I thank members of the joint committee for the invitation to speak on behalf of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. For brevity, I will summarise some of my submission. I will introduce my colleagues. Dr. Anne-Marie Brooks is a principal officer with responsibility for early years policy and is standing in today for the principal officer with responsibility for quality. Ms Laura McGarrigle is principal officer with responsibility for early years projects and is currently focused on the national childcare scheme. Ms Michele Clarke is the Department's chief social worker.
Last week's "RTÉ Investigates" programme was deeply distressing to watch. The appalling mistreatment of children and the terrible management practices shown were unacceptable and inexcusable. Tusla, in collaboration with the Garda and the fire safety authorities, is pursuing those responsible. Tusla has the full support of the Department in conducting its work. The vast majority of early learning and care services are safe and caring places. This is based on the findings of thousands of visits by the inspectorates of Tusla and the Department of Education and Skills, and by the observation of Better Start, a service that has worked with 3,300 services across the country in recent years. The actions we saw in the RTÉ programme were, we believe, a horrific exception.
The Department takes its responsibilities in the area of early learning and care very seriously. We are working intensively to improve quality in services and to ensure that there is robust legislation and regulation. We believe that Hyde and Seek does not represent the standard of care and education offered by the 4,500 services. One case such as this is one case too many. We are working extremely hard with Tusla, and via other means, to ensure that all children have access to loving and nurturing services and that services which do not meet required standards are closed down as soon as is legally possible.
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs wrote to the chair of Tusla last Friday highlighting the importance of the work of the early years regulator and to offer the continued assistance of her Department with ensuring the agency's optimal performance. I echo the words of the Minister in recent days to assure members of the committee and the public that we believe the Tusla early years inspectorate is doing its job and using its powers in a very effective manner. The Department gave Tusla significant new powers in 2016. Now that its inspectorate is well established, we see the steady application of those powers. Since the beginning of 2018, Tusla has deregistered five services. This year, it has attached conditions to the registration of 95 services and prosecuted two services.
More prosecutions and deregistrations will follow and we will continue to work intensively with Tusla to ensure that the system and the processes meet the need that exists.
Many people who watched the programme have asked whether it took RTÉ to discover the breaches of regulations and why it has taken so long for Tusla to act on previous findings. The Department is satisfied that Tusla was intensively engaged with Hyde and Seek long before RTÉ became involved, had already taken the operators to court, had forced the unregistered service to register, had attached conditions to its registration and was acting on unsolicited information. All this was with a view to escalating enforcement action.
The due process that Tusla follows before a new inspection report can be published or a service closed inevitably takes time. For example, while Tusla has the power to deregister a service, the current legislation requires it to give a service 21 days' notice of deregistration and gives services the right to appeal to the District Court. These legal provisions take time and these processes occur in private in order to avoid prejudicing any legal cases which may arise.
Ireland lags behind many developed countries in terms of the affordability, and some of the quality aspects, of early learning and care. As such, the policy and regulatory approach is predominantly to support services to develop, upskill the workforce and improve governance. All of this is to improve the quality of the experience for children. When Tusla observes non-compliance with regulations, its approach is to encourage the provider to fix the problems rather than to close down the service. This works with the vast majority of services because most are anxious to provide the best possible service to children. Tusla is assisted in this objective by other support services in the Department, such as Better Start and the 30 childcare committees.
It would not be in the interests of children or parents if Tusla immediately closed down services when it observes non-compliance. Closing down a service at short notice can cause enormous inconvenience to families. Where possible, and where there is no serious risk to children, helping services to improve is the right thing to do. Where there is evidence of a serious risk to children and a failure of the operator to immediately address it, clearly all the force of the law must be applied to closing the service. There is also a need to keep parents informed of what is happening, although this poses challenges to due process.
Yesterday, the Minister, Deputy Zappone, asked officials to review regulatory powers nationally and internationally to ascertain whether Tusla has sufficient powers. She asked us to focus particularly on those powers required to close services immediately where a threshold of poor standards has been crossed. The Minister has asked us to consider whether our primary and secondary legislation needs to be amended. She has also asked us to examine ways to ensure that parents are informed at the earliest possible date of the findings of Tusla's investigations. This could, for example, involve requiring services to display prominently their registration certificates, including any conditions attached.
Since 2016, an additional €4.3 million has been given to the early years inspectorate. This has enabled a major increase in the scale of Tusla’s registration, inspection and receipt of unsolicited information activities. Another commitment made by the Minister yesterday was that she would continue to do her absolute best to increase investment in quality. This includes investment in the workforce and in the regulatory and inspection regime.
Questions have also been asked about why public funding continues to go to services in cases where there is non-compliance with regulations. Most public funding takes the form of subsidies to parents, which enable parents to send their children to the service for free in the case of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme, where most public funding is invested, or for reduced fees in the case of the various subsidy schemes. If the Department were to cut this funding when there is little spare capacity in the system, it is parents who would suffer most through facing increased fees for the same service. In the case of the three Hyde and Seek services that have received public moneys, 99% of the funding has taken the form of subsidies to parents. Of the €1.25 million in public funding given to Hyde and Seek in the past five years, only €10,000 has taken the form of grants to the service. I stress that no public funding whatsoever has gone to the service that was unregistered. Nevertheless, it is right that the State should set limits on the services that receive funding. This already occurs to some extent through the restriction of public funding to services that are registered with Tusla.
First 5, the whole-of-Government strategy for babies, young children and their families, includes commitments to further strengthen the link between public funding and quality standards, through the development of a new funding model and through a commitment to withdraw funding where quality standards are not met.
The broadcast last week of RTÉ's investigation offered many reminders of the 2013 RTÉ programme, "A Breach of Trust". This time, however, the independent regulator was already taking enforcement action when RTÉ went in. Another difference is that last week’s programme showed footage from only one service owner. We have come a long way since 2013 and standards have risen across the board. In 2013, the Government announced a quality agenda and every one of the eight commitments relating to it has been delivered. We have introduced minimum qualification requirements, a registration system, a national inspection system, new regulations, a quality and regulatory framework, the publication of inspection reports, new powers to deregister services and attach conditions and the Better Start quality development service. Other actions to raise quality standards have also advanced, supported by a 117% increase in Government funding over the past four budgets. These include a learner fund to support higher qualification of staff, new Department of Education and Skills inspectorate education-focused inspections in ECCE and a pilot paid continuing professional development scheme for staff. This year, we introduced regulations for school-age childcare.
There is, of course, much more to be done and a number of major initiatives are under way to improve standards further. These include the development of a workforce development plan. Yesterday, the Minister requested that, as chair of the group, I should prioritise the element of the work to develop a professional regulatory body for those who work in the sector. The development of a new funding model is also about to begin and this will support improved quality of provision and address affordability. National consultation on a radical draft child minding action plan to map out a pathway of regulation and the support of all paid childminders will begin soon. The development of a resource for parents to assist them in understanding what a good quality early learning and care service looks like is also about to being. None of these new actions will be much consolation to the parents of children attending the Hyde and Seek crèches. However, I speak on behalf of the Minister and everyone in the Department when I say that every effort will continue to be made to improve the quality of early learning and care services. Reform on the scale we are undertaking inevitably takes time. Objective analysis shows that the sector has already made huge strides and has been transformed in the past decade. The Department is committed to ensuring that this transformation continues.