Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 22 Oct 2019

Vol. 988 No. 3

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Childcare Services Administration

Anne Rabbitte


57. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if the childcare subvention schemes that were operational prior to the national childcare scheme will continue to accept new applicants; and if new applicants will only be eligible to receive national childcare scheme levels of childcare subsidy. [43238/19]

Ruth Coppinger


72. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if parents on current subsidy schemes such as the community childcare subvention programme and the childcare education and training support programme will be detrimentally affected following the introduction of the national childcare scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43277/19]

Paul Murphy


80. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the measures being taken under the national childcare scheme to assist families that previously would have been on the community childcare subvention programme. [43219/19]

I wish to ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if the childcare subvention schemes that were operational prior to the national childcare scheme will continue to accept new applicants and if the new applicants will be eligible to receive the levels of childcare subsidy outlined by the national childcare scheme. I know the Minister understands exactly what I am trying to ask although the question is a mouthful.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 57, 72 and 80 together.

As I have indicated, the national childcare scheme will open for applications on 20 November. The current childcare subvention schemes will continue to accept applications for a further short period of time. The community childcare subvention scheme, CCSP, will remain open to new applicants until Friday, 15 November 2019. The training and employment childcare, TEC, schemes will remain open to new applications until 14 February 2020. No new applications for these schemes can be made after these dates.

The transition to the national childcare scheme represents a major change management initiative for Pobal as scheme administrator.

Accordingly, while applications for CCSP will be accepted until Friday, 15 November, providers are strongly urged to submit all applications by 1 November, to the greatest extent possible, so that applications can be processed in a timely way and Pobal can concentrate on preparations for the opening of the national childcare scheme.

Any parent who is in receipt of support under the current legacy schemes can choose to remain on that scheme and can continue to receive the same level of support that they are receiving at present. These families can also choose to move over to the national childcare scheme at any time from 20 November onwards and, for many, this will mean receiving a higher level of subsidy towards the cost of their childcare.

This approach reflects my commitment that no one will lose out in the transition to the new scheme.

Through budget 2020, I have secured the full year costs of the national childcare scheme for 2020, in addition to extra enhancements that will be of particular benefit to lone parents and other working families. Certain families already had the option to stay on existing schemes until the end of August 2020. They will now be able to stay on those schemes until they are no longer eligible or they no longer require childcare.

From September 2020, the maximum hours for the new scheme will increase from 40 hours per week to 45 hours, particularly benefiting parents of school-age children who need before-school and after-school childcare to include time for work and commuting. Low-income parents who are not working or studying will have their hours increased from 15 to 20 hours. This will support our objective of promoting employment and reducing poverty.

The introduction of the national childcare scheme will increase the number of families who can access financial support, with some families now receiving support towards their childcare costs for the first time.

As mentioned, it will also see many families qualify for a higher level of support, including as a result of the important new enhancements from budget 2020. For example, the budget measures will see maximum subsidy rates for a child aged under one increase from their current level of €145 per week, to €204 per week from 25 November 2019 when they move on to the national childcare scheme, NCS, and to €229.50 per week from September 2020.

I am pleased to be able to provide the House with assurances about the financial impact of the national childcare scheme from its inception. While there were concerns that some groups would lose out in the transition to the new scheme, I assure Deputies that this will not be the case.

I thank the Minister for her response and clarification. She has answered much of what I wanted answered, but I still have a concern, as highlighted by Louise Bayliss from Single Parents Acting for the Rights of Kids, SPARK. From what the Minister has said I understand that the families that have already signed up to the scheme can stay on it indefinitely until the end. They will not be asked to come off it. There was a fear over the 15 hours going to 20 hours for low-income families going back to education. They used to have 40 hours and there was a fear that they were coming back to 15 or 20 hours.

Anybody who is on the scheme can stay on the scheme and the new criteria only apply to the new people coming forward. People can stay on the existing schemes until they finish their course, their job activation or anything else. There is no time limit on it. It is not just for 12 months as was mooted at the beginning. That is the clarification I seek.

I would also like 100% clarity on that.

The Minister has said no one will lose out, but that is not accurate for future participants, is it? If what she is saying is correct and the clarification is provided that these parents can stay on the old scheme as long as they are eligible, it still means that in future working lone parents will no longer be able to apply for the old schemes which will be gone after a short period and therefore they can only qualify for this new scheme, meaning, as I understand it, they will lose out.

This is a group of people who are at high risk of poverty. I believe one in five working lone parents are at risk of poverty. SPARK has pointed out that under current childcare subvention rates the parent could qualify for €145 a week which would drop to a maximum subsidy of €51 per week, which would be a substantial loss. In the past I believe the Minister has referred to about 10% of parents losing out under the new scheme, but that 10% happens to be the 10% most at risk of poverty.

I appreciate the Deputies' questions and I know the scheme has complexity. We have worked hard to ensure that no one will lose out in transitioning from the current targeted schemes to the national childcare scheme. That was the promise made. In that regard, we have ensured that they can remain on the scheme they were on. Initially it was up to August 2020 and now it is up to 2021. After that they will have finished their studies and their children will be older or the budget can ultimately be decided for the following period.

I understand the Deputies are asking about some lone parents who will need childcare for the first time who will be on the national childcare scheme and not in the transition process. For lone parents accessing the national childcare scheme in a few months there may not be absolutely the same level of supports as there were in the targeted schemes. However, in budget 2020 I secured funding to increase hours from 40 to 45 and from 15 to 20, and also after-school hours from September of next year. One of the primary motivating factors behind that was to increase hours and subsidies so that these more vulnerable groups could have the levels of support they require.

I thank the Minister for the clarification. She has answered one part: there will be a gap for about ten months in one strand of it if they need it. That is welcome. Depending on the number, will the Department be able to accommodate those exceptional cases that come forward?

I have an example of Mary, a single parent with an 18 month old child, John. She has been out of work since the lad was born and she has now decided to go back. The only subsidy she can get is for 15 hours, which will increase to 20 hours, but technically she needs 30. However, she cannot get a childcare place because, as we all know, capacity in Dublin is a major issue and a parent can only enrol a small child if they are prepared to enrol that child full time. She will be unable to afford full-time childcare. Therein is another problem because under the old scheme she could have got full-time childcare support. How will the Minister square that circle?

From September 2020, will any parents have a lower benefit under the new scheme than they have under the existing schemes?

I agree with the principle of universality, which is a good thing because it means that society as a whole has a buy-in for something. Therefore it is good to go for universality. However, this problem arises for half-universality because it gives a subsidy but to a system that is controlled by private operators who are entitled to hike up the prices as they wish in a sector with very low-paid workers. This problem comes down to the State trying to enable some form of universal access but through private providers. Is the answer not to move to a national childcare service and to provide access to childcare as a State provision free at the point of use?

I am very proud of what we have managed to achieve in the lead in to and the establishment of the national childcare scheme, particularly in placing a focus on the families about whom the Deputies are speaking. They are fully aware that one of the major objectives of the scheme as I have developed it is to decrease the level of child poverty and, in particular, increase and empower vulnerable families and lone parents. We have done it in different ways before. The move to the national childcare scheme is to enable those families with the least money to receive the most subsidies. We are maintaining that objective as we move to the national childcare scheme.

To answer Deputy Paul Murphy's question specifically, my hope is that is not the case, but it depends on the ages of the children involved, their requirements and how many hours of childcare are required. We have increased the number of hours, particularly with those families in mind. Until people receive the subsidies in calculating how much their children require, we will not know, but we will continue to monitor the position.

There was one other question, although I know that I have run out of time.

I think it was to do with the budget if there were exceptional cases.

We are open to hearing about those concerns and being able to respond. We have tried to ensure the overall objectives will be met and I anticipate that that will be the case.

Child and Family Agency Staff

Thomas P. Broughan


58. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the quality control procedures in place in Tusla; the type of performance management and upskilling which takes place for persons working with vulnerable children; the workplace supports available to those working with vulnerable children and families; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43104/19]

We discussed Tusla earlier. My question arises from the 2018 annual report which was an interesting account of all the work done by the agency, particularly in respect of performance management, outputs and supports for a vital workforce in the public sector, particularly in the workplace learning and development programme.

I know that the Deputy is aware of Tusla's work with some of the most vulnerable children in our society. It is reasonable to expect this work to be of the highest standard. Tusla's quality assurance directorate carries out a range of ongoing audit and monitoring exercises. This is done to ensure the child protection and welfare services are delivered in line with national standards and Tusla's own operating procedures. In addition, HIQA  inspects Tusla's child protection services against standards and its inspection reports are published regularly.

Social workers and others working with vulnerable children also engage intensively with parents. Professional staff need to have considerable knowledge, competence and skills to engage fruitfully with adults who are experiencing difficulties such as addiction, mental health issues and domestic violence. It is also important that social workers fully understand the impact on children of such parental difficulties with child attachment, development, anxiety and behavioural problems.

Social workers benefit from workforce support with regular practice supervision and learning events that focus on complex cases. Tusla has developed an excellent online resource called Empowering Practitioners and Practice Initiative, EPPI, to support social workers. It provides summary research findings and best practice guidance across a range of subjects. They include more recent social concerns, including organised child sexual exploitation, the trafficking of children and cyberbullying. Child protection work is carried out in a highly pressurised environment, often with heavy case loads. It is crucial for Tusla to make sure staff are supported. With this in mind, a health well-being and employee assistance programme is available free of charge to all staff. Tusla has also committed to implementing a formal performance management development system, PMDS, with a focus on performance achievement for its staff.

I am reassured that research and exit interviews with child protection social workers consistently highlight the support social workers provide for each other and the importance of teamwork when dealing with difficult situations. I take the issue of quality performance management and workplace supports for professionals who work with vulnerable children very seriously.

It is regrettable that during the period of five years the agency has not been able to meet its whole-time equivalent professional workforce targets. It has to deliver on the strategic workforce plan until the end of next year. I have raised the problem of the recruitment and retention of social workers previously with the Minister. In the budget the Minister received another 4% increase for the Department. Approximately half, or €814 million, I think represents a €29 million increase in Tusla's budget. Some of the ambition was to reduce the number of unallocated cases to address cost pressures in residential care provision and so on. The Minister mentioned the pressures on the workforce. For example, in July 802 high priority cases, 2,813 medium priority cases and 1,818 low priority cases were awaiting allocation. The pressures the workforce is operating under because of those waiting lists are immense. What targets does the Minister have to ensure the strategic plan will be achieved?

I presume the Deputy is referring to the strategic workforce development plan.

The board and a sub-committee of the board of Tusla will oversee and monitor the plan, with my officials. They have identified a couple of things that will make the difference in increasing numbers. First, they have to focus on the importance of the mix of staff in order that Tusla will be in a position to hire some additional administrative staff, which it has done and will continue to do. It will ensure the mix also incorporates social care workers, with administrative and social workers, in order that social workers will be free to do work required of them. The other aspect they are focusing on is retention. Tusla will be providing additional supports for employees to make it effectively an employment of choice.

Tusla has produced a very interesting performance and activity dashboard. The last one I read was for July. It showed the backlogs of cases to be seen in the different areas, as well as outlining the immense workload of the agency. Is it the case that the workforce learning and development programme still needs additional resources to provide more supports for staff who carry out this vital work daily for the nation? Does the strategic action plan recognise the needs of those doing the work this House has mandated should be done?

As the Deputy indicated, the amount I was able to receive in the budget to increase Tusla’s resources was allocated within a very tight budgetary space. It was an important achievement to get that additional sum of money for Tusla. I am aware of ways in which it is examining the numbers and cost of the agency staff it utilises because of the difficulties experienced in the recruitment of new social workers. It is a high cost and Tusla is considering ways by which that cost can be brought down. I have had significant engagement with it in that regard. Perhaps I might say a little more about it in response to other questions. There are additional resources available and the agency is considering other ways to save money, as well as to increase the number of permanent social work staff.

Children in Care

Maureen O'Sullivan


59. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the locations of voluntary residential services situated in the strategic plan for residential care services for children under State care. [43152/19]

Where in the strategic plan for residential care services for children will the voluntary residential care services sit?

I thank the Deputy for her question.

Foster care is the preferred form of alternative care for children in need of care and protection and who cannot live with their parents or guardians. Ireland is a world leader in this regard with over 92% of the 6,017 children in State care at the end of June being in foster care. This compares favourably from an international perspective. Indicative figures show that 61% of children in care in England reside in foster care, while the equivalent figures in Norway and Scotland are 89% and 88%, respectively. It must be noted that these figures relate to different time periods and thus are not directly comparable. It should also be noted that alternative care may be approached very differently in other jurisdictions, with different policy, practice and legislative contexts in operation.

There are a number of reasons foster care is not always an option. It may not be possible to find an appropriate foster care placement, a child could be at immediate risk or a child might have specific therapeutic needs that are best met in residential care. In these cases, a child may be placed, in his or her best interests and on the basis of social work assessments, in a residential setting. Approximately 7% of the 6,017 children in care in Ireland live in residential settings. In June 2019, this amounted to 400 young people. Individual residential centres care for small numbers of children, often no more than two or three.

Residential services are provided by Tusla directly and by private and voluntary bodies commissioned by Tusla. There are 26 voluntary residential children’s centres providing care for children in State care. Tusla uses a mix of its own services and voluntary and private providers to maximise the availability of services that are best suited to meet the needs of individual children and young people. Tusla uses other providers where no suitable placement is available in its own residential centres.

Tusla has advised that it is in the process of developing a three-year strategic plan for children’s residential services. I understand that this process will involve consultation with all relevant stakeholders. The outcome of this process will help shape the future of residential service provision.

I thank the Minister for her reply. There is a role for residential care services but some of the voluntary services have raised concerns with me. They are alarmed at what they perceive to be the privatisation of the service, similar to what was done in England with disastrous consequences there. In England, there were zero-hour contracts for the staff and thus very low staff retention, which has a negative effect on the relationships between young people and the staff. I have had engagement on this issue with a number of services in the Dublin and greater Dublin areas and they are very concerned. The staff in voluntary residential services here are not on zero-contract hours and, therefore, they have all been in those services for a long time and they have built up relationships with young people. They are concerned that service provision into the future will be a tick-box exercise in terms of whether children are being fed and a service complies with governance and so on. While the relevant boxes may be ticked off, this is not an indication of the quality of the services. It appears there is a bigger agenda which seems to be undermining the community and voluntary sectors. I am seeing this in Dublin Central, where the community and voluntary sectors play an important role.

I welcome that there will be a consultation process but it must be real consultation and not one to which Tusla comes with a prearranged agenda.

The consultation process will be ongoing and open. I mentioned earlier that Tusla uses a mix of its services and voluntary and private providers. There is a concern in regard to the cost of provision of residential settings. My understanding is it has increased and that costs are similar across the board regardless of the type of residential setting in which the young people live. I take on board the Deputy's concerns in regard to the voluntary providers. It is particularly important that they be heard in the consultation process.

I thank the Minister. One of the voluntary services about which I am speaking is Streetline, which has been in operation for more than 30 years with really positive results. It is based in the community in the north inner city, where it has engagement with other community and youth groups, which is important for the children in its care. This service presents an alternate family situation. It has been told that it must align with the Peter McVerry Trust. This is not a criticism of the Peter McVerry Trust but it has a different value system to the Streetline service. As I said, Streetline has been told that if it does not align with the Peter McVerry Trust, its funding will cease. Tusla has stopped making referrals to Streetline at a time when there is great need. Currently, this service has three vacancies in its under 18s section, three vacancies in its aftercare section and there will be no more referrals until such time as it complies with what Tusla wants. I have fears in regard to open consultation if this is what has been decided. Everybody cannot fit into the same box. We can address needs in different ways. Streetline has been addressing needs for more than 30 years. It would be a shame were it to be forced to fit into a box that is not an easy fit.

It is important that the Deputy raises those issues now. I am not familiar with the details of what she has identified but I will raise questions about it, following which I will communicate with her. I can assure the Deputy that the consultation process will be open and transparent. Hopefully as a result of it, all of the different types of providers in the context of residential settings for our young people will continue to be there for us, they will have had an opportunity to have their needs expressed and the system will change accordingly.

School Completion Programme

Kathleen Funchion


60. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the status of the promised review of the school completion programme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43273/19]

I would like an update from the Minister regarding the review of the school completion programme.

The school completion programme, SCP, continues to deliver a valuable service for some of our most vulnerable young people. Currently, the SCP receives annual funding of €24.7 million.

My Department works with the educational welfare service, EWS, in Tusla to ensure that necessary resources are available to support this programme and to ensure staffing levels are sufficient to deliver a high-quality service for those young people most at risk of early school leaving. However, a number of long-term complex issues continue to exist in regard to the governance and the staffing of the programme.

In recognition of the need for a strong policy platform for educational welfare services, including the SCP, I requested that my officials establish a task group to support the further development and integration of these services. The work of this group is near completion.  As someone with a background in educational welfare, I am eager to ensure the output will result in a clear blueprint for the development of the three strands of the EWS, including the SCP.

A consultation event on the blueprint was held on 10 June, where those working with vulnerable young people as part of the EWS were able to express their views and help shape the policy blueprint prior to its publication. The closing date for the consultations was extended to mid-September at the request of some stakeholders. Some 58 submissions were received and are now being examined. Next steps are being informed by the content of these submissions and action will proceed on that basis with the aim of completion by the end of the year.

As part of the implementation of the actions contained in the blueprint, I have requested that a new SCP scheme be scoped out and developed to ensure that its reach, resources and impact are maximised in supporting young people. My Department has worked closely with colleagues in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in regard to the employment status of SCP co-ordinators and project workers and I will continue to examine options in regard to this in the context of the development of this new scheme. 

I thank the Minister for her reply. The Minister is aware that I am an advocate of this programme and I can never say enough good about it. This service follows the needs of the child and is not based on the child having first come to the attention of Tusla in order to get assistance. Under this programme, it does not matter who the child's parents are or what is going on in his or her life.

A lot of kids do not necessarily come to the attention of other services. A lot of stuff is means tested based on parents and people just fall outside of various other schemes but this is totally child-centred. It is centred around what the child needs at that particular time whether through homework clubs, play therapy and counselling services, which are one of the most valuable things provided currently given the increase in levels of anxiety, stress and worry that we see in our young people particularly in schools. Children in schools running the school completion programme can get access to that immediately. It is invaluable, particularly for any child going through a crisis. Were school completion co-ordinators invited to that event on 10 June and have they been included in the consultation process? That is key. Is there going to be new money allocated? As far as I am aware, they have not had their budget increased since 2008.

I know some were at that event because I was there myself. I know they have been included in the consultation process as well. In response to the Deputy's second question, in budget 2019 I secured an additional €500,000 in funding for the educational welfare service and the alternative educational assessment and registration service and I have maintained that in budget 2020. This has allowed the educational welfare service to increase its number of educational welfare officers to provide additional administrative support, which has allowed these educational welfare officers to focus on working with young people who are experiencing difficulties with school attendance. As the Deputy is aware, they work with the school completion people very closely. In addition, in terms of school completion, in my Department we have been working closely with colleagues in the Department of Education and Skills and local stakeholders, particularly in the context of a programme called City Connects, which is coming out of Boston College, and taking a look at it specifically initially for the north-east inner city. It is an evidence-based intervention that is committed to an ongoing and scientifically rigorous evaluation of results. Its strength-based programming works to the principle of progressive universalism. There is a desire to use this programme and to begin to put it in place there as a way of moving forward and supporting the school completion work.

It is really important that the school completion co-ordinators are totally involved in that consultation process. I know there have been some governance issues and I accept that. They also did have a proposal going back a few years in respect of being brought in under the education and training boards, ETBs, for their governance issues. I had concerns when it was taken out of the Department of Education and Skills because Tusla has a different approach and attitude to school completion from what the programme was actually designed for. As I said earlier, it is totally focused on the needs of the child but sometimes those in Tusla think it is an extra resource for them and for children who come to their attention. The idea of this service is that it can prevent people coming as far as the attention of Tusla. Is the new money that has been allocated specifically for school completion or is it falling under a general budget for educational welfare? It is important that any money that is going to it is specifically ring-fenced for it.

The Deputy raised a point that has to do with the employment status for school completion co-ordinators and project workers in the proposal they put forward to be brought in under ETBs. I can say absolutely that I personally, as well as my officials, have been exploring that with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The process of examining that is ongoing. We have had many meetings to try to move forward and certainly have taken their voice into account in that regard. We do not have an outcome yet. In respect of additional moneys, I will be in the process of identifying with Tusla the appropriate way to resource and to spend. School completion is part of that as well as the other aspects of the educational welfare service. I am very much aware of the fact that they could use additional resources in order to support their work.

Child and Family Agency Staff

Aindrias Moynihan


61. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps she is taking to ensure that children using Tusla services will have the benefit of a long-term social worker; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43267/19]

Anne Rabbitte


66. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the use by Tusla of agency social worker staff; and if she will be taking steps to assist Tusla in hiring additional social workers. [43239/19]

Aindrias Moynihan


82. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps she is taking to ensure that Tusla increases the number of permanently employed social workers as opposed to using agency staff; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43266/19]

Continuity of care is the central aspect of this question, in the sense of a child being able to rely on having consistency and the same social worker being available to him or her. There seems to be an increased reliance on agency workers whereby there is more than a doubling of the number of agency workers. It is up 125% over the last four years while at the same time there is only a 3% increase in the number of permanent staff being taken on. Can the Minister outline how she is going to provide consistency to children who are dealing with social workers? Is she going to put further emphasis on permanent staff?

 I propose to take Questions Nos. 61, 66 and 82 together.

I am very much aware that the ideal for the continuity of care of vulnerable children is to have a long-term social worker available when required. Tusla has taken a proactive approach to the recruitment of social workers in a difficult and challenging recruitment environment. We covered this a bit with Deputy Broughan. There is a worldwide shortage of social workers and this was noted by HIQA in its report on 19 June 2018. Tusla is competing with the HSE and the voluntary and private sectors. Tusla has advised me that recruitment efforts to 31 August 2019 are ahead of target for social work with a total  figure of 149 hires. This has resulted in an increase of social workers by 64 whole-time equivalents when attrition is taken into account.

I share the concerns expressed by Deputies regarding the increased use of temporary agency social workers in recent years and I have communicated this to Tusla. I also appreciate the attention that the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs has given the issue as part of its deliberations on the recruitment and retention of social workers in Tusla. Notwithstanding this, Tusla must deploy agency workers to ensure it can continue to provide its services to vulnerable children and their families at a time when overall referrals are increasing. I understand that Tusla is currently reviewing agency use. I am informed that formal discussions will take place with Fórsa on 29 October 2019 regarding a proposal to carry out an agency conversion across front-line service. I welcome this initiative.

I will be raising the issue of agency staff in my performance statement to Tusla, which will issue next month, as a key input to its business plan for 2020. Tusla currently spends approximately €31 million annually on agency staff. I am setting it a target of reducing this spend, primarily through the conversion of agency staff to permanent staff. I also requested that Tusla develop a strategic multi-annual workforce plan, which would include reflection of the labour market and the current limited supply of social workers. I am pleased that Tusla now has a strategic workforce planning model which I understand will be rolled out over the coming years. The implementation of the strategic workforce planning model will represent a very significant change for Tusla and its service delivery teams in 17 geographical areas. The model will increase and formalise the use of social care workers on child protection teams. The model should also reflect the realities of the labour market supply and ensure that social workers are supported by appropriate complementary grades. I refer again to Deputy Broughan's questions earlier. The model will also seek to deliver on a strategic focus for Tusla with a gradual transition to multidisciplinary teams. The multidisciplinary teams will look to consist of the optimum mix of skills across social work, social care, therapeutic staff, family support, education welfare and administrative support.

Tusla Recruit has also informed me that it has a very special, proactive approach to recruitment  with 16 social work-specific campaigns, for example, a rolling campaign for professionally qualified social workers; the social work graduate programme designed to recruit new graduates; social work team lead; senior social work practitioner; and principal social worker. I welcome the fact that there is a focus on recruitment and retention as part of the roll-out of the strategic workforce implementation plan, assisting staff well-being by assessing workplace stressors and critical incident exposure in the workplace.

My Department has also taken an initiative to establish the social work education group which provides a forum for Tusla and other stakeholders, including the HSE and the Probation Service, to explore and act upon possible actions to influence the future supply of social workers.

The first priority identified by the group is the streamlining of student placements. My Department has commissioned research to identify alternative approaches to streamlining the process of working with stakeholders. A final report is due shortly and potential next steps will be considered. The social work education group also provides a perfect platform for Tusla to bring forward creative ideas for initiatives such as conversion courses to train existing social care workers as social workers. These are just some of the ideas that are coming forward.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire.

Trust and the relationship with social workers are significant key aspects of their role for the child and for getting results for them. I am pleased with the proposal to convert agency staff to permanent staff. There has been an emphasis on agency staff over the past while, with a 126% growth in the agency staff sector but only 3% growth in permanent staff. Can the Minister set out a timeline for when she might expect to have a full complement with everyone on board and the number? Can she also keep me updated on the ongoing talks and the plan that is in place?

What timeline is the Deputy referring to?

The timeline as to when the Minister would have the conversions completed and everybody in place with a full complement of staff.

That is the current hope and intention of Tusla and its CEO. We have had exchanges as well on the issue of agency staff. The CEO conducted an introductory engagement with Fórsa last week during which he mentioned his hope of a once-off blanket agency conversion, which received a very positive response. A formal meeting with Fórsa and the human resources, HR, department of Tusla is scheduled early next week to take a look at exploring the detail of beginning a major conversion process. Tusla currently has 677 agency staff engaged. While we cannot predict the outcome, I understand from the CEO that he is hopeful that there will be a significant result from the initial conversion work. This would be a significant change and many of the technical details and aspects of that kind of process of change will have to be interrogated and agreed with other Departments as well.

That is a comprehensive response, with welcome steps noted. Can the Minister clarify if she has a targeted timeline as to when she expects to have those people on board? Will it be in the next six months or year or is there a broad outline?

I do not have an exact timeline at the moment to offer the Deputy. Part of my discussions with Tusla will be to identify the possibility of putting one in place, particularly as we go back and forth on the performance statement. We will keep the Deputy informed.

Childcare Services Funding

Kathleen Funchion


62. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the reason for delays in Pobal payments or shortfalls in payments to early years service providers since August 2019; the reason there has been no correspondence or notifications made by Pobal with the service providers affected in advance of the delays; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43276/19]

This question relates to childcare and early years services and the delays or shortfalls in Pobal payments to them since August of this year and why there has been no correspondence or notifications made by Pobal with the services affected.

Pobal administers both the early childhood care and education, ECCE, and targeted early learning and care and school age childcare programmes on behalf of my Department.

There have been no delays to ECCE standard capitation programme payments. All eligible ECCE standard capitation has been paid out in line with the payment schedule, published as part of programme readiness in August. The first preliminary payment was made on 23 August. This payment was made to all services that had entered into a funding agreement by the published deadline.

On the ECCE higher capitation payments, Pobal announced to services prior to the beginning of the 2019-20 programme year in September that it would begin processing applications in October. Regrettably, this start date was later than had been indicated the previous year.  Pobal has begun processing applications in October, in line with the announced schedule. Pobal is currently processing a large volume of applications and is working to approve applications and release funding as soon as possible.

There have also been some issues with the community childcare subvention plus programme, CCSP, whereby the processing of registrations has been taking longer than usual to complete, owing to the large volumes of CCSP registrations being made following the merging of this programme with the CCS programme. As of 17 October last, Pobal had registered 30,000 children to the programme, compared to 23,000 at a similar point in last year’s process. In addition, there has also been a significant block of work for Pobal associated with a large volume of re-registrations of children due to corrections that needed to be made to their registrations following compliance visits.  

Notwithstanding these issues, which Pobal is working hard to mitigate, I stress that the majority of registrations for the targeted schemes and the standard capitation levels for ECCE are being turned around within Pobal’s 15 day target for this activity.

There has to be some misinformation somewhere regarding this because that is not the case for many services in Kilkenny which have contacted me to say that they are dipping into their own money to try to pay staff wages because there has been such a delay. The problem that they have is that nobody is talking to them. They have to chase down Pobal, and nobody is coming to them to say that there is an issue or problem or to furnish a preliminary payment to keep the services going. That is not what is happening on the ground. On 4 October, a service in Kilkenny was given a preliminary payment. That payment was then taken back from its bank account. Some misinformation is definitely going on. It is not acceptable that services have to try to pay out of their own funds, which many would not have, to keep the service going. Even if they did, that is not the point. It is totally unacceptable. Pobal may say there are some glitches, but it is definitely not dealing with them for these services. If the Minister wants, I can forward the particular details of these services to her. A number in Kilkenny have been left short of money with absolutely no answers.

I thank the Deputy and, of course, I would very much like to have that information. I accept and take at face value what she has identified. My understanding of the initial communication is that Pobal made an announcement to service providers through the Pobal PIP system on 19 August, informing them that applications would not begin to be processed until October. Officials in my Department are in close contact with their colleagues in Pobal on the processing by these timelines. That is the first issue. The second issue is Pobal went through the regular channels where it communicates with the services but that some services are out of pocket and have not been communicated with. I will have to take that information from the Deputy and look into that.

I will forward this information to the Minister afterwards. The issue relating to the service providers is not the delays. Everyone in life understands that there are delays and glitches with systems. The issue is the lack of communication and preliminary payments being made and then taken back, with no explanation. That seems to be the big issue for the services. I will forward this information to the Minister to see if we can get to the bottom of this for the services. I thank her and the Ceann Comhairle.

Childcare Services Administration

Maureen O'Sullivan


63. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs further to Parliamentary Question No. 1665 of 6 September 2019, the way in which the national childcare scheme can address the further stigmatisation for persons requiring a referral; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43154/19]

I call Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan who will have just enough time to introduce a question.

This is a follow-on from an earlier question on the national childcare scheme and that addresses further stigmatisation of particular women - the Minister knows who I am referring to - when they seek a referral.

We are out of time. Could the Minister provide the answer to Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan?

I would be very happy to because there are some changes with the introduction of the national childcare scheme in terms of sensitivities in that regard.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.