Topical Issue Debate

JobPath Implementation

Tuigim go mbeidh an tAire Stáit, an Teachta Kyne, ag tógáil na ceiste seo. Tá áthas orm faoi sin mar tá mé cinnte go dtuigfidh sé bunús na ceiste.

I have no major argument with JobPath in its own right, many people who will never get commercial employment are being enrolled in it. The Minister of State knows the type of people I am talking about and their profiles. He will be familiar with them from his clinics and from meeting them in other places, as I am. In some cases, JobPath requires people to travel 100 km to Galway once a week to fill in CVs for jobs they will never get. This is not the main issue I am raising today.

Once a person enrols in JobPath, he or she is required to stay on the programme for one year. If JobPath was a voluntary scheme, it would be reasonable, however, it is as voluntary as the army volunteer who receives an order. Many of these people are coming to my constituency office and saying they have been offered a place in Tús but have been told they cannot leave JobPath before their year is finished in order to take the Tús place. As the Minister of State is aware, Tús places are highly prized. People want to take up Tús places given that they give them gainful occupation. We should fully recognise that people work on these schemes and that, at a premium of €20 per week, they are probably the cheapest employees in the country. Unfortunately, the Deputies here changed the means testing to make it even less attractive to enrol in these schemes.

I am asking that people would be allowed to transfer mid-stream from JobPath to Tús. By the time they have finished JobPath, the Tús place will have been given to somebody else, and they will spend another year without something gainful to do. When I initially established the Tús scheme, it was not my intention that it would last as a one-year scheme. We know many people will never get commercial jobs, although the system does not want to admit it. The system never covered the commercial market and employed people, as I did. This does not mean they will not do good work, particularly given the very small top-up we pay them. Many of the football pitches, green areas, halls and community centres would not be maintained, open and in good condition were it not for these schemes.

Where it is likely that a person will fail to get commercial employment through JobPath because the professional who is supervising him or her has figured out that his or her marketability on the open market is not great, he or she should be allowed to take places on the Tús scheme as they come up and should not be forced to pass them up and hope another opportunity will come up again once he or she completes the JobPath programme. The Minister of State knows many of the people to whom I refer because we share the same constituency and he knows that this dream of them all getting commercial employment is not based on the reality of the mixture of people in our constituency and in others.

I thank the Deputy for tabling this Topical Issue to my colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, who, unfortunately, has been called away at short notice. I am taking this on his behalf.

JobPath is an employment activation service that supports people who are long-term unemployed and those most distant from the labour market to secure and sustain full-time paid employment. It is one of a range of activation supports, including schemes such as Tús and the community employment, CE, scheme, catering for long-term unemployed jobseekers. Participants on JobPath receive intensive individual support to help them to overcome barriers to employment and to assist them in finding full-time sustainable jobs. Each person is assigned to a personal adviser who assesses the individual's skills, experience, challenges and work goals. The personal adviser works with the jobseeker to agree a personal progression plan that includes a schedule of activities, actions and job-focused targets. Jobseekers are also provided with a range of training and development supports including online modules, career advice, CV preparation and interview skills. They spend a year on JobPath and if they are placed in a job, they will continue to receive support for at least three months and up to 12 months while in employment. During their time on JobPath, they may also be referred for further education and training opportunities. Payments to JobPath providers are linked to, and dependent on, the success of the programme in placing clients into full-time sustained employment and on the quality of services provided.

CE and Tús schemes provide long-term unemployed people with part-time experience as a stepping stone back to employment. However, they are not full sustainable jobs. To manage the allocation of activation support places effectively, the Department does not facilitate or encourage jobseekers to leave one scheme early to take up a place on another scheme. However, where a person is selected for JobPath and has a confirmed start date for another programme, including CE and Tús, then the person is allowed to start on the other programme if he or she so wishes. Participation in other schemes and programmes, including Tús and CE schemes, remains an option that will be assessed by the Department’s case officers once the jobseeker’s participation on JobPath is completed.

The Deputy is correct that I have come across cases like those he mentioned in our constituency. I hope the same people are not approaching both of us.

I hope they are because they are hard cases.

They are hard cases and I understand where the Deputy is coming from. I also recognise the importance of the great work that people do on CE and Tús schemes. The Deputy was involved in the establishment of those schemes when he was Minister. I will take this issue back to the Minister and ask him to re-examine it. The Deputy is correct that everyone is not suited to JobPath. I have met people who have fallen through the cracks and they are not capable for a variety of reasons of taking up such an option. There is validity in what the Deputy is asking for and I will bring the cases up with the Minister. He is new in the job but I will establish if he can re-examine the options the Deputy suggested.

When I was asked would I accept that the Minister could not come to the House because he was otherwise engaged and I was told the Minister of State was coming in, I said that was acceptable because I know he faces the same realities with the same humanity that I face every day. When I set up Tús, it was initially intended to be similar to the rural social scheme whereby participants could make a career out of the scheme. It was intended for those who would never secure commercial employment. I recall when I worked in a co-operative that some staff worked in the commercial timber mill while others worked on a scheme. Some people were doing good work on the scheme but I would not have given them a job in the commercial part of the business for reasons that anybody who understands people knows. The Department sometimes reminds me of a cartoon published in Dublin Opinion many years ago of Cardinal Henry Newman reading a book he wrote on the university with a caption beneath it saying Cardinal Henry Newman did not understand students because the book was idealistic. There is an ideal in the Department of Social Protection that has been there for a long time that everybody in society is capable of securing a commercial job if he or she only put his or her mind to it. Let us face the reality that people vary in their many manifestations. They are not necessarily better or worse people but some people will never get a commercial job, anymore than someone will ever teach me to play music. I could be trained until the cows come home but I would not be able to play music. I wish I could; I would love to be able to but I cannot. I had all the music classes available as a child but it just did not work.

I am delighted the Minister of State is present and all I can ask him to do is go back to the Minister and ask him to think about all those who visit his clinic and his colleagues' clinics, the reality experienced by the people we meet every day and recognise that a long-term as opposed to a one-year Tús scheme is needed, similar to the rural social scheme, which has done so much good work. Such a scheme would provide gainful occupation for people on a long-term basis. All they are asking for is a small top-up of their dole payment. They would then have the dignity of having somewhere to go and work to do.

It is amazing, as I pointed out when I was in the Department, that we never seem to stop to ask ourselves what would happen to community services in most of Ireland if Tús, CE, RSS and other schemes were stopped. Most of the equivalent work done on these schemes is done by fully paid local authority staff in public parks and so on in Dublin. Will the Minister of State do his best on our behalf? His heart is in the right place.

I will engage with the Minister on this issue. JobPath will increase the capacity of the Department to provide services to jobseekers most in need of help and it has contracted two companies to deliver the programme's services. Both companies have considerable experience in successfully delivering employment services. There are two contract areas. The roll-out of JobPath is expected to be completed in early July and, at that stage, all departmental offices will refer jobseekers to JobPath. Some 37,000 clients have been referred to the programme on a pilot basis and the experience so far has been positive. For all the positive cases, there are people who fall through the cracks and who are in dire straits. These are the cases to which the Deputy refers. There are success stories and positives, as there are under every scheme, but we must address the people who fall through the cracks because of the terms and conditions of the scheme or because they are not suited to it. I will take that up with the Minister.

Jobseekers retain their social welfare payment while on JobPath. Participation in the programme is mandatory and all decisions about client welfare entitlements are taken by departmental officials. JobPath contracts stipulate a significant number of requirements that both companies have to meet and the contracts have an inbuilt service guarantee, which means that each jobseeker will be guaranteed a baseline level of service, including frequent meetings with case officers and a transparent complaints process, etc. JobPath providers are bound under contract to achieve specified levels of employment, progression performance and customer service quality and failure to achieve these targets will affect their payments. Service quality will be reviewed by independent customer satisfaction research. This will be rolled out fully in July. There has been a pilot programme. I will take up the cases highlighted by the Deputy with the Minister to see what can be done to allow these individuals to opt for other schemes where possible.

Water Quality

Regrettably, Deputy Burton and I have to share time on this important matter. I was first elected to Fingal County Council 12 years ago last Sunday. During that time, there have been major deficiencies in the wastewater infrastructure in the Fingal area. Both Deputy Burton and I represent constituencies in the Fingal County Council jurisdiction. Balbriggan, Rush, Skerries and, more often than not, Malahide and Portmarnock have been affected by serious difficulties with the infrastructure provided by the county council.

There has been exponential growth in both constituencies and, in the case of coastal towns, somewhere in the region of 90,000 people live in the areas affected by no-swim notices in recent weeks. This unacceptable.

In the town of Rush which has a population of approximately 11,000 - I am sure that figure will be borne out by the census results in the next few months - 75% of the waste generated is flushed out to sea untreated. When I was elected to Fingal County Council 12 years ago, there were contracts for the segregation of the wastewater and surface water in both Rush and Malahide. Both were put out to tender, but, unfortunately, both had to be withdrawn and a few years later the entire process collapsed following the downturn in the economy.

The difficulty we have is that in Fingal which has a community of more than 250,000 which is growing enormously there is seriously substandard water infrastructure, particularly waste infrastructure. While I appreciate the work Irish Water is doing in Rush, in particular, it is simply unacceptable that when we had what could not be described as a deluge - I believe it lasted for about eight minutes in Portmarnock - the entire beach had to be shut down for a period of three days. At the northern end of the constituency it had to be closed for longer; admittedly there was heavier rainfall, but the major difficulty I have is that there does not seem to be an impetus to have the infrastructure upgraded. I will ask a question and then conclude.

The Deputy is eating into Deputy Joan Burton's time.

What happened to all of the development levies raised? What happened to the subvention imposed by the Government of the day to meet infrastructural requirements in northern Fingal?

Seven beaches were closed in north County Dublin during the recent spell of fine weather which the rest of the country was celebrating. Beaches that are well known and were named for their beauty such as Velvet Strand were closed because faecal waste, nappies and so on were floating in the water owing to heavy rain, as a result of which the pumping stations were overflowing. It seems extraordinary that nothing was said by the Minister responsible for the environment. His Department has not yet been renamed, but when it is, I understand he proposes to drop the word "environment" from the title. This would be an environmental disaster. I know that the Government is focused, in particular, on rural Ireland, but believe it or not there are people living in urban Ireland and the closure of all beaches in a heavily populated part of the country is an environmental disaster, about which concern has not been expressed and in respect of which no action has been initiated by the Minister for the environment who, unfortunately, is not able to be with us today. In both Rush and Loughshinny, where there have been problems for years, we are now at the point where if we have a fine summer in which there will be downpours every so often which seems to be the emerging pattern as the climate changes, we could face the closure of beaches for a prolonged period. I ask the Minister what, if anything, the Government intends to do to address this environmental disaster which, if it were to happen even on a single beach in a rural area, I have no doubt we would have six, seven or perhaps ten Ministers falling all over it and possibly running down to inspect the damage. I do not think we have received any ministerial visit.

I thank both Deputies for raising this matter. I am taking this Topical Issue on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, who cannot be here.

I am aware of concerns about discharges in north county Dublin and the subsequent impact on beach water quality, including in Rush. However, it is important to state neither the Minister nor his Department has any direct role in monitoring or supervising the delivery of water services or any pollution incident arising therefrom. While it is unfortunate to have beach closures, particularly during the peak tourism season, it must be acknowledged that such closures take place primarily on a precautionary basis for the protection of public health. Where local authorities identify particular risk events such as intense localised rainfall or a discharge incident at an urban wastewater facility, a bathing prohibition will allow for the testing of waters while protecting public health. All such incidents are reported to the Environmental Protection Agency's wastewater enforcement system and publicised on the SPLASH website at splash.epa.ie., the national bathing water information website for identified bathing waters around Ireland.

The 2015 bathing water report produced by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, identifies several bathing waters adjacent to urban areas, particularly those in and around Dublin Bay, as being prone to episodic pollution events and having less than good water quality status. In Fingal, Rush South Beach and Loughshinny fall into this category. Such episodic pollution events are generally associated with overflows from pumping stations or storm outfalls as a result of sewer network blockages or following heavy rainfall. The EPA's report highlights the remedial works planned by Irish Water in Loughshinny and Rush and significant infrastructural investment will be required to reduce the likelihood of a recurrence of pollution events in these urban areas.

The EPA is the environmental regulator responsible for the licensing, authorisation and enforcement of urban wastewater discharges consistent with the requirements of the urban wastewater treatment directive. The directive sets out requirements for the collection, treatment and discharge of urban wastewater, with the objective of protecting the environment from the adverse effects of wastewater discharges. In its most recent annual report for 2014 on compliance with the directive, Urban Waste Water Treatment in 2014, the EPA has identified 42 urban locations in which untreated sewage is being discharged to waters. The report outlines why significant and sustained investment in the public water and wastewater systems is needed. Historical under-investment in water infrastructure in Ireland now means that Irish Water has major issues to address in the coming years and providing funding for that investment is a very significant challenge for the Government. Bringing Ireland into full compliance with the urban wastewater directive is a priority for the Government, but it will take a number of years of sustained investment to achieve this.

Since 1 January 2014 Irish Water has statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local level, including the management of urban wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure, and is responsible for compliance with the requirements of authorisations issued by the EPA. Irish Water has put in place an investment plan setting out where it considers investment in infrastructure is necessary and in developing investment plans it is required to consult the EPA and the planning authorities, among others. The water services strategic plan, WSSP, published by Irish Water outlines the strategic direction for it in the short, medium and long-term timeframes up to 2040. It identifies and prioritises the key objectives required-----

I thank the Minister of State. The remainder of the script will appear in the Official Report.

I will move to the last sentence. The next stage of the strategy, to connect the entire Rush catchment to the wastewater treatment plant, is set to commence construction in the third quarter of the year and expected to be completed in two years. The scheme involves the construction of three new pump stations and approximately 6 km of associated sewers.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. I accept the point that the Minister has no direct responsibility for monitoring water quality, but he could pick up the telephone and talk to the head of Irish Water, highlight the press coverage of such instances that have occurred on a regular basis and ask the question I am asking today: why are we waiting so long for basic infrastructure to be put in place? As I mentioned, 75% of the waste flushed down toilets in Rush goes directly out to sea untreated. Rush is not a small town; it has a population of more than 10,000. In certain parts of the United State it would be considered to be a city. We have to invest money in infrastructural projects that would make a significant difference. I was elected to the local authority 12 years ago and for all of that period this has been an issue.

No priority has been given to providing a basic element of societal infrastructure such as a reasonable waste water facility.

It appears from all the statements being made about housing development that this particular part of Fingal, and the rest of Fingal, will be the largest area of housing development in the county generally over the next period of time and yet the Minister appears in terms of the reply to be washing his hands of the issue with no concern. Developers did very well out of the people in the area. In the different towns like Lusk, Portrane and Loughshinny, people paid high prices for their homes and paid large development levies within that price. In fact, people living in the area have contributed a great deal to pay for this infrastructure. What is extraordinary is that the Government has also now quasi-suspended Irish Water from what we are led to believe in terms of the deal with Fianna Fáil. As such, it is almost back to the council days of old when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were in an unholy alliance to do the bidding of the developers. There is no response as yet to what is an environmental disaster.

I will take the Deputies' concerns on board. As I said at the beginning of the reply, there is historical underinvestment in water infrastructure which is the reason we now have this major crisis. I will raise with the Minister the Deputy's concern around his lack of response to the crisis. Perhaps he might come back to the Deputy himself. While tackling the causes of beach pollution is a high priority for Government, it is important to note that the quality of Ireland's bathing water is generally very high with just over 93% of identified bathing water sites, or 128 of 137, meeting the minimum EU standards for sufficient water quality over the four year assessment period 2012 to 2015. Of those, 83%, or 114, were classified as either excellent or good water quality. I know we are not debating that but what the Minister is saying very clearly in his reply is that because of the historical underinvestment in water infrastructure, Irish Water has the major issue of playing catch up. I will raise the issues the Deputies raised with the Minister. I have taken notes and will ask the Minister to come back to them both on a one-to-one level.

Greenways Funding

I wish the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, the very best in his new Department. I note that he has been to Ballymahon and Athlone in relation to this project and assessing the viability of the greenways. First, I will focus on the Westmeath section. The Government has commissioned a cycle route from Mullingar to Athlone at a cost of €7 million, which came from the economic stimulus fund. This has been a huge success for the area. When discussing these projects, it is important to use the word "greenways". What we mean by that is that they are suitable for cycling, walking, running and family events, which brings the whole community together. I note that activity has increased sharply along the Mullingar to Athlone greenway and the use has been significant over the last number of weeks. Car parks are being developed at key locations along the greenway to ensure maximum use. However, the Athlone section of the greenway needs an extension from Garrycastle, where the greenway currently ends, to White Gates in Athlone. This is a ready-made project and would have huge benefits in terms of providing access through to the regional sports centre and three schools. It would form part of the regeneration of the area. I urge the Minister, having been to Athlone and hearing first-hand from the officials, to progress this project and authorise funding from his Department. There could be huge community gains.

I will focus now on County Longford. I acknowledge the huge work that Longford County Council is doing in relation to the greenway network. The local authority has a proposal to progress a section from Abbeyshrule to Ballymahon and Killashee. The Part 8 planning permission process has been completed for the section and, as such, I point out that this is a ready-to-go project. I urge the Minister to consider strongly approving funding within the Department for the project. He was also in Ballymahon where I attended a meeting at which he met the officials of Longford County Council. The previous Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, was also in the area where he met the local authority and public representatives to discuss this worthwhile project. Longford County Council has invested a huge amount of funding in this, €50,000 on two occasions. I also understand that Longford Tourism invested €250,000. A lot of people in Longford are frustrated about the finishing off of the national spatial strategy which precluded the county from applying for a lot of different streams of funding. That was because of the gateway status heretofore. However, with the dawn of the Center Parcs project, the Government has a key chance to invest in County Longford to make it a hub for tourism. That can be developed now. Fáilte Ireland is aggressively promoting Ireland's Ancient East and the Wild Atlantic Way and this is a key project it can get behind in terms of the whole gateway status in County Longford and County Westmeath. In turn, that would improve tourism in the county and have massive economic benefit. It also has great health benefits for the area. Families and communities can gain the rewards from this investment and enjoy the fruits of it.

I thank the Deputy for bringing this very important issue to my attention. Indeed, I have had more questions on this particular issue in the last two days than I have had on anything else. Greenways are all the rage.

As the Deputy said, I was recently in County Westmeath and met him, my colleague, Deputy Kevin Moran, councillors and officials from Westmeath County Council. I was taken by their commitment to developing greenways in County Westmeath and was impressed by the significant work carried out to date on both the old rail trail from Mullingar to Athlone and the greenway from Mullingar to Abbeyshrule in County Longford. Both projects were funded by my Department as was the original section of this greenway from the Meath border to Mullingar alongside the Royal Canal. To date, I understand that Westmeath County Council has been provided with funding of €8.7 million for greenway development in the county. This shows the commitment of both Westmeath and my Department to the development of these wonderful amenities. Indeed, Westmeath is the centre of much of the greenway network that we have in this country. From the county border with County Meath to Abbeyshrule in Longford and Athlone, there is a grand total of just over 80 km of greenways in County Westmeath.

With regard to County Longford, I understand that the county council has done some very good work to date with no funding from other sources to achieve planning permission for its own cycle network in the county. It also provided the entire funding to extend the greenway from the county border with Westmeath into the village of Abbeyshrule. This is an example to other local authorities of what can be achieved through a bottom-up approach to the development of greenway projects. With the prospect of the Center Parcs facility opening near Ballymahon in a few years, the future for tourism in County Longford is looking very positive.

As part of my Department's plans for the Galway to Dublin greenway, we hope to continue the greenway from Garrycastle to the marina in Athlone and westwards across the Shannon to Galway. I understand that Westmeath County Council has planning in place for this section and is shortly to submit an application for planning for a new bridge across the Shannon from the marina. I understand that the proposed extension from Garrycastle to White Gates provides links to a number of schools and colleges in Athlone and would therefore provide the opportunity to assist in increasing the numbers cycling to school and college. This is a hugely important benefit to those living in Athlone and the surrounding area and would also be of benefit to the younger generation in educating them and encouraging them in the use of more sustainable forms of transport.

The experience of the great western greenway in County Mayo has shown that there is a definite appetite for this type of route, which provides not only a different view of the country in terms of the tourism experience, but also a safe and secure route for cyclists of all levels of ability and confidence.

The cross-cutting benefits of cycling are multifaceted and range from tourism and health, both physical and mental, to rural development and urban regeneration. Anyone who has seen the transformation of Newport on the great western greenway will have seen this first hand, not to mention the contribution to a reduction in carbon emissions and a decrease in congestion in our towns and cities. I was pleased to see that the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Dublin City Council's publication of the canal cordon count for 2015 showed another increase in the numbers cycling into Dublin city centre during rush hour. We need to continue increasing the numbers cycling, and greenways provide an easy introduction to cycling for some and a reintroduction for others who may have cycled when younger.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply and will make a few points on foot of it. As he outlined, a number of projects will be considered for funding by his Department, but I assure him that the projects in counties Longford and Westmeath would have major benefits. I cannot emphasise strongly enough the fact that they are ready to go. Longford and Westmeath county councils have done great work to date and significant economic benefit could be reaped by going the extra mile.

I will push this point strongly for County Longford, the people of which have endured a great deal in recent years. The dawn of the Center Parcs project is a ray of hope, but we need to get the facilities in place to meet that project. We must work hard so as to ensure that the cycle network is up and running and we can get maximum benefit from the project. We must market the greenway aggressively. Fáilte Ireland has a number of projects nationally, including Ireland's Ancient East and the Wild Atlantic Way, but this one involves a number of local amenities and features that could bring significant economic benefit to the area, for example, old abandoned stations along the Mullingar-Athlone route that could be visited by tourists, provide a glimpse of our past and be a great asset to our community.

I thank the Minister for his work and for visiting the constituency and meeting officials from the area. I urge him to put this project at the top of his Department's regional priorities.

I thank the Deputy. I hate to say it to him, but I have been invited back to Athlone by Deputy Moran. Deputy Burke will be fed up seeing me, as I will revisit the area and see those parts of the greenway that I did not see last time.

I am energised, as are my Department and my colleagues, by the idea of greenways, which was only recently introduced to me in a serious way. Deputy Burke will find that the Department and I are not lacking in our enthusiasm for the project that he described and I hope that we will be able to see progress on it shortly.

Funding is an issue for cycling infrastructure in our towns and cities and for greenways development. I am considering which projects we will spend the remainder of our 2016 allocation on, focusing on those that can be delivered as soon as possible. The projects submitted by Westmeath and Longford will figure in those considerations, as will the sections of the Galway-Dublin greenway in counties Kildare and Meath that would provide a 100 km route from Maynooth to Athlone and see a significant increase in the already impressive numbers using the old rail trail. Only those greenway proposals that have planning permission in place, such as those that I have mentioned along with the Tullamore-Lough Boora greenway in Offaly, will be considered for this reallocation of funding. I hope to be in a position to make these decisions on funding shortly.

Early Childhood Care and Education

I wish to ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to discuss concerns regarding insufficient capacity within the early education sector in the context of forthcoming changes in regulations. I am grateful for her attendance, as she has had a busy day at the children in 2016 event, which looked fantastic.

I am asking my question because there is a concern in the sector and among facilities, be they privately run child care facilities or family resource centres, that there may be some difficulty in their capacity to operate at current levels of service provision when the Child Care Act 1991 (Early Years Services) Regulations 2016 enter into effect. I refer specifically to regulation No. 9(4), under which all employees must have at a minimum a Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, level 5 award in early childhood care and education by December 2016. My understanding is that this applies specifically to staff counted for ratios. The only exceptions are where an employee has signed a declaration on or before 30 June to the effect that he or she will retire from employment before September 2021 or where the employee has received a letter from the Minister. This means that all staff within child care settings who are counted for ratios must have an early years QQI level 5 award, whereas until January 2017 only two staff need to have level 5 awards while any additional staff counted for ratios need no early years qualifications.

These regulations were widely welcomed. Táimid báúil leis an iarracht anseo agus tá polasaithe Shinn Féin láidir ina leith seo. Is dócha go mbeadh an earnáil níos proifisiúnta. Sinn Féin supports the increased professionalisation of the sector, the regulations and their aspirations. We also support more affordable and better quality child care as an investment in the future. We support the aim of a 60% degree-led early childhood care and education, ECCE, workforce by 2025, as recommended by the EU. We believe that training must be given at the Government's expense and during paid time for workers. We seek the immediate roll-out of Síolta and Aistear through county child care committees. In order to support quality in the sector with an incremental move towards its becoming graduate degree led, the Government should expand the learner fund to levels 7 and 8 qualifications, which I understand would cost approximately €16 million.

The regulations' objective is important and one that we support, but many facilities that, although they have high staff levels, do not have enough people at each level of qualification under the regulations, must hire additional qualified staff at substantial cost. They must weigh up whether to take on the additional staff or accept fewer children. The latter has a cost implication, although not as high as that of employing additional staff. Fewer early years places for children aged between one and three years is an outcome that none of us wants, as it would have a significant impact on children and families, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, and would exclude vulnerable children.

The Government has acknowledged that this is an issue and facilities are applying for additional funding, but it is unclear as to whether they will receive anything. The Minister may claim that it comes down to budgets, but the timeframe is tight for the facilities. The regulations do not enter into force until January, but the school year starts in September, which means that many providers must make the decision now if they are to be prepared. We are not advocating that the regulations' implementation be delayed any further, but additional resources are required and it is essential that any decision on whatever Supplementary or Revised Estimates are needed be taken now.

I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire for raising an important question, as it gives me an opportunity to put on the record some of the ways in which we have been preparing for the implementation of the new child care regulations. I assure the Deputy that, although I was at an extraordinary event where we launched a report, Children Seen and Heard: 1916 to 2016, at Áras an Uachtaráin, I would never be too busy to be present to respond to his important questions and concerns. I will offer a couple of reflections that go wider in terms of the regulations that are coming into place while addressing the specific question on qualifications, which is important in the context of the regulations' implementation.

I will address the Deputy's question also.

As the Deputy knows, new child care regulations were published in May of this year and will come into effect on a phased basis from 30 June 2016. The 30 county and city child care committees around the country have been providing significant support to providers to deliver and develop their services and to ensure compliance with the regulations. In addition, the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, has hosted multiple roadshows around the country to communicate with providers on how the new regulations will affect them. It is critical that Tusla is doing that. There has been a large attendance at the roadshows and feedback has been positive. The Child and Family Agency is working on the preparation of the quality and regulatory framework which will be used to inform early-years inspectors and providers on compliance with the regulations. As the Deputy indicated, we welcome the regulations. It is important that we have regulations to ensure quality for children. This is proactive work that is being done by Tusla to help the sector to be ready.

A core part of the quality agenda pertains to increasing the qualification standards of those working in preschool child care. This is at the core of the Deputy’s concern. The new regulations require that all staff members working directly with children in preschool services must hold at least a major award in early childhood care and education at level 5 on the national qualifications framework, or a qualification deemed to be equivalent. This requirement will come into effect for newly registering services on 30 June 2016, and for existing services on 31 December 2016. I understand that an estimated 91% of child care workers already meet this requirement, and that the majority of the remainder are currently enrolled in courses that will provide appropriate qualifications.

In order to support staff in meeting the new qualification requirements, my Department established the Learner Fund, which has already allocated €3.5 million to over 3,000 staff for the purpose of upskilling. Funding of €1.5 million was allocated for Learner Fund 4 in budget 2016. This will be allocated to 1,000 early-years practitioners to undertake and complete the level 6 qualification. A large number of further and higher education institutions provide courses that are producing graduates at level 5 through to level 8 every year, and my Department is working with the Department of Education and Skills to monitor supply in the coming years.

My expectation is that, in general, there will be sufficient capacity in the early-years education sector to cater for the September 2016 intake of children for the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme, the expansion of which was announced in budget 2016. This expansion means that children will be eligible to start free preschool when they reach the age of three, and continue to avail of free preschool until they start primary school. As a result, the number of children benefitting from the ECCE programme will rise from around 67,000 to around 127,000 in a given programme year.

I thank the Minister for her response. The figure of 91% is new to me. It certainly represents a substantial number. The Minister and I touched on the issue of additional funding provided by the Learner Fund. When people have additional qualifications, it has an implication for pay. We are very keen to emphasise that the increase in professionalisation in the sector, in light of our desire to ensure qualified professionals remain in the sector, will be reflected in pay.

This probably should have been dealt with earlier. That is not the fault of the Minister but there is a need to deal with it now. There was an option to be proactive and it was not taken. There are facilities that are currently applying for additional funding, not only for training but also for the payment of staff. It is unclear to them whether they will receive it. They may but it is difficult to make a decision at this point. Is there any intention, through a revised Estimate or other means, to confirm for the facilities applying for additional funding that this funding will be forthcoming so they will be in a position to maintain their current level of service provision?

I have a couple of points to make on the Deputy's additional question and one or two points on his original contribution. There are two aspects, the first of which concerns the support my Department provides to the practitioners and professionals in the early-years and child care setting, specifically in regard to the Learner Fund. As the Deputy is aware, Learner Fund 3 was to provide support and grants to individuals so they could bring their qualifications up to level 5. As I stated, 91% have achieved this. The fund will be open until July of this year. If there are any practitioners who need upskilling to level 5, the option is still available. The Learner Fund for level 6 is in train. That was part of the 2016 allocation.

The Deputy indicated that 60% of the workforce should be degree-led by 2025. My ambition is higher than that. Perhaps I should say “60% sooner than 2025” but I am working with the officials in my Department to examine the feasibility of this. We must determine the kinds of resources we need to provide to practitioners to ensure we meet the target sooner than 2025. I have begun conversations on considering the Estimates for 2017.

The second aspect of the Deputy’s question concerned the cost of preschool services and whether the funding is sufficient, especially as we extend the second year. The Department is commissioning an independent review of the cost of child care, which will begin, I hope, in early September. The information we will obtain will influence the additional resources that I am sure I need to seek to support the extraordinary people in the sector.

Sitting suspended at 4.20 p.m. and resumed at 4.30 p.m.