Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Family Resource Centres

Anne Rabbitte

Ceist:

53. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the staffing shortages that exist within many family resource centres; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [29820/19]

Is the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs aware, as I have no doubt she is, of the considerable staffing shortages in family resource centres?

Over 121 family resource centres, FRCs, provide an invaluable service to children and families. I have provided money for FRCs to employ an extra 17 staff.

Tusla provides financial support to FRCs to fund the salaries of a core staff complement and to cover some of their overheads.

I have allocated an additional €4.5 million in funding for the family resource centre programme between 2018 and 2019. This allowed for increases in core funding for each centre, as well as the establishment of 11 new FRCs last year which are now fully operational.

Many FRCs have financial and staff resources significantly in excess of the core resources provided by Tusla. Tusla’s funding for FRCs in 2019 amounts to €18 million. FRCs also receive resources from local authorities, the HSE, education and training boards, ETBs, and others.

I am aware of service pressures in some FRCs throughout the country and I have met representatives of a number of FRCs regarding funding and their wish to increase staffing levels.

Tusla engages directly with FRCs and their representative body with regard to service and staffing pressures.

Each FRC has a voluntary board of management, which is responsible for the recruitment of its employees and the terms and conditions under which they are employed.

I highly value the family resource centre programme and was pleased to secure an additional €1.5 million in funding for the programme this year. I recently announced that this additional funding will be used to: increase core funding to each of the 110 family resource centres which existed pre-2018 by 5%; employ an additional 17 family support workers, where one family resource centre in each of the 17 Tusla geographical areas will receive funding to employ a family support worker; and fund the family resource centre suicide prevention and mental health promotion programme.

We are all aware of the invaluable work of the family resource centres and it is welcome that additional centres were established in the last number of years. However, the crux of the matter is when one compares the position in 2008 with the position in 2018. Only 40 family resource centres have the core staff they had in 2008. Along with the 11 new ones, that is 51 centres out of 121. The problems have not gone away. They still exist. The staff under the voluntary board of management are working flat out. Yesterday we heard a presentation from Mr. Jim Gibson about the invaluable work the family resource centres do in assisting local authorities when it comes to supporting families who find themselves in emergency or homeless accommodation. That is not just centred in one geographical location but occurs throughout the country. In the forthcoming budget will the Minister make a presentation seeking to restore the other more than 50 family resource centres to the full staffing level of 2008?

I am committed to increasing investment in family resource centres and certainly will be seeking an increase in the Estimates process. The way in which I decided to utilise the €1.5 million increase this year demonstrates that there are various ways in which we can provide the support FRCs require. One of them is, and this gets to the heart of what the Deputy is asking, a 5% increase across the board to the FRCs that already existed, as distinct from all of them, given that we invested in establishing the new ones in the previous year. I am requesting in a letter to Tusla that it will ensure the money will be released to the FRCs by the end of July. The second way is increasing the number of staff for the coming year as identified. I hope the FRCs will be notified by the end of August about which of them can employ the extra family staff worker for their particular region of the 17 regions. There are both more staff and more money.

The Minister said there is an extra allocation of €1.5 million in funding for the 110 family resource centres aside, from the additional ones. That works out at €13,606 per family resource centre. Is that money to be allocated to the budget for taking on additional staff or is it part of the centres' core funding to provide services? If members of the family resource centres are listening to the proceedings today, I am sure they are wondering how the €1.5 million will be used. Is it ring-fenced for taking on an additional staff member on a part-time basis? That would work out at €262 per week, which would mean a centre could recruit somebody for half of the week. That might be very welcome in a family resource centre.

I will not even begin to compete with the Deputy's mathematical abilities. Their current core funding from Tusla will increase by 5%. My understanding is that they can use it in whatever way they decide to use it. Second, from a staff perspective we are also investing in one family support worker in each region to add to the complement of staff working in the family resource area. That does not necessarily mean it brings the centres back to the 2008 position or to the numbers that each family resource centre wants. I understand that, which is why I answered "yes" to the Deputy's earlier question about whether I am committed to seeking increased investment. However, I decided that for the coming year this would help to meet some of the concerns about core funding where costs related to insurance and so forth have increased, as well as trying to provide more staff in an equitable way. That is the way we have done it for the coming year.

Irish Language

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

54. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her policy on the promotion of the Irish language in all State subsidised childcare facilities; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [29377/19]

It is recognised that young children have a much better ability to learn languages and that this ability declines as people get older. We see that around us all the time. Children can learn two languages as easily as they can learn one if they are exposed to two languages. Is thought being given to promoting the use of Irish in all crèches and in the early school programme throughout the State? I refer to not only the Irish language facilities but all of them. It can be done through tapes and so forth so young children can be exposed to the Irish language, as well as the English language and can absorb it naturally, as children do. They are like sponges with languages.

I appreciate the Deputy asking his question in the language I can understand.

I am very conscious of the value of supporting the provision of services in the Irish language to children at an early age and of the role early learning and care services can play in promoting Irish as a living language, which is the subject of the Deputy's comment.

My Department has committed to a range of actions under the five-year action plan for the Irish language from 2018 to 2022. The aim of these actions is to build on existing measures, supports and partnerships in the area of Irish-medium early years education and further improve supports and services.

These actions include the provision of information and supports on childcare to parents who are raising their children through Irish, the creation of two Irish language posts in the Department and the establishment of a baseline of supports for naíonraí that will inform future policy plans.

My Department has established a dedicated early years national oversight group that monitors the implementation of the early years specific actions contained in the action plan.

The many supports my Department offers are available to all early learning and care services, and efforts are being made to ensure improved communication with Irish-speaking childcare services. In respect of the forthcoming national childcare scheme, the website and parent application will be available in Irish.

Irish-speaking support staff are available to answer parental queries, and communications about the scheme are also available in Irish.

Training and materials for the access and inclusion model that helps children with a disability to participate in the ECCE scheme are available through Irish.

My Department remains committed to supporting services wishing to operate through the medium of Irish and will continue to engage with relevant stakeholders.

In that regard, I welcome the report recently launched by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Irish Language, the Gaeltacht and the Islands regarding the challenges associated with running Irish-medium childcare centres in the Gaeltacht.

I have come at this question in five or six different ways at different times. I want to make it absolutely explicit that I am not talking about Irish-medium childcare settings. That goes without saying, though they should be provided as a basic human right to those who require them. The websites should also be provided, but I do not see too many two year olds reading websites. I am referring to the whole remit of childcare, because all these children are going to go to primary school and will have to start learning Irish there, but they have a much greater ability to learn Irish at two or three years old than at five years of age. Every year that we do not expose them to a second language, we lose a unique opportunity. Children have no problem learning languages, unlike adults. Is an effort going to be made to encourage the use of the Irish language in all childcare facilities across the country through songs, poetry and little rhymes? We should teach these children little sayings that anyone with an elementary knowledge of the language could teach. Are we going to have a programme in English-language crèches and childcare facilities to encourage the use of bilingualism? A child who learns two languages early will learn a third, fourth and fifth language much easier later in life.

I take the Deputy's point. As he can appreciate, I felt it was important to identify the ways in which we are responding and supporting Irish-medium childcare settings, as well as Irish-speaking parents who want to see Irish being utilised in the development of the national childcare scheme. That is important and more needs to be done in light of the various action plans that have come out, including the most recent report from the Joint Committee on Irish Language, the Gaeltacht and the Islands. Those are my first points.

I accept what the Deputy is arguing for and I agree with him on the helpfulness and importance of opportunities for children in all childcare settings, not only Irish-medium ones, especially in early years. A number of recommendations in the recent committee report to which I referred also highlight that. My Department will work with an interdepartmental working group in order to decide how to support those recommendations.

This goes beyond what people were thinking up until now, which was all about Irish language medium childcare and preschool education. That is absolutely vital and is a basic fundamental right for those who rear their children through Irish. Some parents also choose to send their children to an Irish-medium facility. However, I am talking about the wider sector. If we were to tell parents that we could give their children the present of contact of with a second language, which they will grasp naturally, for free, 85% or 90% of them would be delighted. Young children have no difficulty with this. They become very dextrous in languages when they are exposed to two languages. Why are we not thinking about the big picture, or thinking outside the box? We could give the greatest free present ever to our children, simply by encouraging the use of little sayings and rhymes. They are all there and the back-up is there. Having a programme which encourages crèches and childcare facilities to expose children to the Irish language as a second language will also help them learn other languages in the future. The vast majority of children, barring those with severe disabilities, will learn two languages as easily as one.

I take the Deputy's point. I get what he is saying and agree with his arguments. The report from the Joint Committee on the Irish Language, the Gaeltacht and the Islands is more focused on Irish-speaking educational and early educational settings. However, one of its recommendations is that the Department of Education and Skills should create specific posts in order to develop further Irish-medium provision in the early years sector, both inside and outside Gaeltacht areas. That will effectively cover every early years setting, which is what the Deputy is arguing for. Is that not exactly what he is suggesting?

I will bring that clear recommendation on early years settings back to my Department. There are also some suggestions on the ways in which both Irish-medium and non-Irish medium early years settings can share best practices with each other in order to support the development of children learning the language. I will bring the Deputy's general recommendations back to my Department, which is working in that area, to see what we can do about that. I will come back to the Deputy about it at a later date.

Child Abuse Prevention

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

55. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the extent to which all cases of suspected child abuse over the past three years have been fully investigated and cleared to the extent that no remaining threat to the children involved remains; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [30027/19]

This question seeks to ascertain the extent to which all cases of suspected child abuse have been fully investigated and closed to the satisfaction of the Minister's Department, thereby eliminating any further threat to those children or others.

I assure the Deputy that every referral to Tusla's Child Welfare and Protection Services is assessed by social workers when it is received. Cases of suspected child abuse referred to Tusla can be categorised into four different types: neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse. Between 2016 and the end of April 2019, there have been almost 180,000 referrals to Tusla’s Child Welfare and Protection service, with over 55,000 referrals in 2018 alone. Approximately 60% of referrals in a year will be for child welfare reasons, with 40% relating to concerns about possible child sexual abuse. The child protection team on duty will assess each referral to see if it meets the threshold for intervention and all urgent cases are assigned immediately to a social worker. After screening, a duty social worker carries out a preliminary inquiry, gathering information about the referral, in order to determine whether the report meets the threshold of harm for child protection. If the preliminary inquiry finds that a child protection response is not required, the case may be diverted for a welfare response at that point. The preliminary inquiry also determines the priority status of each case. Cases that cannot be immediately allocated to a social worker are overseen by duty social work teams and in some cases specific actions are carried out by the social work team, including information gathering and visits to the child in question.

As the Deputy will be aware, the investigation of a crime is a matter for An Garda Síochána. Where appropriate, social workers notify An Garda Síochána, following the procedures set out in the Children First Act 2015. Tusla social work teams work in a risk-heavy environment and it is not always possible to remove every risk to a child. However, in situations where a child is at immediate risk, Tusla will act to remove the child to a place of safety. Where children remain in their homes, the focus is on building networks of safety around a child and ensuring that the source of any risk or threat is managed through planning and working with families.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. Given the large number of referrals and the possibility of someone falling through the net, as it were, is the Minister satisfied that all cases have been fully and thoroughly investigated to the satisfaction of her Department? Can cases which were referred to An Garda Síochána be followed up on in order to find out whether subsequent actions were taken by An Garda Síochána? To what extent have the families in question had any follow-up to reassure all involved that the system is capable of meeting these challenges?

That is an excellent supplementary question. I am satisfied that the appropriate actions are being taken, particularly in high priority cases where children are at immediate risk and there is potential abuse or harm going on, as distinct from cases involving child welfare concerns. There is a child protection concern in the former. I have described the system that is in place and that system is being followed. It is a heavy-risk environment.

Sometimes, some decisions are not correct and things are not done that ought to have been done, but I feel fairly certain that when there is an immediate risk and priority is given, that the analysis is done appropriately for those children who are at the highest risk within that priority.

Can I further inquire regarding the cases of psychological abuse, for example child sexual abuse, the degree to which the Department is satisfied that everything that could be done is being done and has been done over the three-year period in all of the cases that have been reported? I am not trying to trap the Minister into giving a guarantee that is impossible to give. Is it possible, in general, to be reassured to that extent?

Given the Deputy's phrasing of the question, I would answer "Yes".

The specific role of Tusla is to promote the welfare of children who are at risk of not receiving adequate care and protection, as the Deputy will be aware. Some 40% of the referrals relate to child sexual abuse concerns. An Garda Síochána will deal with any criminal aspects of that sexual offence against a child under the relevant criminal justice legislation. One of the important elements in ensuring all this works in the way that the Deputy is requesting is joint working between Tusla and an Garda Síochána. It forms an integral part of child protection and welfare. We have a number of meetings, as set out in Children First, that form an important link in an investigation by An Garda Síochána of a potential crime. I established an interdepartmental group in 2018, which is currently working to develop a service for child victims of sexual abuse that will bring together social work policing and health services in one site. This provides a solid and good example of the way to work in the future to support the ongoing work between those two agencies. I am satisfied regarding those concerns at a systems and individual level

Child Abuse Reports

Denise Mitchell

Ceist:

56. Deputy Denise Mitchell asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she is satisfied with the progress made within Tusla further to the report of the national review panel, NRP, of December 2018 into the abuse of children in care in County Galway; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [29681/19]

Is the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs satisfied with the progress made within Tusla in light of the NRP report of December 2018 into the abuse of children in care in Galway?

I thank the Deputy for her question.

The NRP summary report into this serious and distressing case was published on 28 May. The report provides a sober, full account of what happened, and a clear analysis of the failures that occurred in managing the case.

In particular, the report finds that there was enough evidence at the time of the disclosure, in 2007, to warrant the removal of the remaining foster children from the placement. It found that the safety plan was flawed, and that there was a management failure to recognise the seriousness and complexity of the case. These were very grave errors, which have led to lives being changed forever.

In the intervening years since then there have been significant changes in practices and standards. The standards and practices now used are much improved from those used in the past. Since its establishment in 2014, Tusla has worked hard to improve child protection and foster care services, by way of standards, staffing, resources and practices. There is plenty of evidence to show that positive changes are happening.

In respect of the NRP report, I have been advised that the fostering team in Galway increased from three social workers at the time of the Galway case, to 15 whole-time equivalent social workers. Local governance has been strengthened with a principal social worker and three team leaders assigned to the fostering service. Tusla has reformed the foster care committee guidance, beginning with its review in 2016 and the implementation over 2017 and 2018. There is a stand-alone protocol for the management of concerns and allegations of abuse or neglect against foster carers since 2017 which provides an effective system of management and oversight of an investigation and its follow-up.

At the more systemic level, I fully implemented the legislation for mandatory reporting and safeguarding statements in December 2017. Tusla also launched its ambitious child protection and welfare strategy in 2017. Since last year, the first national approach to child protection cases, Signs of Safety, is being implemented for duty-intake across all 17 areas.

I thank the Minister for her response. We have to recognise the progress that has been made since this horrific case.

One of the recommendations of the review panel related to the response to the allegations of abuse and the need for an integrated response. The report notes that the Department is piloting an integrated model for investigation, assessment and management of child sexual abuse allegations to prevent repetitive interviewing of children across the different agencies and to provide ease of access to medical and therapeutic services. It also mentions the need for a clear understanding and mutual respect for each agency. Have the terms of reference for this integrated service been developed?

I thank the Deputy. I made a brief reference to this in my earlier reply to Deputy Durkan in that we have worked for some time to develop that model, which we are naming as One House, and which we hope will open in September. We had hoped to do this a little earlier but it has taken longer to bring together such an innovative model arising from recommendations from such an incident. It came out of the reports from Dr. Shannon to myself and the Department. We travelled to the United States and different parts of the UK to see how they were bringing the different professionals together in one setting in order that children and their families can come to be seen and to tell their story in a context where all of the professionals are available to provide support. It means they do not have to engaged in ongoing re-telling that can be re-traumatising and ways of moving forward and providing supports for them can be determined in a more efficient manner by all of the professionals being in one place.

I thank the Minister for her response.

Another issues raised in the review was how children who were subject to abuse felt that they were unable to tell anybody. This was made worse if the visits and inspections by Tusla were infrequent. They did not feel that they were in an environment in which they could share the information. The Minister has answered that question.

The Minister will agree that the staff problems in the agency are a worrying matter. This support is often based on the trust between the child and the social worker. This is why the retention of staff is so important.

The Minister stated that Tusla was rolling out the Signs of Safety child protection framework. Will she give the House an update on that?

I take on board all of the points raised by the Deputy. I am trying to outline that there are a number of recommendations, many of which had been responded to, and major changes have happened.

That is not to deny given the challenges identified by the Deputy regarding the retention of social workers, etc., the difficulties will not continue to ensue in a high-risk environment that I have identified previously. It is helpful to ask about the Signs of Safety programme as a great deal of research was carried out to see what was the best way to take a preventative and early intervention approach under the programme, to train all of the Tusla staff throughout the country, where appropriate, and to pilot and roll out the programme in the 17 regions. All of that has happened. As this continues and as the programme is fully implemented, there needs to be ongoing monitoring and reporting back. I am confident that the programme is being monitored well and is seen as a very positive aspect of Tusla's reform.

Youth Services Funding

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

57. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the extent to which she or bodies under her aegis remain in contact with various youth groups nationally in the context of meeting their needs for various forms of funding; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [30028/19]

This question seeks to ascertain the degree to which the Minister's Department or bodies under its aegis continue to have a dialogue with various youth organisations throughout the country - I will have a separate question covering County Kildare, as one does - in order that she and her organisation might be better able to respond to needs as determined by those working on a one-to-one basis with the youth on the ground.

The Deputy is bang on time.

My Department maintains close contact with the 30 national youth organisations that we fund. Officials from my Department and I meet these organisations formally twice per year to share knowledge and information on developments in the youth sector. Most recently, I met the national youth organisations on 11 April. An additional meeting was held on that day with the national organisations in receipt of targeted youth funding to keep them updated on the ongoing reform of that funding. My Department has also committed to convening formal meetings twice yearly with the five largest grantees from 2018 onwards. This commitment follows an internal audit report, published in 2017, that recommended more engagement on a periodic basis with youth service grant scheme grantees. In May, my officials met Youth Work Ireland, Scouting Ireland, the National Youth Council of Ireland, Crosscare and Foróige in that regard.

Youth officers of the education and training boards, ETBs, provide an important support role to my Department in the co-ordination and administration of youth services at a local level across the country. My officials hold scheduled meetings with the youth officers and youth liaison officers to maintain an open dialogue. The most recent meeting took place on 20 June with a specific focus on the transition to the new targeted funding scheme. My Department has set up a working group with five youth officers that is focused on strategic planning for future capital funding for the youth sector. There is ongoing active engagement between my Department and the youth constituency of the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures advisory council. A small number of national youth organisation representatives are members of the council. Officials from my Department also meet youth organisations on an individual basis when the need arises. We have a professional and constructive working relationship with the national youth organisations, which my Department consistently works hard to maintain.

I thank the Minister for her reply and its quality. To what degree has it been possible to identify, including as part of the dialogue, any shortcoming in the system that can be, or is being, addressed? I congratulate the Minister on the extent of that dialogue, given that it is a fundamental part of the services. How successful have the interactions between the Department and the various youth groups been? Changes will be put into effect arising from the meetings. To what extent will they benefit youth services?

I appreciate the Deputy's questions. In my initial reply, I tried to outline the various structures and conversation paths that have been established in terms of a better, deeper and more frequent dialogue between the sector and my Department at national and community or local levels. That is an improvement, and significant changes have occurred in recent years in that regard. I am, therefore, confident that this will bear the fruit for which we are hoping. The communication channels are operating in different ways and at different levels.

As to what has been requested or is being considered, we undertook a major reform of targeted youth funding. That has created many concerns and there has been much dialogue in that regard. We are moving towards full implementation of the reform. The need for an ongoing dialogue at different levels is especially critical now.

Will the organisations be in a position to expand their services and increase the degree to which they interact with their respective communities to ensure youth receives sufficient support, protection and recognition at a time many challenges are appearing on a regular basis?

I hope so. We received an additional €1.5 million for youth funding in 2019. Funding is allocated and offered to the youth sector in different ways, but it totals €60.4 million. Organisations argue that, due to the years of austerity, it is still not at the level it should be, but there has been a further €1.5 million increase this year. We have targeted youth funding, the 2019 allocation for which is approximately €35 million. Youth service grant schemes will receive €11 million; youth information centres, €1.377 million; local youth club grant scheme, €2 million; and revised youth funding schemes, €3.3 million. That is an outline of the details. The national youth organisations are putting a case for increased investment, but I told them at our most recent meeting to develop the detail of that. I am open to receiving same and they are working on it now.

I thank the Minister.

Childcare Services Regulation

Deputy Rabbitte kindly offered to forgo this question to allow Deputy Browne's Question No. 60 to be taken, but we will get all three in if everyone co-operates. Perhaps Deputy Rabbitte and the Minister could keep their questions and replies brief.

Anne Rabbitte

Ceist:

58. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the implications the new after-school care regulations will have for schools and childcare providers; and her views on whether sufficient consultation was conducted with the affected groups. [29821/19]

The Minister and I are pros at that at this stage. Has her attention been drawn to the implications that the new after-school care regulations will have for schools and childcare providers? What are her views on whether there was sufficient consultation with affected groups?

The new school age childcare regulations were developed following comprehensive advice received from experts in the sector. They have been received positively overall, with providers and parents recognising my duty to protect children and assist in ensuring quality of service. Concerns raised in the media focused on the minimum ratio of one adult to 12 children that will come into force in August. However, data available to my Department indicate that the large majority of school age childcare providers will have no difficulty complying with the new ratio. A sample of 400 school age services surveyed in 2018 found an average ratio of one adult to nine children, well within the new ratio requirement, and 85% of sessions of school age childcare provided were within a 1:12 ratio. A separate survey was carried out in May and June of this year by the county childcare committees. In the ten rural and urban counties for which data are available so far, 79% of services were already operating within the 1:12 ratio.

Concerns have also been raised about the impact on the number of places. However, the available data offer assurances. In the ten counties for which data are available, there will be an overall increase in the number of places this September. Additionally, my Department recently announced the results of a capital scheme, which will create 2,308 new school age places nationally.

The 2019 regulations are relatively limited in scope and were introduced to support the inclusion of school age childcare in the new national childcare scheme, which will open later this year. We need some regulations if providers are to receive subsidies. It will be necessary to replace the regulations in due course with comprehensive ones to ensure children's health, safety and well-being.

I recently carried out a full public consultation to inform the future regulations and quality standards. The consultation period closed on 5 July and I am looking forward to hearing the outcome.

I will pick the Minister up on two points. Concerns focused on the minimum ratio of 1:12. Do I understand her correctly that there will be scope for expansion in this? Is that because the ratio applies to younger children or will it be applied for all attending after-school services?

I welcome the regulations and the legislation, but I have a slight concern about the ratio, not as it relates to 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. pick-ups, but as it relates to older children who are coming out of classes with a ratio of 1:26. Is there a way of phasing the regulations in so that, if certain childcare providers exceed the 1:12 ratio, they will be able to change that over a period of six or 12 months?

I will make two points. I have indicated that we had a full consultation process as regards the development of the regulations.

We will see if that concern has been raised. I will certainly bring what the Deputy has said back to my Department. I would not say "No" to it outright. The Deputy has offered a rationale, about which perhaps we could talk further. Having said that, what I am describing is what was recommended not only by experts but also by key stakeholders, including Early Childhood Ireland, Children's Rights Alliance and the National Parents Council. It has fed into the development of the ratio and the strong belief that is what is required to ensure quality of life and the safety of children. I do not think I can promise that anything will move, but I will bring the specific argument the Deputy has made back to the Department for it to look at it.

That is fine. I thank the Minister.

Childcare Services Administration

Maureen O'Sullivan

Ceist:

59. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the difficulties for certain parents arising from the national childcare scheme, for example, parents on special community employment schemes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [29959/19]

Has the Minister's attention been drawn to the difficulties for certain parents arising from the national childcare scheme, for example, parents on special community employment schemes? Will she make a statement on the matter?

I am pleased to be able to assure the Deputy that arrangements are in place to ensure no one will lose out in the initial transition to the new national childcare scheme. Families can continue to access their current targeted supports, remaining on their existing payment if they so wish, until the end of August 2020. They include parents availing of the community employment childcare scheme. The national childcare scheme will greatly increase the number of families who can access financial support and see many families qualify for a higher level of support. The scheme removes many of the restrictive eligibility requirements of the existing programmes, whereby a parent must be in receipt of certain social protection payments or a medical card to receive targeted supports. In this way, it aims to combat the poverty traps within the existing schemes and ensure taking a job is not a disincentive.

I have worked to poverty-proof the scheme by ensuring families at or below the relative income poverty line will benefit from the highest subsidy rates. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, analysis finds that the scheme will significantly address affordability for lower income families, with one analysis showing that Ireland will change from being the most expensive country in the OECD for childcare for lone parents to the 11th position. The new scheme is designed to be flexible, with income thresholds, subsidy rates and maximum hours designed in order that they can be adjusted over time as more investment becomes available. The hours and thresholds published have been costed and funded, but they can be enhanced in future years. The existence of the saver mechanism for the first year gives us time to monitor the position and ascertain if further policy change is required. As such, the scheme provides the pathway to quality, affordable and accessible childcare. It is central to my commitment to changing the childcare system to ensure it is the best.

The projects and groups that brought this issue to my attention will be interested in the Minister's reply as there are some assurances in it. Nobody denies the need for affordable childcare services for parents, but the reality is that people on special community employment schemes availing of childcare or a community aftercare services are primarily lone parents, some of whom are extremely vulnerable, have mental health or addiction issues and require that support. While it might not be full-time, it appears that they are not getting the childcare support they had been getting. There are significant concerns that their progress and recovery to make themselves more eligible for employment will be affected because they are not able to attend in the way they did because their childcare hours have been reduced.

Deputy Catherine Martin raised the question in another way. I am aware of the concerns of both lone parents and their representatives. Deputy Catherine Martin suggested we might need to meet them to communicate what was going on and identify how the changes would impact on them. Ongoing communication is very important. When we move to the national childcare scheme, it will be based on household income. In the past, certainly on community employment schemes, people gained access to subsidies based on social welfare or other related entitlements. It is shifting towards that. I will try to describe how I think the changes to the community employment scheme should involve the provision of supports which are at least as good, if not better, as we move towards the future.

I acknowledge the tremendous support the projects give to women. I have seen the difference they are making in the number of women who are being supported to return to employment and in dealing with the various issues in their lives. The idea of a meeting is a very good one. If the Minister is organising one, I would love if it included some representatives of the groups I have mentioned. I know that there is concern about online applications because some of the skill set is missing for certain people for many reasons into which we will not go now. There is a need to provide that support. I am talking about people who are particularly vulnerable. They have children and want to do the best for them and themselves. It was disappointing when they saw this, as it was supposed to be beneficial and positive. They saw the unintended negative consequences.

We have an information and education campaign that we want to roll out for parents who are applying for support under the national childcare scheme. Part of it is through the city and county childcare committees, Intreo and Citizens Information offices. We will find ways to support people who face challenges in making online applications. On whether they will be worse off, I certainly know that under the community employment scheme, as well as on some education and training courses, parents, especially lone parents, received a capped co-payment. The concern is that they will have to pay more as they move into the national childcare scheme. I have a table in front of me which I will share with the Deputy, on which the maximum subsidy payment under the current scheme is listed as €145 for a child under the age of one year, plus a co-payment of €15, meaning that the provider gets €160. Under the national childcare scheme, the maximum subsidy payment for a child under the age of one year is €204, meaning that it is more rather than less. That is just one example. I have others. There are many circumstances. I understand there is uncertainty, which is why we have put the saver mechanism in place. I accept that there is a need for more communication and hope that it will ease the concerns and fears and that the policy intentions will be clear. If there are hard cases, we will work with them.

Childcare Services Provision

James Browne

Ceist:

60. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to develop targeted supports for children in County Wexford in need of childcare whose parents are not available for work; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [29380/19]

The national childcare scheme is the pathway to quality, affordable and accessible childcare in Ireland. It will ultimately replace the existing targeted childcare schemes with a single, streamlined and user-friendly scheme, providing both universal and targeted childcare subsidies. The scheme will provide up to 40 hours of childcare per week for parents who are working, studying, transitioning between work and study or unavailable to care for a child for specified reasons such as a prolonged illness or disability. The definitions of work and study will be set out in regulations to be made under the Childcare Support Act 2018 and extremely comprehensive, covering different types of work and study arrangements such as part-time, week on-week off and zero-hour contract arrangements.

Parents who do not meet any of the criteria which I have mentioned may still qualify for a standard hours subsidy up to a maximum of 15 hours per week. This approach recognises that, in such cases, parents do not need childcare for work or related reasons. It also reflects the evidence for the strong benefits of early childhood care and education for young children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as the evidence that these benefits are, in most cases, realised with part-time participation. For children in school and pre-school, the standard hours subsidy will entitle them to up to 15 hours of subsidised childcare out of term time while during term time child development needs will be met through school and pre-school services.

The approach is consistent with the scheme's policy objectives of promoting positive child development outcomes, labour market activation and a reduction in child poverty. It is also bolstered by special sponsorship arrangements which will ensure that, if there are vulnerable children and families, they can be referred for childcare without any parental co-payment. To support a smooth transition to the national childcare scheme, families can also choose to make the switch to the new scheme once it is launched in October, or they can remain on their current childcare subsidy programme for one final year.

I thank the Minister. There are a number of schemes across the country. I am aware of two in County Wexford, one in Bunclody and the other in Wexford town, where Ferns Diocesan Youth Service, FDYS, provides childcare schemes for the children of sometimes vulnerable adults or adults with serious addiction or mental health issues. On the provision of childcare, the schemes are more in the nature of intervention and welfare-type schemes. Their funding will be cut under the new scheme. If they lose their funding, they will be gone. The children benefit greatly from the schemes which help to set them up for school and provide them with food and support. That support will no longer be available. Their parents will not be benefiting from work activation programmes, given that sometimes they cannot read or write and are from very difficult backgrounds where there may be mental health issues. The FDYS tells me that its schemes will be gone. We hear about similar situations across the country; for example, there is a similar case in Carlow. I ask that something be done to ensure the schemes will be kept in place. The scheme in Bunclody receives €36,000 a year and is providing phenomenal support and value for money for the children. It is about the children. I am not worried about the parents but about the children and the support they are receiving which needs to be continued.

We will look at the specific settings the Deputy has identified. We want to make sure the supports that have been provided for parents and children in the past in the way we have provided funding will still be available. I do not want to comment further on the specific settings as I am not sure exactly what is going on, but we will look at them. More generally, what I have been trying to describe is that, with the introduction of the national childcare scheme, those who are making the least or on the lowest income will get the most. In fact, we are trying to ensure this will continue to the case as we move towards the introduction of the national childcare scheme. As I have said previously, we will have sponsorship arrangements within the national childcare scheme. For example, if there are teen parents who are still in education and training, the Minister for Education and Skills sponsors them and they receive free childcare. If there are refugees and asylum seekers who need support, they are sponsored by the Department of Justice and Equality and receive free childcare. To promote their welfare, Tusla often sponsors children in order that there is free childcare. We will look at the specific settings the Deputy has identified because there may be something else going on.

The Minister has listed a number of situations that are very different. The difficulty seems to be that in the codifying of the childcare programme certain programmes are going to fall between the cracks. As I understand it, in some cases the number of hours is going to be reduced from 40 to 15. I suggest the Minister's office make contact with Mr. Kieran Donohoe who is over the FDYS and helping to provide schemes. I have talked to a number of my colleagues in other parts of the country. There are schemes in place that do not fall into any of the particular categories, but they are providing very good childcare services in particularly disadvantaged areas across the country. They are falling between the cracks. It was perhaps the case that they were shoehorned into the previous system and the codification is hurting them.