After-School Support Services

Ceisteanna (98)

Robert Troy

Ceist:

98. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the number of parents who have been awarded places on the after-school child care scheme, CETS II, since its launch in April 2013; his assessment of the success of the scheme one year on; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21153/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (8 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Children)

The cost of child care is one of the biggest challenges facing the Government and public representatives and we must address it without delay. This question relates to an after-school child care scheme the Minister's predecessor introduced in April 2013, the child care education and training supports scheme, CETS II. Can the Minister give an assessment of the success of the scheme one year later and will he indicate how many places have been taken up?

As part of budget 2013, my predecessor, together with our colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, announced a new after-school child care initiative which is targeted at low income parents availing of employment opportunities. Lack of access to affordable, quality child care is a significant barrier to many low income and disadvantaged families seeking to avail of work opportunities. This initiative is intended to provide an important support measure to enable parents to avail of job opportunities. This is in line with the Government's overall strategy to support parents of low income families to take up employment and the Department of Social Protection's labour activation agenda as set out in the document, Pathways to Work.

The programme provides €35 per week per child of eligible parents enrolled in a participating service for after-school services. This payment can rise to €100 per week during holiday periods when parents will be availing of full day care. A maximum of €20 per week per child is payable by the parent to the provider in both instances.

The new after-school child care programme augments the programme of child care supports for low income families, including the community child care subvention and the child care education and training support programmes. The Department of Social Protection determines the eligibility of parents for inclusion in the after-school child care programme. My Department's role is to ensure quality places are available for those deemed eligible for support and its function is to contract suitable child care places with qualifying providers. A substantial number of child care providers have expressed a willingness to make places available for qualified parents participating in the programme, and a sufficient number of places have been secured to meet the demands of the programme.

The initiative was intended to provide an important support measure to enable qualifying parents to avail of job opportunities, and in 2013 a provision was made for a maximum of 6,000 after-school places for children attending primary school. The scheme was piloted from April 2013 but the take-up was low, with fewer clients than expected identified by the Department of Social Protection as eligible and likely to require after-school support for the purposes of labour activation. Following a review of the pilot phase, a decision was made to re-focus part of the funding allocated for the after-school programme to support parents on community employment programmes and to provide for quality improvement initiatives in the child care sector. To date in 2014 approximately 400 part-time child care places have been provided to parents participating in community employment schemes.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Some €2 million has been retained to support the after-school programme, and this figure will provide for up to 800 child care places. The number of qualifying parents identified by the Department of Social Protection and provided with an after-school place under the scheme is 31, with 42 children receiving after-school child care under the programme in the week ending 2 May 2014. While it is accepted that the initiative will require time to become established, the Department of Social Protection and my Department are considering the experience to date with a view to establishing the reasons for the low uptake. The allocation of child care places and funding for both the after-school programme and community employment scheme will continue to be monitored and reviewed during 2014.

While it is unfair to have a go at the Minister on his first day taking ministerial questions, the scheme has been a disaster.

It was part of the Government's solution to tackling the affordability issue and the Minister has alluded to the abysmal uptake. I have seen figures that showed only 32 of the 6,000 earmarked places were taken up. In his reply the Minister said he is refocusing the €14 million allocated to the scheme towards other schemes. How much of the €14 million has been spent on the scheme, how much has been diverted to other schemes and what are those schemes? Child care affordability is a serious issue and the Minister alluded to the fact that the cost of child care is a barrier to those who wish to take up employment. It is clear that the scheme has not worked. How much of the €14 million will be ring-fenced to improve affordability and to what schemes will it be diverted?

While it may be my first Question Time, it is a bit rich of Deputy Troy to use words such as "abysmal" and "disaster", given his party's record in government. The Department of Social Protection has identified 31 qualifying parents and provided them with an after-school place under the scheme, with 42 children receiving after-school child care under the programme in the week ending 2 May 2014. I accept the initiative will require more time to become established. The scheme is administered by the Department of Social Protection, with which my Department is in constant contact to establish the reasons for the low uptake. We have made the places available. I accept we may need to increase the number of parents. We have 400 places, and more funding is coming on stream. I reject out of hand the Deputy's assertion that the scheme is a disaster.

With all due respect, the Minister said 41 out of 6,000 places have been taken up. It is nothing but a disaster. The scheme is more than a year and a half old.

The Minister's predecessor, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and his colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, identified this scheme to tackle the problems facing those who cannot afford child care. It was put in place to assist low income families who wished to return to the work place, but only 41 of the Government target of 6,000 places identified 18 months ago have been allocated. There are only 400 places identified, so even if the uptake of the scheme were greater, the places are not available.

I asked a specific question regarding the €14 million identified for this process. How much has been spent and on what is the balance being expended? Is the balance ring-fenced for the initial target, which was to support working parents with a concern about the affordability of child care? It is one of the biggest challenges facing the Minister's Department.

This is one of a number of schemes run by the Department and it relates specifically to after-school care. Parents opt for full-day and half-day care and this is another scheme. I accept the uptake could be better and it will be better. There are 400 spaces and there is no shortage. The low uptake on the after-school programme allows for the refocusing of some of the allocated funding to support participants under community employment schemes. This reallocation of €7.5 million of funding to support qualifying community employment participants is expected to provide approximately 1,800 places, which will prioritise those under five. Approximately 400 part-time child care places have been provided under the programme to date. There is ongoing progress between the Departments of Social Protection and Children and Youth Affairs, and I will report on the progress at the next available opportunity.

Preschool Services

Ceisteanna (99)

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Ceist:

99. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will support the growing demand of preschool child care facility providers for their facilities and services to be seen and accepted as educational in the first instance and formative for the lifetime achievement of their charges; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21148/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Children)

I record my good wishes to the former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and I thank her for the stewardship of the Department over the past three years. I wish the current Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, well in his new responsibilities.

I seek to know the understanding and acceptance of the new Minister for Children and Youth Affairs of the invaluable role played by preschool child care providers. I speak particularly with regard to education and preparation not only for young life but lifetime achievement. I refer specifically to all preschool facilities, without exception, including those covered by the community sector and private providers. It is critical that we have a shared understanding of the important role they play.

I thank Deputy Ó Caoláin for his comments about my predecessor and accept his good wishes towards myself. More than 4,300 preschool child care facilities, which is nearly all of the preschool services in the country, are participating in the early childhood care and education programme, ECCE. The objective of the ECCE programme is to make early learning in a formal setting available to all children in the key developmental year before they commence primary school. Approximately 68,000 children benefit from the programme annually. It is a condition of the scheme that participating services must provide an appropriate educational programme for children which adheres to the principles of Síolta, the national quality framework for early childhood education. I agree with Deputy Ó Caoláin's assertion that the process should be based on education, which should be a fundamental scope in the scheme. Síolta is a quality assurance process which addresses all aspects of practice in early childhood care and education services. It is designed to support practitioners to develop high quality services for children from birth to the age of six.

In addition, the curricular framework for early learning, Aistear, has been developed in consultation with the sector by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. Aistear supports practitioners in planning for and providing enriching, challenging and enjoyable learning opportunities for children up to the age of six.

It is intended that the current minimum qualification requirement of FETAC level 5 for preschool leaders delivering the preschool year be increased to level 6, and that all preschool assistants, and all other staff caring for children in a preschool service, be subject to a minimum requirement of level 5.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

There is significant international evidence of the benefits for children's outcomes of the provision of quality education and child care in the earliest years, and my Department continues to support the development of quality child care services with a particular focus on educational components.

I welcome the Minister’s response. The preschool setting plays an incredibly important role in our children’s development at the most important time in their lives. It is not unfair to say we in Ireland were very slow to appreciate and realise the importance of preschool support. Parents and experts know that children thrive in an environment where the numbers are small, they learn through play and can learn to manage well in group situations. That was not always the experience for many, certainly not in my time.

The impact of early years education on future development is well recognised. Preschool facilities are educational facilities in the first instance and should be properly recognised as such. When I drafted my questions for today the previous Minister was in situ. I appreciate that the present Minister is new to the position. Will he consider taking particular steps to ensure that this cornerstone of the reality of preschool provision is accepted across the board? Education and preparation for a lifetime of achievement is crucial and I would appreciate the Minister’s support in this respect.

I do not disagree with what the Deputy said. There have been developments to improve the infrastructure of facilities. I expect there will be more announcements and more capital funding available within a short time.

My Department has introduced measures to support training for child care staff to enable them to upskill to meet the increased qualification requirements and €3 million is being made available over the next two years for this initiative.

Following the successful completion of the pilot joint inspection of several early childhood care and education services, my Department is working with the inspection service of the Department of Education and Skills to consider how that service might support education-focussed inspections of services providing the free preschool year, and good progress is being made in the development of proposals in this regard.

I agree with the Deputy and will report progress to him as we improve the quality of education and child care particularly in the earliest years and we will continue to support the development of quality child care services with a particular focus on the educational component, as requested by the Deputy.

I welcome the Minister’s response and the fact that he shares my view of the educational role of preschool facilities. I appreciate he is reading himself into his brief. Nevertheless, I appeal to him because this is a question of quality child care provision, one of the key components of which is resourcing when resources are under a great deal of strain. Will the Minister consider the exemption of preschool child care facilities from commercial rates? This has been lobbied for over a long period. It would be another means of ensuring that more of the moneys earmarked for preschool child care provision would be spent at the coal-face of service provision. Will the Minister look favourably on this argument?

This is the appropriate time to make such a case to his colleagues at the Cabinet table, or to the Minister for Finance as the case may be. I bring to his attention that the county authority in my home base, Monaghan County Council, with the support of his party colleagues, unanimously passed a motion making that appeal in recent months. Without making a distinction between the State, the community or private provision, it is about the child in the first instance and I would greatly appreciate the Minister taking up that argument.

Regarding the Deputy's final supplementary, this is an issue upon which there has been considerable discussion during the past number of years. It is not something that is directly under the remit of this Department and it involves engagement with other Departments. It will impact substantially on local government funding but I undertake, as the Deputy suggested, to have a further look at it and see if a decision can be arrived at that will ultimately free up more money for the spending on either infrastructure on the one part or quality training on the other.

Adoption Legislation

Ceisteanna (100, 102)

Shane Ross

Ceist:

100. Deputy Shane Ross asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the reason he has not yet addressed the anomaly with respect to adoption by step-parents, including the requirement, as part of step-parent adoption, for a natural parent to adopt their own child and the creation of a new birth certificate recognising the newly-adoptive parents and possibly removing the recognition of a birth parent. [21149/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Shane Ross

Ceist:

102. Deputy Shane Ross asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs when he will take action with regard to addressing the issue of step-parent adoption (details supplied). [21150/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (10 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Children)

I wish to ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs why he has not yet addressed the anomaly with respect to adoption by step-parents, including the requirement, as part of step-parent adoption, for a natural parent to adopt their own child and the creation of a new birth certificate recognising the newly-adoptive parents and possibly removing the recognition of a birth parent. I realise he has not really had time to do it yet-----

The Deputy could be surprised.

-----but I would like to tease out his intentions in this regard because of the commitment given by his predecessor.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 100 and 102 together.

I thank the Deputy for his questions and I know this is a matter upon which he has engaged on previous occasions with the previous Minister and in the course of other debates.

Under our adoption legislation, as the Deputy will be aware, when a child is registered on the register of adoption the child is deemed to be the legal child of the adoptive parent or couple, having exactly the same legal status as any biological child of the couple born to them within their marriage. In effect, once an adoption takes place, all previous links to the birth family are severed and the adopted person is considered part of the adopted family. In the case of step-parent adoptions, it is therefore necessary for the birth mother to adopt her child as part of the adoption process.

I am aware of the anomalies with respect to adoption by step-parents and I know the Deputy has made this point previously. These provisions first originated in the 1952 Adoption Act and were further consolidated in the Adoption Act 2010. My Department is undertaking a review of adoption policy and the operation of the Adoption Act 2010. As part of this review I will examine how to address the anomalies in relation to step-parent adoption, including the requirement for a natural parent to adopt their own child and the creation of a new birth certificate recognising the newly-adoptive parents and possibly removing the recognition of a birth parent. I accept that this is an issue that is causing anxiety, upset and trauma for many parents and people.

It is more than three years since the commencement of the Adoption Act 2010 and I am conscious that in this time several issues, including those in regard to step-parent adoptions, have arisen in relation to the operation of that Act. There are a number of general policy questions around the nature of our adoption regime and I consider it timely to undertake a review of adoption. Given the range and complexity of the many domestic and international legal aspects to adoption, the scoping of this review will involve prioritisation of the areas to be dealt with and the order within which they will be addressed. These anomalies, and in particular the anomaly referred to by the Deputy, are issues that will gain priority on my agenda. I give the Deputy an assurance that this specific issue will be prioritised. It is important that the issues are examined in the overall context of adoption law reform in order to identify potential knock-on implications or interactions with other aspects under contemplation.

When my predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, addressed this matter with the Deputy in October 2013, she referred to work under way in the Department of Justice and Equality in the area of guardianship, which is of potential relevance to some of the family situations where step-parent adoption is among the options being considered. This work led in January this year to the publication by the then Minister for Justice and Equality of the general scheme of the child and family relationship Bill. This scheme outlines the legal provisions by which a non-marital father will automatically be a guardian of his child where he has cohabited with the child's mother for at least a year before the birth of the child.

Other people will also be able to obtain guardianship by agreement and others by court order, such as step-parents. My Department is continuing to liaise with the Department of Justice and Equality on the work under way and to further develop the child and family relationship Bill, which is at draft stage.

While I understand that the Minister is reading himself into his brief, the response he has given me is lukewarm and less firm in its commitment than that of his predecessor, who said:

As the Deputy indicated, those anomalies include the requirement - as part of step-parent adoption - for a natural parent to adopt his or her own child, including compliance with the requirements associated with the adoption process. In other words and as the Deputy highlighted, such parents must undergo the adoption procedure as if the child were a stranger to them. It is almost like starting out afresh. A further anomaly relates to the creation of a wholly new birth certificate recognising the newly-adoptive parents and possibly removing the recognition of a birth parent, very often the father.

Nobody could have put it better. That is absolutely unacceptable, and I hope the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, will endorse her further comments:

I am of the view that the law must be changed in order that birth parents will no longer be obliged to adopt their own children in order to facilitate adoption by step-parents. It is not appropriate that we continue to subject birth parents to outdated legal conventions when it comes to step-parent adoption.

She went on to say that this would happen towards the end of 2013 or in the parentage Bill to be introduced early in 2014. It is not enough for those parents who are waiting in limbo to be told that this will happen at some stage under what the Minister calls a review. I ask him to give us some sort of guarantee that this will be done within a timeframe that will give relief to those parents - mothers in particular - who feel utterly humiliated at the procedure that requires them going through an absurdity of adopting their own children.

I assure the Deputy that there is no cooling off as far as I am concerned over how this issue is listed or prioritised. I am unable to give a definite timeframe, but I fully agree with the Deputy that this is an anomaly that must be addressed. I agree that it is a most sensitive and personal issue, visiting trauma and upset on all those involved. However, it would not be appropriate to deal with the issue in isolation.

Since the issue was first raised by the Deputy, some other anomalies and apparent injustices have arisen. These are issues that should and will be addressed in the context of a review that will give rise to new legislation. I am including the issue of step-parent adoption, the rights of birth mothers and also birth fathers. There are issues relating to the rights to an assessment; the age limit of prospective adoptive parents; the tenure of declarations of eligibility and suitability; the habitual residence of applicants; the possibility of introducing open adoption; and various operational matters, including the composition of the adoption authority.

I would not like the Deputy to take the view that there has been some change or what he describes as a "lukewarm response". I agree with his assertion that this is unjust.

When we hear the word "review", it makes my hair and the Minister's, or whatever we have left between us, stand on end because it means delay. I accept the Minister's statement that new issues have arisen around the age of the adoptive parents and issues like that, but this one is wrong. I was delighted to hear the Minister say it is unjust. There is an injustice here. If there is an injustice here, as acknowledged by the Minister and his predecessor, it is no good to those parents suffering under this injustice to say there are other issues which we will have to include in a Bill, that they will have to wait and that the intrusion on their private lives and on their relationship with their children will continue until we sort out these other problems. This problem is solvable today and it would take the deletion of approximately two lines from legislation to sort it out. Why does the Minister not sort this out and not produce some sort of red herrings, which give him a reason to delay this. I am not saying he is using it as an excuse. It is an injustice and the Minister should put it right now.

I do not accept what the Deputy said that this is a recipe for delay. I am committed to having this review at the earliest opportunity. The chair of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, has been asked by my Department to carry out a review of the Act. There is a number of issues which he quite rightly referred to as being important in the context of change.

As the Deputy well knows, this is not something that can be changed at the stroke of a pen. Legislation does not work like that. The Deputy has been in this House and has served in the Seanad for a long time and he know right well that this is not something that can be done immediately.

Of course, it can.

There are issues which have raised significant legal and policy questions that need to be resolved. I accept they need to be resolved but they need to be resolved in the broader framework of family law relating to parentage and guardianship. It is a complex and technical issue and it will be done.

Child Care Services Provision

Ceisteanna (101)

Robert Troy

Ceist:

101. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will review the criteria for the capital grant programme 2014 to enable a wider range of child care service providers to access the programme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21154/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Children)

The Minister's predecessor introduced a new scheme in regard to the capital grant programme 2014 earlier in the year. The scheme was quite restrictive in that it was only possible for community child care providers and community play schools to avail of the capital grant scheme. In light of the fact the scheme closed last Wednesday, would the Minister be favourably disposed to expanding the criteria for and eligibility of people who can apply for that scheme? Perhaps the Minister might be able to indicate the level of uptake of this scheme.

To date, a range of capital investment programmes have supported progress in improving the quality of early childhood care and education services provided to children, including the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme, the National Childcare Investment Programme and the Early Years Capital Programmes 2012 and 2013.

Some €2.5 million capital funding is being made available in 2014 for community not-for-profit child care facilities and will be directed to the repair and refurbishment of buildings which were supported by large-scale funding under previous capital programmes. This funding is also intended to improve building energy ratings and support sustainability.

The State has a particular responsibility to protect the capital investment that has been made to date in the community child care sector. Community child care services play a major role in ensuring that disadvantaged and low income families have access to quality and affordable child care. The community not-for-profit services provide access to the community child care Subvention programme which is funded by my Department. Approximately €45 million is allocated each year to participating community services to enable them to deliver child care to disadvantaged and low income families at reduced rates.

Many community child care facilities were built with the support of significant State investment and many are now more than ten years old with consequent issues arising in terms of repair, maintenance and upgrade. These issues must now be addressed to ensure that quality child care services can continue to be provided at these facilities. In rolling out capital funding in the current year, it was decided to target the current scheme towards community not-for-profit child care services to ensure that these services are in a position to continue to provide quality services, in particular in areas of disadvantage, and also to protect previous State investment in this area.

In 2012 and 2013, it was possible to provide capital funding programmes which were not restricted to community not-for-profit facilities and for which a wider range of child care services providers were eligible. I do not intend to expand the criteria for the 2014 programme.

I raised the matter when the scheme was announced. At the time I highlighted the unfair and inequitable criteria set out in the scheme, as a result of which 70% of child care providers are ineligible to apply for the scheme. Regardless of whether we like it, 70% of child care providers are private and for profit. Some of the schemes are small and do not make large-scale profits but provide a service in communities where the State does not.

The Minister alluded to the State’s responsibility to support and protect previous investment. We also need to support and protect investment made by the private sector. Private sector child care services availed of large-scale capital grants and they need the support of capital grant schemes. The Minister might not have to hand the information on the uptake of the scheme to date, but perhaps he could forward it. I was informed that only 60 applications had been submitted at the end of April 2014, which appears to be very low.

If I do not have the information to hand I will forward it to the Deputy as early as possible. I refer to my initial response to Deputy Troy who seeks more capital investment and more money. He will be aware that between 2008 and 2011 his own party in government cut €384 million or 60% from the child care budget. It is a bit rich for him to come to the House and bemoan the lack of capital investment, having regard to the fact we all know capital investment and money across a range of Departments has been in very limited supply. Nevertheless, significant administrative work is under way by Pobal, on behalf of the Department, to implement the current programme. More than 200 applications currently require assessment. When work is completed later this year, we will review the position. I hope to be in a position then to announce a follow-on scheme which would be open to a broader range of providers. A commitment has never been given to undertake all strands of capital child care schemes every year or at the same time.

The tack has changed because in the past two years the Minister enabled all service providers to avail of the capital grants scheme, which he confirmed himself a few moments ago. One could ask why there has been a big change. Why is the Minister leaving 70% of child care providers out in the cold? That is what is happening. Given that there are more than 4,000 child care providers nationally, the figure provided by the Minister of 200 applications is quite low.

I have been told that Pobal has been encouraging private sector providers to submit an application under strand two to see how it goes case by case. It is either open to the for-profit sector or it is not. What way is that to conduct business if Pobal is suggesting people to submit applications, see how it goes and that it will adjudicate case by case? I accept the budget is restricted. I did not ask the Minister to make additional money available. I asked him to make the scheme fair and equitable for all.

If 70% of the scheme is left out in the cold, it is not fair to the private providers who have stepped in where the State has not provided child care facilities.

The Deputy is aware that as far as the capital funding for the current year is concerned we are targeting the scheme towards community not-for-profit child care services. I am sure the Deputy will agree the priority must be to ensure the continuation of the provision of a quality service, particularly in areas of disadvantage in the Deputy's constituency and beyond. I reiterate the fact that a commitment to opening up the scheme was never given. Notwithstanding this, I hope to provide access to all relevant providers to capital support at suitable intervals, having regard to the administrative and financial resources available. In this regard, the Deputy might be surprised to learn I expect to make an imminent announcement of further capital funding.

Question No. 102 answered with Question No. 100.