Vote 40 - Children and Youth Affairs

I welcome members and viewers who may be watching the proceedings on Oireachtas TV to the public session of the Oireachtas Select Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. On 19 November last, the Dáil ordered that the Supplementary Estimates for the public services in respect of Vote 40 - Children and Youth Affairs be referred to the committee for consideration. The select committee will consider the Estimates at today's meeting and report back to the Dáil. The committee is required to report back to the Dáil no later than 12 December 2019.

On behalf of the committee, I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, and Dr. Fergal Lynch, Mr. Dermot Ryan, Ms Michele Clarke, Ms Éimear Fisher, Mr. Gerard Hughes, Mr. Gordon Gaffney and Ms Sinead McEvoy from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Thank you for your attendance. The proposed format of the meeting is that we will deal with the Supplementary Estimate for Vote 40 which relates to subhead A.3, Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. The Minister can give an overview of the programme and the requirement for the Supplementary Estimate and that will be followed by members' questions.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members and guests to switch off their mobile telephones or put them in flight mode as not to do so will result in interference in our sound system and make it difficult for persons tuning into the proceedings to catch what we are saying. Members have received a briefing document on the Supplementary Estimate. I invite the Minister to make her opening statement.

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for making time available to consider our Supplementary Estimate for subhead A.3 of the Vote which provides funding to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. The agency provides both universal and targeted services across a range of areas for children's protection, welfare and educational welfare as well as alternative care arrangements for children who experience domestic, sexual or gender based violence in their settings.

The additional funding in 2019 is due to cost pressures on non-pay elements of Tusla expenditure. There are spending pressures across a number of areas, including legal costs associated with the guardian ad litem service, but the main cost pressures in 2019 relate to the provision of residential care. Children's residential services include the provision of special care, respite care services for children in foster care and centres that prepare young people to transition out of care to independent living. Separated children seeking asylum are also provided for under Tusla's residential children's services. While the majority of children and young people placed in residential care are there because of family problems, neglect or some other form of abuse, others are placed in residential care because their behaviour is too challenging to be managed in any other care setting.

Children's residential services are provided across 159 centres, of which 64 are either directly provided by Tusla or commissioned under the voluntary and community provision of services. Where the existing residential care facilities operated by Tusla cannot meet the identified need of a child in care, a private company may be approached to provide an appropriate place. Currently, there are 95 centres contracted under private arrangements, of which nine care for one child only. At the end of September 2019 there were a total of 415 children and young people in residential care. Of these, 245, or 59%, are provided for under private care arrangements.

I will outline the residential cost pressures. Between 2017 and 2019, residential placements increased by 29% or 92 children and young people. The average cost of each residential place, whether voluntary, statutory or private, is approximately €6,000 per week or €312,000 per annum. Meeting more complex needs may incur even higher costs. The cost of providing private and voluntary residential care has increased. The private contract rate per placement increased in late 2018, principally arising from the requirement to meet rising insurance costs and staffing costs associated with ensuring staffing rosters comply with the European working time directive.

Staffing requirements are a key factor in the costs of all residential care settings. Centres must have double cover, night cover at an appropriate staffing level regardless of the number of children in the placement. Residential placement facilities typically accommodate from two to five young people.

The high cost and low supply of rental-sector housing also affect young people who have turned 18 in the care of Tusla, and this is now resulting in longer stays in alternative care arrangements. The number of aftercare placements for those over 18 completing secondary education and the IRPP, and other separated children coming to Ireland at a later age, such as 16 or 17, means there is a requirement for integrated supports. There has been an increase in this regard also.

Children's residential services aim to provide physical, emotional and psychological safe space in which children and young people can heal, develop and move forward in their lives. This is very expensive but our most vulnerable children must be protected and receive the services they need.

The total cost pressures on residential, legal and other areas of Tusla activity resulted in a figure of €27.6 million in 2019. In previous years, Tusla managed to contain these pressures by way of time-related savings across other areas of its expenditure. In 2019, however, this proved more problematic. Tusla has managed to reduce the overrun to €23.6 million by cost-containing measures, particularly by using €4 million from its 2019 capital allocation. Capital projects impacted by this will be progressed in 2020 instead.

In addition, savings of €8 million across other areas of my Department's Vote have been found to help meet the Tusla overrun. As a result, the Supplementary Estimate required for my Department has reduced to €15 million.

In the course of my discussions with Tusla, I have been concerned about the impact of costs being met by Tusla, particularly relating to persons over 18 years old, that might otherwise be met or shared by other State bodies. Tusla has managed to absorb these costs in previous years but can no longer continue to do so. I am keen to pursue this with my colleagues at ministerial level and I have already initiated contacts in this regard. Ultimately, these are costs that have to be borne by the State. However, if Tusla is increasingly incurring costs that should be borne elsewhere, it will limit its resources to meet the needs.

I recommend the Supplementary Estimate and will be happy to answer questions.

I thank the Minister for her opening statement.

I welcome the Minister. On the figure of €6,000 per week, I would welcome a further breakdown. The Minister stated it is the average cost of each residential place and that it is across voluntary, statutory and private providers. It would be very useful if the Minister could provide to us a breakdown. How is the metric of €6,000 arrived at? What percentage of it is attributable to insurance? What proportion of the cost is attributable to the cost of renting private property? What is the real-time metric for staffing costs? I have some sympathy in that there are quite a number of children with very complex needs but the figure of €6,000, or €312,000 per annum, seems extremely high. It would be useful to have a breakdown or a further perspective from the Minister on the justification for those costs.

I appreciate the question regarding the cost and understand why the Deputy might ask it. I do not have the breakdown he asked for in terms of insurance and staffing costs. It may be possible to get those data. What we do have is just the average cost, as I have already described.

With regard to the cost of renting private facilities, but not so much the cost of insurance, I understand there is not a significant difference between costs incurred by Tusla and the voluntary and community providers by comparison with the private providers. The exception is where a facility may be able to have only one child, two children or four or five children, depending on the level of need of the children there. Even though the numbers of children may vary, I understand that there still needs to be a similar level of cover in terms of staff. That is one of the challenges, I believe.

One would always appreciate that. One always appreciates that there is a ratio of staff to children. That is a given and it is widely understood in every context where one is dealing with children. If in parsing a figure of €6,000, the Minister is saying it is across residential, voluntary, statutory and private providers, and if a certain number of private companies are offering the service, how much of the €6,000 is for profit in private facilities? The private providers are obviously offering the service because the State is not in a position to do so. How much do the private companies have the State over a barrel - I do not mean that in a pejorative way - because of the lack of supply of State-funded facilities for the provision of services to children with complex needs and children who need residential placements? I do not deny that we need to use private companies where there is a lack of supply in the public sector but I am worried that it is always possible to make a charge that private companies can profiteer in providing such a service. That is my worry. A figure of €6,000 per week, or €312,000 per annum, is an extraordinary amount of money. That is why I asked the question about the breakdown in the first instance.

If we are involved in an Estimates programme here — it is one of the few powers we have as Deputies in terms of interrogating the Estimates, especially where a Supplementary Estimate is sought from the Houses of the Oireachtas — it is vital that we have a breakdown of the €6,000 and that we have more oversight in respect of how much the private providers are actually earning as private providers of what is essentially a vital service that nobody would deny to any child.

Again, I understand the Deputy's question. I do not have the more specific breakdown the Deputy requested but we can provide it later. I have mentioned already some of the differences in a private facility. A private facility can react more quickly to make space available. I already indicated the numbers of private centres versus Tusla-run or voluntarily run centres.

The figure I gave was an average but I also have information suggesting that Tusla services can, at times, be more expensive than private services. I understand the Deputy's question on the profit issue. The reality is that we do have private companies providing the services. It is acceptable that private companies look for a certain amount of profit but I understand the Deputy's question.

All I want to know is-----

The information is that Tusla services can be more expensive. It is not necessarily-----

That is accepted.

-----because of profit but because of the diversity of the context.

We need transparency around this process.

I have said that we would provide that to the Deputy.

I thank the Minister.

The question has been asked.

I am not sure why the Deputy said he would need transparency.

Might I say-----

In fairness, the question was asked a couple of times and the Deputy is perfectly entitled to ask for that.

And I said I would provide it.

But we are entitled to expect that the Minister would come before us with a breakdown of the €6,000 per week, and that her officials would have anticipated that we would have interrogated that figure of €6,000.

The Minister has said that she will endeavour to provide what has been sought. I am sure she and her officials will provide the response through the secretariat, so that all Members can benefit. Perhaps, on foot of Deputy Sherlock's questions, an exercise in transparency might be undertaken within the Department to see whether this sort of information would be forthcoming, but I accept the point the Minister made.

My questions are not dissimilar to those asked by Deputy Sherlock. I take umbrage at the word "average". I am trying to work out the cost of having a child in a Tusla service compared to having one in a private residential service. As far as I am concerned, "average" is too broad a term. I am trying to ascertain which provides the best value. I accept the Minister is going to provide us with that information, but she can understand where we are coming from when we hear the word "average". It is a fair understanding. I was doing the sums and €2.5 million a week could be spent to provide the support, which nobody denies is needed, but we are asking if subbing it out provides the best value for money or if there should be more investment in residential care provided by Tusla. The questions are based on a planning perspective going forward. What I said is more of a statement because I know the Minister is going to provide the information.

That is correct. I have also said I completely understand the request. I have indicated that sometimes the Tusla service is more expensive. My information is that is because sometimes the people who are working in those settings are effectively on a higher pay scale. That is information I can provide to the committee. A further breakdown has been sought, which is reasonable. It will be interesting to see how that works out. Is it a question of comparing a private provider with Tusla or is it the case in certain centres that it costs more because there are fewer children with more complex needs, as distinct from it costing more in a Tusla centre versus a private one? That is what I was trying to say earlier.

It is also a question of capacity and whether we are using our centres to full capacity. I accept there are costs attached to running a centre but only one child might use it when there is capacity for three children and the costs might be as much for one child as for three children. Are Tusla centres being used to their full capacity before we outsource to the private provider?

My information is that, in some cases, children need to be cared for in individual settings in light of the requirements of their circumstances and who they are. In my opening statement I referred to nine children who are currently being cared for in individual settings. That is because professional practice, regulations and quality provision are being followed. Unfortunately, that is the case.

I wish to add another point because it is relevant to the wider context of the questions. In light of the overall work provided by Tusla for the protection and care of children, the number of children who are going into care is reducing but their needs are increasing and they are more complicated. The cost issue, as it stands, seems to be largely due to the complexity of their special needs and requirements.

I apologise for coming in late to the Minister's presentation. No data concerning efficiency are available from 2014 to 2018. I refer to the conclusions and key findings in the report. Between 2014 and 2018, it states insufficient data were collected on the level of expenditure and the number of staff at the service programme level for the years 2014 to 2018 to allow for an evaluation of the efficiency of the services provided by Tusla and that Tusla will try to have more accurate data from 2019 onwards. I am concerned that we have no information on value for money for those four years.

What is the Deputy quoting from?

The spending review for 2019 published by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I referred to the conclusions and key findings relating to efficiency. I am concerned because any organisation that receives funding says that it has to do its paperwork and comply with red tape. A great deal of information is required of them and they must answer many questions, rightly so. Yet, there is a lack of data available from Tusla for four years, and it does not seem to be doing anything to try to rectify this. It says it will have the data from 2019 onwards, but we do not have the figures concerning efficiency for four full years. The report was done by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I am surprised if the Minister does not have it or has not seen it. My question is why we do not have the information or why Tusla is not going to go back over those four years to provide information. The funding of any other organisation would be stopped immediately and funding would not be provided until it had all its ducks in a row. Tusla is off the hook for four full years in terms of providing us with information. I am concerned about that.

I appreciate why the Deputy is asking the question, and it may be the case that we will have to go and check this. I am very happy to come back to her with information. Members will be aware that in recent years there was a major investment in the ICT system and practices were standardised. It may be that the data are now being collected in that context, but they may not yet be fully integrated to provide the analysis sought by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform given the reference to the lack of data. The position has significantly improved following the introduction of the national childcare information system, NCCIS. We will take a look at that to see if there is a further reason for that.

I would like the Minister to do that because I am concerned about a lack of data for four full years.

For the years 2014 to 2018.

Yes, it is a long period. It is fair enough if Tusla is going to improve but we still need information for that period. It is not acceptable for an organisation not to be accountable for four years of public money.

Yes. I appreciate that it was prior to the full integration of the IT system that was developed. As I understand it, the system will be integrated and it will provide us with the data.

The report does not say that.

To provide further answer to the Deputy's question, I will have to find out explicitly what the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform was referring to, apart from what I have offered.

Will the Minister come back to us with information?

I could provide lots of data to the Deputy.

I am sure the officials have the document from October 2019. The relevant sections were on page 26.

From an oversight perspective, the Department is subject to the Committee of Public Accounts and the Comptroller and Auditor General in respect of getting more into the detail. The Deputy's point is well made, however, and I would appreciate it if the Minister would come back to us on that.

Are there any further questions?

What is the status of the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2019, which pertains to guardians ad litem? It seems to have gone to ground. I am not being facetious but we were going great guns on Committee Stage.

We had robust exchanges, as we tend to have, which is good. It appears, however, to have just dropped off the face of a cliff.

Has it only been three weeks or two?

It has been longer. We came out of the recess and out of the starting blocks. It was published.

I was busy knocking on doors for the by-election.

Fair enough. What is the status of the Bill?

It is a good point. People are asking.

I found Committee Stage to have been a very helpful exchange in which the committee identified a number of issues. I promised that we would begin to really investigate and interrogate them and subsequent to that time, we have been consulting with the Office of the Attorney General on the issues. We have also received a submission from the Ombudsman for Children, which raised some similar issues along with additional issues. I have exchanged directly with the Ombudsman on those and we will look at all of that together and bring it to the Attorney General. I hope to bring the Bill back early in the new year as a result of this. We continue to work on the Bill in the background. It is not as though it is not happening.

I thank the Minister and I appreciate that.

Given this process today is around costs, is the Minister expecting an increase or a decrease on the basis of the implementation of the guardian ad litem Bill,?

Yes, we anticipate a certain amount but perhaps it is not a significant amount in light of other things we have already identified. When the guardian ad litem measures are established, there will be a panel of legal experts and certain amounts that are controlled in that manner. We do not expect the area to be significantly changed but there will be more consistency there.

Would the Minister expect an initial outlay or increase in expenditure in the initial establishment of the measures, which could be reduced over time?

Yes, which is what we are providing for. The 2020 budget provides approximately €2.5 million for the establishment of the guardian ad litem, GAL office.

Deputy Sherlock has asked about the guardian ad litem Bill and I wish to ask about the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016. This may be an opportunity to ask the Minister where we are going with it.

If the Minister has an answer, then absolutely, I have no difficulty with that.

I thank the Deputies very much for the consultation and reflection. We are preparing to communicate my decision on which way to move forward with the Bill before the end of this week.

I thank the Minister. That is welcome.

I thank the Minister and the members.