restrictions has created even greater disruption and uncertainty in this space than anticipated and has substantially impacted on the expected level of available social care placements. It is in this context that I have asked QQI, supported by my Department, to facilitate intensified engagements between CORU, education providers and relevant stakeholders on this issue. The focus of these engagements will be to identify solutions that can be swiftly implemented for the student cohort who are most impacted in the near term while also identifying flexible approaches that can be readily adopted within the system in the medium to longer term as the response to the pandemic evolves and changes. These engagements will facilitate a dialogue among stakeholders in developing these solutions and, most importantly, will ensure transparency and clarity for those students studying social care.

Students should continue to engage directly with their provider for further information on the arrangements being implemented for their particular year and course.