Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Note: Ministerial and Departmental titles have been updated in the Question text in anticipation of the relevant Government orders to give legal effect to the Taoiseach’s announcement in Dáil Éireann on 27 June 2020.

School Attendance

Kathleen Funchion

Ceist:

22. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration if schools will still be required to submit biannual student absence reports to Tusla for student absenteeism over the 20-day limit; and if he will consider an exemption due to the public health emergency that includes illness and or suspected contact with a person with Covid-19 which would require a period of self-isolation. [22336/20]

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. My apologies as I thought that a cleaning session was under way and I was unsure as to whether I should come into the Chamber or not. These are the joys of Covid-19.

My first question relates to the Tusla rule relating to the 20-day limit. Will the Minister consider even a temporary exemption due to the public health emergency that includes illness and-or suspected contact with a person with Covid-19, which would require a period of self-isolation?

As schools have been reopening, Tusla's education and support service, TESS, has been engaging with families to provide advice, support and encouragement for students as they return to school recognising that this is a significantly different environment for many children and young people. Under the Education (Welfare) Act 2000, schools are obliged to maintain a record of the attendance of students and are required to refer cases to TESS when a student misses more than 20 days at school, as the Deputy referred to in her question.

To ensure no student is missed, TESS is asking all schools to submit a once off Covid-19 return to be completed by the end of September. This return will identify any students who have not returned to school, despite the intervention of school personnel and TESS staff. TESS has advised my Department that schools will continue to be required to submit biannual student absence reports during the 2020-21 academic year. Schools will record all absences as normal, with the only exception being in the cases of students who are medically certified as being at very high risk of Covid-19, and hence cannot attend school.

As per the guidance produced by the Department of Education and Skills, students deemed very high risk will be supported by their schools to continue their education at home and if the student is engaging with learning at home, he or she will be marked present. Where students are absent for legitimate Covid-19-related reasons, TESS will work with schools, students, and their parents to support them as required as schools return. TESS has issued a letter and a video to all principals explaining how this process will operate.

In all other circumstances where a student's absence is explained, for example, with illness or quarantining due to Covid-19, the school will be informed by the parent or guardian and the school will note such absences as explained when completing the biannual report to Tusla.

Both Tusla and TESS are very mindful of the need for a supportive approach to all children and families as schools reopen and will adopt a fair and balanced approach to its assessment of absence, ensuring close collaboration with all schools.

I thank the Minister and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I welcome this answer because I have been contacted by many parents about their concerns on this issue. Everybody wants to do the right thing and this is a nervous and anxious time. It is also a good time to see the schools reopening and for parents to see children return, which I welcome as a parent. There are concerns about trying to do the right thing by keeping children at home and not to introduce even more bugs, even if it is something mild that one would normally send children to school with. People were afraid that they might be penalised. There is the fear that one might get a letter. It is a scary prospect that Tusla might be contacted regarding one’s children. Can the Minister confirm that if children are out of school due to Covid-19, quarantine, or as a precaution, that there is a section for that to be explained and that this will not be an issue for parents?

I am happy to confirm that. We double-checked that with Tusla and TESS today in advance of addressing the Deputy’s question. Where an absence is explained due to a Covid-related reason, that will not count towards the 20 days. The Deputy is correct that parents are nervous as this is such a different environment but when one looks at how the education and welfare service worked over the years, its approach is to try to bring parents on board and to get students into class, if at all possible. The Deputy will be aware that the number of school attendance notices issued every year is small compared to the overall number of engagements undertaken by TESS and that the number of prosecutions that are brought forward is even smaller still. This is indicative of the harmonious approach that TESS operates.

I will make a brief response because, in fairness, the question has been answered. I understand why that rule is there and I generally support it because many children have the potential to fall through the cracks and this rule is in place to identify that. Given that we are in such strange and unusual times it is good to see that a common sense approach, something I often refer to in this Chamber, will be applied in this instance and I thank the Minister for that.

This is a common sense approach. We are carrying out the September audit of who is attending because research undertaken by my Department over the past number of months has shown that there is a real potential for impact of the three and half months spent out-of-school on children generally but, particularly, on children with special educational needs and from disadvantaged backgrounds. That is why it is so important, as we have this transition back to school, that TESS keeps a particular eye out for children who are perhaps most vulnerable. Rather than waiting for the biannual report audits to come in, we are doing the September audit to flag up if there are certain groups of children who perhaps might be falling through the cracks and to allow the home-school liaison officers or school completion programmes to kick in there to bring them back into the school.

Covid-19 Tests

Seán Sherlock

Ceist:

23. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration if his attention has been drawn to recent reports that delays in Covid-19 testing is having an impact on the ability of childcare providers to adequately provide services; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22636/20]

I have witnessed a degree of anxiety on the part of professionals working in the childcare sector, when they have to be tested for Covid-19, regarding the time it is taking them to get tests in some instances, and then to attain the results. This is worrying for themselves personally, but also where they are reasonably confident of a negative test outcome, as they may be out of circulation for a considerable period, which is understandable. What is the Minister’s perspective on establishing a protocol that would allow for the earliest possible testing to be carried out in sectors that are dealing with children, specifically, schools and the early years care providers?

I thank the Deputy. First, I commend the early learning and childcare sector on the fact that 94% of services that normally open during the summer, did so again this year. This is despite the very many challenges Covid-19 created.

Our preliminary information is that the level of term-time services reopening over the past two weeks is also extremely high. This involved a major commitment by providers and childcare professionals to children and their families. I applaud their work in that context.

It is important to note that testing and contact tracing are matters primarily for the Department of Health and the HSE. The HSE has advised that turnaround time on testing and tracing is well in line with international practice.

I fully recognise that the timeliness of testing and tracing is important for our childcare services, where specific adult-child ratios are mandated by the regulations. With this in mind, I have raised the issue of prioritised testing for the childcare sector directly with the acting Chief Medical Officer. My officials have also raised it with the HSE. The HSE advises that it is difficult to prioritise any particular group and its aim instead is to speed up testing for all sectors and citizens.

My Department will continue to keep this matter under review and will continue to liaise with the Department of Health and the HSE as required. My Department is also liaising with officials in the Department of Education and Skills to ensure approaches in both sectors are aligned.

We have some reports from the sector of recruitment difficulties but we have no clear indications of widespread staff shortages due to testing delays. Both myself and my officials will continue to engage regularly with representatives of the sector to ensure that we have up-to-date information and we are looking at any evidence of any difficulties that might be experienced by the sector.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I appreciate that there is an ongoing engagement between him and NPHET as to the prioritising of testing for those people who are working with children. I reiterate the call that such priority could be given. Nobody in society will oppose the idea of prioritised testing where people are working with children.

I also seek the Minister's perspective on the fact that there is no sick pay scheme in place for workers within the childcare sector. The absence of such a sick pay scheme has a bearing on whether somebody will decide to stay in employment and it poses a certain risk. Given that the Minister is proactive in respect of engaging with NPHET on the prioritised testing, I would be grateful to know whether he is giving consideration to, for instance, SIPTU's campaign for a sick pay scheme for those people currently working within the sector.

I thank the Deputy. On the point about testing, I will continue to engage with the acting Chief Medical Officer and the HSE. Again, I am working in the context of NPHET advice and that objective to increase the general level of testing but also to get the response in the tracing time down as quickly as possible. The statistics out today show that, certainly in the past week, we are upscaling the amount of testing that is taking place nationally, which is welcome for all sectors of society. However, I take on board the Deputy's point about the particular concern to ensure we have measures in place for children in terms of their vulnerability.

I take on board also what the Deputy said as regards the issue of sick pay. In the first two or three weeks in the role I met representatives of SIPTU. They did not flag the sick pay issue with me that day. I know it is coming in a submission and I look forward to engaging with that submission.

Again, I welcome that the Minister is proactive in respect of engaging with the stakeholders. We know that 79% of early years professionals do not have a sick pay scheme at work. People may not make the link between testing for Covid-19 and a sick pay scheme but if there is a sick pay scheme in situ that is embedded within the system, it gives comfort largely to parents who we are talking about across the sector. There is a Labour Party Bill on a sick pay scheme for all workers but for this sector in particular, it gives comfort to the professionals working within it that they can avail of such a scheme if it were available. As I said, 79% of early years professionals do not have a sick pay scheme at work. If we are talking about continuing professional development, CPD, and embedding more formalisation of the sector in Irish society, this has to become one of the bulwarks for ensuring that workers are looked after.

I thank the Deputy. We are all aware of the high turnover in that sector and statistics released yesterday highlighted that. I know they are for 2015 but, nonetheless, they are concerning as regards the overall sector. This is probably one element of creating the uncertainty that exists in the sector. We are undertaking a workforce development plan and, as the Deputy said, greater professionalisation and giving those entering the workforce here the idea that there are long-term careers and that they will be supported is important, and sick pay is obviously a key element of that support. I might seek another meeting with SIPTU specifically on the issue of sick pay again. What it brought to me at that earlier stage was of a broader nature but I am certainly willing to look at it, obviously within a wider budgetary context under which we are all operating.

It is the sting in the tail.

That is the sting in the tail but it is the context in which we know we are all operating. It is to ensure that we have those solid protections for childcare professionals who, as we have seen over the summer, have gone above and beyond to get childcare reopened during that period.

Early Years Sector

Kathleen Funchion

Ceist:

24. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration if clarity will be provided on the overage exemption for the ECCE programme; and the reason there is such a high level of refusals for this exemption which causes a lot of anxiety for families. [22704/20]

This question relates to the overage exemption for the ECCE programme and asks the Minister to give some explanation for the high level of refusals for this exemption, which causes a great deal of stress and anxiety for families looking to take it up.

I greatly appreciate the anxiety of parents who seek an overage exemption from the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme for their child.

Overage exemptions for ECCE are provided by my Department and are governed by three guiding principles: first, a specialist has recommended the additional time in ECCE; second, the child will not reach six years of age before beginning primary education, in line with the Education (Welfare) Act 2000; and, third, if a child has already availed of the full two years of ECCE, he or she will not be eligible for a further year.

Where an application does not fulfil these criteria, the application will be declined.

The primary reason for refusal of an overage exemption this year was that the child would be older than six when starting school if the exemption had been provided.

The National Disability Authority conducted a review of the way in which my Department and the Department of Education and Skills were applying the overage exemption in 2018. The authority’s report concluded that the approach being taken by my Department was in the best interests of the child.

The National Disability Authority found that children with disabilities were better served by starting school with their peers and progressing to secondary school with their peers.

It is important to note that the overage exemption for the ECCE programme was never intended as a mechanism to delay a child’s entry to primary school or to address issues to do with the availability of school places.

The overage exemption was developed when ECCE was a one-year-only programme and where the significant resources that come with the access and inclusion model, AIM, did not exist. All children now have the option of two full years of ECCE with a wide variety of AIM supports that are available.

I would encourage parents of children attending ECCE to discuss any concerns they might have as early as possible with the provider and with the AIM Better Start team. Details about the access and inclusion model can be found on the aim.gov.ie website if parents want more information.

I thank the Minister. Is it the case then that once the two years is completed, regardless of the other circumstances, that child will not be eligible for the overage exemption? I could be wrong but until now, that was not my understanding of it. I thought it was supposed to be available mainly for children who might have additional needs or who might be struggling. As we all know, the waiting times now for assessments and various therapies have become ridiculous. In many cases, the services and a specialist are saying that the child could benefit from the overage exemption but they are still not getting it. One of the criteria mentioned was if they have done the full two years. If they have done the two years, why is that in place at all if they are not going to be eligible for it? I am dealing with a particular case in Carlow where this overage exemption is really needed but those concerned have met with a brick wall on it. I appreciate what the Minister said about moving on, the access and inclusion model, AIM, and so on but in certain situations it is both the provider and the parents, and perhaps a specialist, who are saying this would really benefit the child yet there does not seem to be any give on that. I am sorry. I did not realise the time. I will come back in on that.

I thank the Deputy. On the origin of the exemption, when the ECCE programme was just a one-year programme there were certain children who, because of their particular needs, would not have been able to avail of the full five days so they ended up taking three. We allowed them to take it then over two years. I believe that is the origin of the two-year rule in that particular situation but I will double-check that and revert to the Deputy on that specific point.

It is worth noting, from my Department looking into this to address the Deputy's question, that the main reason for the refusals this year is that the children would end up attending school over the age of six. That is the key reason, and that is set out in the Education (Welfare) Act.

I raised this question because a huge number of people contacted us in recent weeks about it. I have often dealt with queries about the overage exemption and I have to say that, to date, I do not know one person who has got it. I might have been unlucky with the cases I have been dealing with, in that people have not got it. It seems to be the case that if it is available parents feel they might be able to qualify for it but when we look at the criteria it appears that, technically, nobody will qualify under that. I appreciate the Minister will check it but could it be reviewed, even in the context of this year?

Although the school year and the ECCE scheme have started, could the criteria be reviewed given that so many children did not have the two or three months of preschool because everything closed down on 12 March or 13 March? Maybe they were going to benefit from an additional year anyway but, given the situation we are in now, could the scheme be reviewed? If possible, I would like to send the Minister the details of the case in question.

The Deputy is always welcome to send on representations. I will try to process them as quickly as possible. I know from examining representations I have received from various Deputies that we give a significant number of exemptions. Even in the short time I have been in my role, I have given a significant number of them. I am sorry if the Deputy's name has not been on those representations.

We are about to undertake a fairly significant review of AIM in general and its application because it is a new programme. The objective is to make sure it is working well. I would be happy, as part of the review, to examine the overage exemption and how it is applied. The review of the application of the exemption will be a higher level review. That is probably the best context in which to undertake a review.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

Seán Canney

Ceist:

25. Deputy Seán Canney asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the steps in the process to exhume the bodies at the mother and baby home site in Tuam, County Galway. [21152/20]

I raise the issue of the mother and baby home in Tuam. It has been the subject of a considerable amount of documentation and reports and all kinds of investigations. I would like to know how the legislation on the exhumation of the bodies is progressing and the arrangements the Minister will put in place to consult the residents and locals who might have had a light shone on them that may not be right for them. They are in such close proximity to the site itself.

I thank the Deputy. I am sure he will recall the general scheme of a Bill to give effect to a phased forensic standard excavation at the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam. It lapsed earlier this year prior to formal pre-legislative scrutiny. It is my intention to seek Cabinet approval to reintroduce this legislation. Following that approval, I will be seeking for the relevant joint Oireachtas committee, on its appointment, to prioritise early scrutiny of the proposed legislation so its recommendations can be taken into account during the drafting process. Once drafted and approved by the Government, I will take the Bill through the Oireachtas so further work required to establish the agency may be advanced. As Deputies will appreciate, the intention of the Bill is to allow for the exhumation and, if possible, the identification of the children interred at the site.

The Office of the Attorney General advises that new legislation will be required to carry this out because of the unique circumstances of the burials and the fact that the current laws would not allow for the Government's decision to be implemented. Work on drafting the Bill is ongoing in my Department. The general scheme of the Bill provides for the creation of an agency for a finite duration to manage the intervention at the site, and preliminary work on the establishment of that agency will proceed as the legislation takes its final shape. Once the legislation is in place and the agency has been established, it will procure the expertise required to undertake the works needed at the site.

I understand the delay in all this has been a source of real distress for the survivors of the mother and baby homes and their families. I assure the Deputy that I am committed to bringing forward the legislation to ensure the children interred in Tuam may at last be given a dignified burial.

I thank the Minister. I stated the important point is that the locals be taken into account in whatever legislation is introduced. People close to the site have spent their years protecting it as a shrine and place of worship. They looked after it when the eyes of the world were not on them. They kept it and maintained it as a sacred place. It will be important, when the legislation is introduced, that we take into account the feelings and wishes of the local residents, whose lives have been disrupted considerably by all that has happened and the publicity worldwide. They feel they need to be consulted and to have their wishes heard. It is important that they be part of the final solution.

I thank the Deputy for that. A significant number of people live in very close proximity to the site. I have not yet visited it. I will be visiting it. I hope to do so soon. I understand there are houses and gardens backing directly onto the site. I can only imagine how the attention, controversy and genuine sadness associated with the site have affected them. I am open to the Deputy's suggestions on how best to engage with residents in Tuam. A pre-legislative process gives us more time to consider how the legislation should be shaped. It will give Deputy Canney and other Deputies representing the area more of a chance to have an input on behalf of their constituents.

I appreciate the Minister's concern. I recommend that he visit the site. The former Taoiseach visited it. It was not a big publicity stunt as he made a private visit. If the Minister wishes to visit the site, he should let me know in his own time and I will show it to him. It is important that he visit just to get a sense of the whole place and what is there. It is important that we move along with the legislation as quickly as possible because we need to satisfy the needs of the survivors and those families who have relations buried at the site. It is important that we try to bring closure to this. It is a very sensitive matter. It can be emotional for people so I ask the Minister to treat it with the sensitivity it deserves and to take everybody's viewpoint into account. The previous Minister, Dr. Zappone, did this. I trust that the current Minister will continue in the same manner.

I spoke to the former Minister, Dr. Zappone, a couple of weeks after taking on my role and we talked through some of the key challenges facing me as the new Minister. Dr. Zappone spoke specifically about her visits. I believe she made a number of visits to Tuam. She spoke about the impact on her and advised me to visit. I have also spoken to Catherine Corless and her family. She, too, extended the invitation. I certainly plan to visit.

It is a priority for me to proceed with the legislation, subject to Cabinet approval. Pre-legislative scrutiny was close to being carried out. It was to begin the day the Dáil was dissolved in January. So much has happened since then. I acknowledge the delay is a source of genuine anguish for the survivors and their families. We will seek to expedite the process as much as we can.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

Kathleen Funchion

Ceist:

26. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration when the final report of the mother and baby homes commission of investigation will be published in view of the fact the crucial report for survivors has been delayed several times. [22557/20]

My question is in a similar vein. I wish to know when the final report of the mother and baby homes commission of investigation will be published in view of the fact that the crucial report for survivors has been delayed several times.

I thank the Deputy. I am acutely aware of the importance of the commission of investigation and of how much the report is anticipated by the former residents and their families. The commission's final report is due to be submitted to me by 30 October 2020. It is important to understand that when the commission submits its final report to me, I will have to address a number of procedural matters before I can seek the approval of the Government to publish it. This will necessitate engagement with the Attorney General, as the Government's legal adviser, and consequently there will be an interval between the delivery of the report to my Department and the making of the separate arrangements for its publication. No commission publishes its report directly. I am aware that the anguish felt by many former residents of mother and baby homes and their families has been prolonged by the commission's need for additional time but I believe they understand the commission is investigating very important, sensitive, personal material and actions that took place over the span of 75 years.

It is important to reiterate that the commission is completely independent in the conduct of its investigations. It must act within the terms of reference it operates under and the previous Government, when it granted a number of extensions, was always satisfied the commission endeavoured to conclude its report as quickly as possible. The priority must be to safeguard the substantial work that has been done in order that the commission can comprehensively address and conclude these crucial matters as quickly as possible. I share the desire of all the interested parties to see the commission conclude its work and look forward to receiving the final report at the end of October. Our duty to the women and children who passed through these institutions is to ensure their lived experiences are shared, acknowledged and understood. I will keep former residents and Members of this House informed of the situation when the report is received and it is my intention to publish it as soon as possible.

As the Minister will be aware and, in fairness, has acknowledged, a number of dates were given for publication. As late as 3 June last, it was confirmed that it would go ahead on the expected date of 26 June. At that stage, everybody thought that would be the date. However, on 12 June, there was a delay, which was said to be due to Covid-19. The experience of people who have been treated and failed so badly by the State has been delay after delay. Saying Covid-19 was the issue at the end of June when the Covid pandemic started in March caused people to become suspicious and one cannot blame them. I would feel the same way if I was in that position.

I appeal to the Minister, who I believe wants to do the right thing on this, to ensure that this is not delayed any further. At this stage, the commission must have had enough time. I appreciate the complexities and that time is needed as this investigation cannot be rushed but at this stage the commission of investigation needs to stick to the date of 30 October.

I fully agree with the Deputy. In fairness to the commission of investigation, we are all aware that a chunk of our lives was missed this year and that has caused difficulties and delays for everyone in every context. I do not want to make comparisons because I do not want to minimise the issue we are discussing. However, everyone's lives were delayed and that is the context here.

I met two members of the commission of investigation around a month ago and we had a useful discussion. I asked them if they were absolutely confident about the date of 30 October and they replied that they were. I am confident about that date and that on that date we can begin the process of doing due diligence on the Government side to make sure we can have the report published as quickly as possible. As the Deputy is aware, it is important to flag to the survivors that we will not have it published on that day. It is my absolute intention, however, to publish it as quickly as is possible subject to the advice of the Attorney General and the Government's decision thereafter.

While I understand the Minister's point, if the 30 October deadline is adhered to, it will be the first time a timeline will have been met in this whole scenario. The report should have been published before the Covid pandemic started. Covid should not come into this. I never know what we can say about mother and baby homes, institutional abuse and all the horrible things that happened. The State has totally failed people. One thing we can do, apart from apologising, is publish the report and get the information. It is important the deadline is not extended any further.

The first group of people to be given copies of the report must be the survivors. Unfortunately nowadays, we see leaks to the media a few days or weeks in advance of publication of any report. We do not want survivors to open a newspaper and read about various parts of the report before they have been told it has been completed and is available. I appeal to the Minister, insofar as it is possible and within his power to do so, to ensure the survivors are the first to get copies of the report.

The Deputy makes a fair point. My Department has a network of people it communicates with on all issues to do with the mother and baby homes commission of investigation, and we will use that network. However, the Deputy is correct that we will need a clear communications approach as regards the publication of this report. I remember when the Saville inquiry in London published its final decision on Bloody Sunday that the relatives were all present and were given copies of the report. I remember them waving them out the windows of the Houses of Parliament. That was done in a way that was respectful to relatives. I take on board the Deputy's point on the importance of communicating with survivors and getting the report to them quickly in a way that is respectful.