Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 27 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 7

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Direct Provision System

Gino Kenny


6. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his Department’s policy on the direct provision system; the timeframe for ending same; if he will report on recent comments in the media on the issue and the programme for Government policy on direct provision; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42530/20]

Paul McAuliffe


28. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the status of the implementation of the White paper to end direct provision and to establish a new international protection support service including progress to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28729/21]

Marc Ó Cathasaigh


40. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the progress made to date on the implementation of the White paper to end direct provision and replace it with a new international protection support service; the expected timeline for the implementation of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28453/21]

Brian Stanley


52. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the number of asylum seekers who have been granted permission to remain in Ireland but are still living in direct provision centres; and the reason they remain in direct provision. [28442/21]

John Lahart


81. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the consultation processes with key stakeholders in place and planned under the White Paper to end direct provision to ensure that measures reflect the needs of those most directly impacted; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28728/21]

My question refers to the commitment in the programme for Government to phase out direct provision. As the Minister will know, direct provision has existed in this country for more than 20 years. What was meant to be a temporary solution has become permanent, with devastating consequences for those in direct provision. I would like to hear the Minister's answer to this question.

I propose to take questions Nos. 6, 28, 40, 52 and 81 together. They are all on this topic. I believe I have some additional time if the questions are grouped in this way. I thank the Deputy for the question. As he will know, the Government published a White Paper at the end of February in which the new approach to accommodating applicants for international protection in Ireland is set out. This approach will replace the current system of direct provision.

I am committed to the new approach being in place by the end of 2024. My Department has commenced the implementation process. This includes the putting in place of an implementation team and working to establish key governance structures, including a programme board and an independent advisory committee. I will announce details of the make-up of these two bodies shortly. The new approach will end congregated and institutional living and will focus on supporting integration from day one. Applicants will initially reside in one of six reception and integration centres, which will be State-owned and run by an NGO. After a four-month period, residents will move to accommodation within the community. This accommodation will be sourced through different strands, with the most appropriate accommodation being identified in conjunction with the individual applicant or family.

The White Paper proposes that accommodation will be bought, built or repurposed under urban renewal schemes for applicants who remain in the international protection process for longer than four months. The accommodation provided will include family homes, apartments, rooms in apartments and rooms in urban renewal buildings. The White Paper sets out a new model which, I believe, is distinctively different from the system currently in place. It will be centred on a human rights approach with key supports geared towards ensuring integration and independence.

A comprehensive consultation process with a wide variety of organisations, including residents of existing centres, other Departments, agencies, the Ombudsman for Children and NGOs, was completed when preparing the White Paper. The new model takes account of key issues raised in the consultation process. In addition to the responsibility of my Department, there will be key roles for the Housing Agency, which will support the acquisition and building of accommodation, and local authorities, which will co-ordinate integration supports at local level. Approved housing bodies will be commissioned and funded to deliver the accommodation needed and NGOs will provide supports to applicants as necessary.

The transition team I spoke about earlier is currently being assembled. It already is headed by a principal officer and additional staffing is to follow. Engagement and discussions have begun with key implementation partners. Much of the progress to date has focused on development of the new accommodation model. This includes discussions with the Housing Agency on available funding schemes for accommodation in the community and on the role that approved housing bodies will play in providing accommodation under the new model.

I have met the Housing Agency and I wish to acknowledge the significant additional staff resources it is dedicating to the implementation of the White Paper. I have also met the County and City Management Association, CCMA, recognising the key role that integration at a local level will play in the success of the White Paper roll-out. The CCMA is developing the allocation key on behalf of the local authorities, which will determine the number of accommodation units located in each county. Last week, I met the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and we discussed ongoing co-operation between our Departments on this issue.

Work is also under way to establish a programme board and an external advisory group, which will form the governance structure for the project as committed to in the White Paper. The programme board will comprise representatives of Departments and agencies, the local authorities and NGOs with a role in the delivery of services for international protection applicants. At least one former resident of the direct provision system will be represented on the board and experts will be invited in, as necessary, to support the delivery of key areas such as housing and human rights. The programme board will be a proactive entity that will oversee the transition to the new international protection support service. The external advisory group will be a three-member group and will consist of a mixture of expertise in areas such as human rights, housing and change management. It will provide external advice to support implementation of the new international protection support service and will also format a function of calling out, in the event that the Department is falling back in respect of reaching targets. I will be announcing details of the membership of both entities in the coming weeks. I envisage that the first meeting of the programme board will take place in June.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I welcome the Government's commitment to phase out direct provision, which as I have said previously, has been a cruel system for those seeking sanctuary in Ireland. When they came to Ireland, they were given sanctuary but in a system of direct provision that sometimes lasted for up to seven to eight years. It is good that it is being phased out. How confident is the Minister that it will be phased out in the lifetime of this Government and has he encountered any resistance from the multitude of civic bodies and Departments involved in this area on the grounds that this may not be feasible over the lifetime of this Government, which, if it runs its course, will be four years? Has the Minister encountered such resistance?

As none of the other Deputies involved in this grouping is in the room, I will return to the Minister. I beg Deputy Ó Cathasaigh's pardon.

I am up in the gods. I acknowledge the Minister's commitment on this issue. I know how hard he worked to get this commitment into the programme for Government and how hard he has worked within his Ministry since to deliver the White Paper, which, I believe, is finally providing a pathway to ending direct provision, which has been a blight on our nation for the past 21 years.

I have taught some of the children who have lived in direct provision. I have taught children who were born in Ireland but lived in no other context than in a direct provision centre. I have talked to their parents who say the experience is one of life in limbo, as they have had to press the hold button on their lives and they cannot see a way forward. The Minister outlined some of the steps he proposes to take to fulfil the White Paper. What specifically is being done to drive down the processing time for the international protection applications? I would like to see that turned around in a shorter timeframe. Whatever about own-door accommodation, we need to get these people processed and through our system as quickly as possible.

In terms of processing time, working is ongoing in the Department of Justice. Significant additional resources have been put into a better IT system but also to put in place additional staff to speed up the processing time at first instance and the appeal stage. My colleague, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, is committed to delivering in that regard.

On the question raised by Deputy Gino Kenny, I have not encountered resistance. Rather, I have received support from all elements of Government towards the delivery of the commitment. It is a commitment across Government and I am committed to delivering it. The timeframe is tight. I know there has been some criticism of it not being delivered until 2024. In terms of what we are trying to do in providing that level of accommodation, as someone who has been involved in local authorities, the Deputy will know how difficult that is but I am committed to doing everything that I and my Department can do to ensure we have phased out direct provision by the end of 2024.

The most important people in this debate are the people who find themselves in direct provision. People have exited direct provision and played a huge part at community and national level, having worked and raised families here. They are a great addition to their communities. There is a cohort of over 7,000 people still in direct provision, some of them for many years and in pretty bad situations in terms of accommodation. In terms of a request, they want the processing system to be reviewed. It is not acceptable that human beings, sometimes whole families, are locked up in hotel rooms for years. People will look back and ask how those people were treated so badly because of where they came from or because of the colour of their skin. The Minister understands the need to phase out direct provision. In the meantime, how can we challenge the processing system such that people can leave direct provision and be able to give something back to Ireland? That is all they want to do.

My original question deals more specifically with the issue of timelines. While I acknowledge 2024 as an endpoint, the Minister referenced a number of initiatives, such as the implementation team, the programme board and the external advisory group. In order that the people currently within the direct provision can see light at the end of the tunnel, are there specific timelines for any of those elements in order that we can map progress and tick off the different stages as we move through them? Can the Minister provide additional clarity in terms of concrete timelines for completion of those elements to ensure achievement of the 2024 target?

I am fully aware of how difficult that life in limbo is for residents, having engaged with individuals living in direct provision and the groups representing them. This is why we have a commitment to have someone on the programme board who has gone through the system and will feed back directly into the work being undertaken.

In response to Deputy Ó Cathasaigh's earlier question, I outlined some of the points on processing. I will say that as soon as the Catherine Day report was published last October, the Department of Justice immediately established its own programme board to work on the very specific issue of processing. That Department is accountable to a Cabinet sub-committee on the delivery of these commitments, as is my Department.

We set out an indicative timeframe in the White Paper. Once the transition team and the programme board are established in the coming month, I will give them an opportunity to do a little bit of work so they can set out a clearer implementation timeframe once they are up and running because they will be in the best position to indicate deliverables as we go forward.

Family Resource Centres

Martin Browne


7. Deputy Martin Browne asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his views on the amount of time that administrators in family resource centres spend making applications for funding. [28597/21]

I want to raise with the Minister how administrators and managers of the family resource centres spend a massive amount of time making applications for funding. I also want to raise the fact that the existing funding streams are too short.

I will start by paying particular tribute to the work that family resource centres have been providing since the outbreak of Covid-19. I was pleased to see some very effective and innovative work undertaken by them in that time. Recently, I met representatives of the Family Resource Centre National Forum again, and it described at first-hand the surge in demand for these services, and how the centres have responded. I deeply admire their commitment and dedication to their local communities.

Tusla provides core budget funding for 121 family resource centres throughout the country to provide family support and build the capacity of disadvantaged communities. This funding enables communities to develop strategies in response to social problems and to leverage access to other funding opportunities. With the core funding provided by Tusla, family resource centres draw down significant additional funding for their communities from non-Tusla sources.

It is important that family resource centres access a range of funding sources, as much of their diverse work intersects with the remits of bodies such as the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Rural and Community Development, local authorities and the HSE. Some family resource centres have also secured supports from non-governmental bodies and cross-Border funding. I encourage them to seek these supports, where possible.

I accept that the process of securing diversified funding streams can be resource intensive but it is also important to account fully for State funding. I am in favour of any measure that could be put in place to reduce the administration burden on local community and voluntary organisations so they can dedicate their resources to the provision of services.

I have been concerned over the past year by the loss of alternative sources of income, such as room rental and fundraising, experienced by family resource centres. I have asked Tusla to examine its available resources to see whether some additional funding is available to support such groups this year on a once-off basis. The Department has also secured €620,000 funding through the Dormant Accounts Fund to support family resource centres and Tusla will be inviting applications for these additional resources soon.

I appreciate the Minister recently met representatives of the Family Resource Centre National Forum but so have I, and I have been involved in the resource centre in Cashel since we built it. An amount of time is wasted and taken up by managers and administrators looking for funding. Let it be said that at times it is minuscule funding. The amount of work these managers and administrators put into running the centres is unbelievable. When all of the paperwork goes back to it, the Department does not realise that the funding given to the centres is not anywhere near enough. In reply to a parliamentary question we tabled, the Minister stated family resource centres continue to provide counselling services and they can assist families in accessing mental health supports from other agencies. They cannot do so with the funding they are getting. I appeal to the Minister to tidy this up and provide more mainline funding to resource centres.

The issue of the specific funding stream for counselling services was one we discussed when I met the representative group three weeks ago. We provided €6 million last year and €6 million this year to support these services. I will continue to examine the matter. I am aware of the importance of the low-cost early intervention services they provide, particularly because of their locations. They are accessible to people who might be using other services in the family resource centres and who might not have the same degree of access to HSE-run services in HSE buildings. I absolutely accept that, in terms of value for money and the appropriate location, the counselling support services provided by the family resource centres are extremely valuable.

We all agree the family resource centres are a model for providing therapeutic and drop-in services but in some cases the funding is so scarce that these centres find themselves unable to provide assurances to service users that the service they require will continue to be provided. In a recent discussion on mental health with the centres, they spoke of dealing with people who are ready to take the next step but they cannot get assurances on this from the resource centres. This is not only because the funding amount is so small. There is no guarantee when the funding is spent, and it has to spent before the centres look for more, that the next strand of funding will be available to them. This is where all the problems arise for the resource centres. Most family resource centres operate on shoestring budgets. I have sat on the board of management of the resource centre in Cashel and I have listened to the managers come in month after month. The voluntary board of management had to fundraise for people to finish counselling.

I thank the Deputy. The funding that comes from my Department through Tusla is fixed and allocated so family resource centres can rely on it. It is always less than family resource centres want and it is less than the need out there but our set of funding is fixed. It is important to remember that family resource centres respond to the needs in their area, so what the Deputy has identified in Cashel with regard to the needs of the local community may be different from the needs being provided for in Mountview in my area. The specific functions and tasks each family resource centre engages in may be funded from a different area. One focused on childcare will get additional resources from the Department and another that focuses on drug support may seek additional support from the HSE. We provide the core level of support and we can bring in resources from other State agencies for the particular needs of the community.

Question No. 8 replied to with Written Answers.

Child and Family Agency

Jennifer Whitmore


9. Deputy Jennifer Whitmore asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the efforts his Department is making to limit the impact of the recent HSE cyberattack on Tusla services; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28456/21]

I raise with the Minister the issue of Tusla, in particular what efforts the Department is making to limit the impact of the recent cyberattack on the organisation's services. I thank the Minister for arranging a briefing last week. Can he give me an update on exactly what is happening with Tusla and what the impact is? Last week, we were told by the CEO it was too early to be definitive on whether data had been stolen. Does the Minister have an update on this also?

I recognise that the Deputy and others have been highlighting the impact of the recent cyberattack on the HSE's servers and Tusla's ability to support vulnerable children. I have been deeply engaged with Tusla since the attack occurred.

As the Deputy referenced, she participated in a briefing for relevant spokespersons from political parties with the chief executive officer of Tusla. We provided a full overview of the issues involved. The CEO of Tusla was also in touch with the Chair of the Oireachtas joint committee, Deputy Funchion, and all members of the committee were written to.

As an independent agency, Tusla has responsibility for its own ICT functions and has engaged with the HSE, the National Cyber Security Agency and the Garda on this incident. My officials have been in daily contact with Tusla since first being alerted to the attack on 14 May. I have been in very regular contact with the chief executive, Bernard Gloster, to ensure Tusla receives all necessary supports.

Tusla is engaging with the Garda, the Courts Service and family support services on the provision of guidance and information to all its staff. Tusla will place an advertisement on radio from tomorrow letting people know that its core services are available. They are not available by email but are available by telephone, and that phone number and other relevant information will be provided across the media from tomorrow.

There is no evidence at this point that material has been taken from the servers that contained Tusla's information, although we cannot say conclusively that this has not happened. We continue to engage in a very detailed way at both my level and official level with Tusla, offering it all necessary support.

I thank the Minister for the update but I am concerned that we do not really seem to have moved on. From the information we received last week, I had hoped we might have a timeline as to when Tusla expects to be back up and running. Last week, I said I was afraid Tusla was being forgotten in the debate because we were hearing a lot about the HSE and there was no real mention of Tusla. On 17 May, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Ministers for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Justice, and Health, and the Minister of State with responsibility for communications all met to discuss the cyberattack. I was concerned that the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, who has responsibility for children and Tusla, was not at that meeting. It seemed that perhaps Tusla was being forgotten in that whole debate. Has the Minister since had a meeting on this with the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly? It is important the Minister is at that table when these issues are being discussed.

I know the Tusla staff are doing a great job and providing workarounds, as is the CEO, but has there been any indication of a drop in the number of referrals now that we have moved to a more manual system?

Tusla has absolutely not been forgotten. It has been at the centre of my focus and the Government's focus. I have been to a number of meetings on the Government's wider response to the cyberattack with the Ministers to whom Deputy Whitmore referred, namely, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, the Minister for Justice, Deputy Heather Humphreys, and the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth. As I said, I am in almost daily contact with the chief executive of Tusla and I have also met representatives of the National Cyber Security Centre to discuss its response. That is really important. The fact that Tusla might not have featured in the public debate should not in any way indicate that there was any lack of Government focus on the importance of Tusla's services and the risk posed by this attack to its delivery of services.

As for getting up and running again, Tusla is looking to migrate its email system back onto its own system. It has a small own-server system. It will take a number of weeks, I think, before everything is back up and running, on both Tusla's side and the HSE side, but I am happy to continue to provide updates on that point.

One of the specific questions I asked was whether there had been a drop in the number of referrals and whether an assessment had been done in that regard. I think such an assessment would provide an indication regarding the workarounds. I understand Tusla is significantly impeded by this attack, but there needs to be monitoring of the impact it could potentially be having on referrals and children at risk. Specifically, have any court cases been impacted by this or deferred over recent weeks?

Deputy Connolly earlier raised the issue of staff within the HSE being stood down as a result of this and being told to work from home. Is that also happening? I am not sure whether it has been happening, but is the Minister aware of any such issues with Tusla staff? There is a risk in that Tusla staff have come out of a year during which personal interaction was very difficult. They tried to work as hard as possible to reach children at risk. To be hit with this attack, following on from that year, will make life very difficult. I am glad to hear the Minister is in regular contact, but that monitoring needs to happen.

I do not have current figures relating to the impact on referrals. I will ask Tusla to provide that information to me and I would be happy to pass it on to the Deputy.

The Deputy is absolutely right about the impact on Tusla staff. They have really risen to the challenge during the pandemic. I think Tusla was one of the quickest social work agencies in Europe to move to working from home. All staff were supplied with laptops. Those laptops now have to be rebooted due to this attack. That is taking place. Tusla has set up a special centre where all staff will go to get their laptops rebooted. My understanding is that all Tusla staff are working. They are available by phone and available to engage with other services to keep the institutional and personal knowledge each social worker has about the children and families in his or her care and to make sure children and families do not fall through the cracks. I am very confident that that has been taking place but I will find the figures relating to referrals. As I said, an information campaign will be run by Tusla over the weekend.

We will move on to Question No. 12, in the name of Deputy Ó Murchú.

We will have sufficient time. We will probably get to Question No. 14 as well, will we not?

I cannot say. It depends on who will come in or what-----

What about Question No. 10?

It is in the name of Deputy Richmond.

We sent a note to the effect that I would take it if that is okay.

Did the Deputies make arrangements beforehand?

Go ahead. I beg your pardon.

Childcare Services

Neale Richmond


10. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the efforts his Department has undertaken to increase the number of childcare places in Dublin city and county; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26126/21]

The question relates to the efforts the Department is undertaking to increase the number of childcare places in Dublin city and county, recognising not only that affordability is a challenge but also that availability is a significant challenge, particularly in my area, which has an increasing number of very young children who need crèche places.

First 5, the national ten-year strategy for babies and young children and their families, commits to maintain and extend the supply of high-quality, publicly subsidised early learning and care and childcare to best serve the developmental needs of babies and young children, ensuring that it also reflects the needs and preferences of parents and families. In this context, my Department closely monitors developments regarding capacity for both early learning and care, ELC, and school-age childcare, SAC.

Before the onset of Covid-19, we used the early years sector profile survey to gather data. This survey revealed, unsurprisingly, that the sector was running at near capacity and that there was some evidence of undersupply in parts of Dublin city and county. This evidence has informed the allocation of funding under my Department's annual capital programmes in recent years. Since 2015, we have increased capacity across the entire sector by 27,400 places, and 4,600 extra places have been provided in Dublin city and county.

Since the onset of Covid, there has been some evidence of depressed demand for early learning and care and childcare, largely due to changes in parental working arrangements. We have put very substantial supports in place for providers. This has ensured there has been no loss of capacity over this period. As a consequence, the supply of early learning and care and childcare currently meets demand, although there may still be a few small pockets of undersupply. However, ensuring that supply is sufficient to meet demand, particularly once work patterns stabilise following the removal of the Covid restrictions, remains a key priority.

The annual early years sector profile survey is due to commence this month. This will allow for updated information on capacity. We also have an Ipsos MRBI survey looking at parental demand for September 2022. All these data will help my Department's investment fund. My Department has made a detailed submission for capital funding in the early years sector to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the context of the review of Project Ireland 2040.

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply. Fine Gael has done some research with parents recently. We surveyed 2,300 parents and childcare providers, most of whom were parents of very young children. The responses were really interesting because while 76% of them talked about the need for more affordability, when they talked about flexibility, including flexibility of hours, and a choice of different types of services, whether community-based or private, it really was choice that was important to them. As a subset of choice, location was absolutely crucial. The driving forces, therefore, were not only making childcare more affordable, which was really important to many people, but also, just as important, where to bring their children and the choice available in that regard. Does it have to be the three-day week, the five-day week or the drop-off? It was a matter of providing that total flexibility, which is even more important in a post-Covid environment in which people have more adapted working arrangements and may be able to collect children at a range of different and new times.

The Deputy's point on choice and location is important. Under the planning codes, when a housing estate of a particular scale is built, there is a requirement to put in childcare places. In my area in Dublin 15, I have been disappointed too often by developers trying to subsequently get the childcare facility rezoned and sell it on for housing units. That is disappointing because we all know there is demand. I take with a pinch of salt the argument put forward by some developers that no one would take up this particular service. We are aware that in suburban areas like our constituencies there is significant demand. There is one example which I will not name where our local authority rejected an attempt to rezone and get out of that childcare obligation. It is important that local authorities and our colleagues on councils play their role to ensure that is not happening.

I could not agree more with the Minister. The provision of accessible childcare within housing communities is incredibly important.

Another point from our survey is the perspective of the professional staff involved. Pay is a big issue but so is the recognition of professional qualifications and experience. The top ask of the State is more financial support but also greater recognition of professional qualifications.

While there is a dissatisfaction with pay, one other concern coming back from the childcare professionals in this study is a dissatisfaction with the support available for children with special needs and an opportunity to plan their work. I appreciate that is not directly related to the question. However, there is huge support for the scope of a child development agency to help develop the professionalism of the sector. I know that is the ongoing work of the Department.

The Deputy will be aware that we have set up the process to initiate a joint labour committee to get a wage order in the sector. That will be important. I wrote to the Deputy's party colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, about that. That process has been initiated and we hope it will provide the pay the childcare professionals deserve.

We are also working on the workforce development plan to give professional recognition to those who work in childcare. This will ensure there are clear career pathways for them that they will be able to follow and progress.

In terms of the supports for young children with additional needs in childcare facilities, we have the access and inclusion model, AIM. I discussed this earlier with Deputy Shanahan. We are providing an extra €6 million in AIM supports for this budgetary year. AIM is a good scheme and everyone recognises its success. That is why we are continuing to invest in it.

Direct Provision System

Steven Matthews


11. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the details regarding in-person inspections of direct provision centres during level 5 public health restrictions in the first five months of 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26715/21]

Steven Matthews


92. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the position regarding in-person inspections of direct provision centres given that public health guidelines have been reduced; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26716/21]

Concerns were raised during the previous two lockdowns that inspections of direct provision centres were done over the phone. This is very much a suboptimal alternative when one considers the vulnerability and exposure to risk experienced by people living in direct provision centres. Will the Minister detail the in-person inspections of direct provision centres during level 5 of the public health restrictions in the first five months of 2021?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 and 92 together.

Accommodation centres are currently subject to regular unannounced inspections by both officials in the International Protection Accommodation Service, IPAS, and by an independent inspectorate company, QTS Limited. These inspections are generally undertaken twice yearly by my officials in IPAS and once yearly by QTS Limited.

Inspections cover a wide range of issues, including food quality, fire safety, appropriate signage and information for residents, as well as the condition of communal areas and sleeping quarters, adherence to hygiene and other health and safety measures. Completed inspections are published on the website www.ria.gov.ie.

Unfortunately, the current inspection programme was severely compromised by the Covid-19 pandemic after Christmas last year. However, I am pleased to report that QTS Limited was able to recommence inspections towards the end of February 2021. To date this year, QTS Limited has carried out 19 inspections. In 16 of these cases, the report of the inspection is due to be submitted to my Department shortly. In a further two cases, the Department is seeking responses from contractors on the findings of the reports. These reports will be published on the website to which I referred. One report is already published there.

During the level 5 restrictions, my Department continued to maintain direct contact with our centres and residents through regular newsletters, as well as through the availability of a helpdesk from IPAS. In addition, a freephone service, independently run by the Jesuit Refugee Service with funding from my Department, provides confidential support for residents.

My Department is engaging with HIQA to undertake the role of monitoring the services provided to those accommodated in our centres against national standards that were published in 2019. The national standards meet the requirements of the EU recast reception conditions directive which we voluntarily opted into in June 2018. It is intended that HIQA will begin this role shortly. A strong and transparent monitoring capacity is absolutely crucial to ensure the quality of services is maintained during the significant transformation process which will occur over the coming years in line with the White Paper on a new international support service which I published in February.

Now that level 5 restrictions have eased, my officials will shortly begin again to conduct inspections of all accommodation centres until such time as a formal agreement is completed with HIQA to take over this particular role.

To clarify, IPAS and QTS Limited inspections are being conducted over the phone. When does the Minister believe we will get back to in-person inspections? We must acknowledge there have been additional pressures on what is an already congregated setting, particularly in light of school closures. While allowances would not go so far as to be able to have social coffees every day, people in direct provision were very much limited during lockdown in what they could do. Have any of those additional pressures on the congregated setting been reflected in the reports? Have we managed to maintain the quality of services in the centres or has there been a marked diminution in this regard?

The Deputy stated the importance of getting back to in-person inspections by IPAS officials. As soon as public health restrictions allow for that to take place, it will continue.

Services provided on a voluntary basis by the friends of the direct provision groups have been impacted solely because of public health restrictions. Those involved in providing important supports have not been able to get into direct provision centres. As soon as public health restrictions allow for that to take place, we will see it recommence.

On the European Commission guidelines into which we voluntarily opted, will the Minister comment on the benchmark we are setting in direct provision? One of the recurring messages I have got from my interactions with people in direct provision is about being able to prepare their own food. I know progress has been made in that area. Will the Minster add a general comment on where we are in terms of the standards we apply to direct provision centres? We are looking to phase them out and make them something of the past. However, until such time as we reach that point, are we prepared to stand over the benchmarks we are setting for the service providers?

My key intention in terms of accommodation is to end the use of emergency direct provision centres which are primarily hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. We will be undertaking a round of procurement later on this summer for new accommodation. That will be centred on the idea of own-door and own-room accommodation. Particularly in the context of own-door accommodation, we will have a situation where people will be provided with cooking facilities.

I know not being able to cook for themselves is a major concern for people in direct provision. In Letterkenny, we opened a direct provision centre with own-door accommodation where people can cook for themselves. We opened a similar facility in County Galway.

In settings where we continue to provide meals, I know the quality has been criticised.

We look carefully at any new contracts that we are renewing and we investigate where complaints are coming in respect of residents and investigate those very thoroughly.

The next question is from Deputy Ó Murchú. We just will have time for him to introduce it.

In Question No. 12, I have brought up the case of early childcare services and accessing the national childcare scheme, NCS. There are a number of these services in danger. We are talking about the referrals from Tusla. I am aware that there are ongoing conversations and while Tusla will deal with the House – Coxs Demesne Youth and Community Project because it has a service level agreement, others do not. There is a possibility of using the Meitheal early intervention services by Tusla but beyond that we need to look to expanding and looking at the Department of Education and possibly school completion home-school liaison officers being able to refer children. We need early interventions as quickly as possible to ensure that services like Moneymore Childcare Centre in Drogheda are not obliged to close in September.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta agus tá brón orm anois mar níl an t-am againn chun freagra a fháil ón Aire mar tá deireadh tagtha anois le ceisteanna chun an Aire Leanaí, Comhionannais, Míchumais, Lánpháirtíochta agus Óige.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.