Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Friday, 19 April 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children
Update on Children and Youth Affairs: Discussion with Minister for Children and Youth Affairs
I thank the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and her officials for attending this morning's meeting. Members have submitted written questions in advance. There was an issue with Deputy Naughten's questions and we hope that has been rectified. I invite the Minister to make her opening remarks.
I am accompanied by the Secretary General of my Department, Mr. Jim Breslin, Catherine Hazlet, Mary McLoughlin and Peter Hanrahan.
In June it will be two years since the establishment of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and this meeting provides a timely opportunity to review what we have achieved thus far and the substantial body of work that remains to be done during the lifetime of this Government. As my briefing note has been circulated earlier, I will summarise the issues arising. Members will be familiar with the commitments set out in the programme for Government. These commitments include: the holding of the referendum; the establishment of the child and family agency on a statutory basis in order to fundamentally reform child protection services and remove responsibility from the HSE; implementing the recommendations of the Ryan report; maintaining the free preschool year and improving its quality as resources allow; enacting legislation to consolidate and reform the law on adoption; and investing in a targeted early childhood education programme for disadvantaged children, building on existing targeted preschool supports for families most in need of assistance, such as the youngballymun project. We are now receiving the findings of these research projects and we have given a further commitment to implement projects on an area basis. We have also committed to ending the practice of sending children to St. Patrick’s Institution.
The Department has been working to improve outcomes for all children in Ireland. Among the steps we have undertaken are: the referendum to amend the Constitution and the detailed legislation proposals for the reform of adoption. I outlined the position on the establishment of the new child and family agency to Deputies Ó Caoláin and Troy in Question Time this week. The agency will take over functions which currently reside in the Health Service Executive and for the first time we will have a dedicated agency working in the area of family support and child protection. We are finalising our work on the Children First guidelines, building on the work of this committee, and are developing the new school age child care initiative. Members have raised questions about this initiative, which we will begin to pilot in coming weeks. These child care places will be available for the new school term in September. We have ended the practice of sending 16 year old boys to St. Patrick's Institution and the work is well under way of ending the practice of sending those aged 17 years.
We are also developing a five year high level children and young people’s policy framework. As members will be aware, our focus is on the early years strategy. I express my gratitude to Dr. Eilis Hennessy from UCD and the members of the early years strategy group, who meet regularly and have held a number of workshops recently on developing the strategy. Certain organisations are making their own submissions regarding what they think should be contained in the strategy.
We are implementing a new area-based response to child poverty at a full year cost of €4.75 million, building on what we learned from the prevention and early intervention programme. Whereas we previously relied on American and English research, we now have a body of research on what works for Irish children in their early years. This will be helpful in terms of building area based responses to child poverty and influencing the work of other professionals and mainstream services in this country, such as public health nurses. The research suggests key messages about the kind of intervention that works for families and children in more vulnerable situations.
Members asked a number of questions about the development of the child and family agency. I outlined in my briefing note the range of work that has been done thus far, including administrative, organisational and legislative work. I thank the staff of my Department for their huge efforts in this regard, led by the Secretary General. They have done considerable background work on the establishment of this agency. We will introduce legislation in the current Dáil session and I do not doubt that the committee will want to examine it. Organisational preparation is under way for a major process of change. We will be transferring 4,000 staff into a new agency with a dedicated focus. The budget is €550 million at present and, when other agencies are brought under its umbrella, will be close to €600 million.
It is one of the Government's largest and most ambitious areas of public sector reform currently under way. That is because we have had those 17 reports and the history of not dealing effectively with them. As the various reports, including last year's child death report, indicate, it is not always about extra resources, but also how we do our work. During the years of the Celtic tiger we did not see some of the fundamental reforms needed in order to provide the range of services in an effective way, and that is very clear from the reports. We had investment but still had poor outcomes. There is a big challenge for us to meet in turning the sector around and establishing a new way of doing the work.
The milestones that have been achieved already are outlined on page 4, including the separation of children and family services within the HSE from other health and personal social services with discrete management responsibilities and budgets. That means the managers now have a sole focus on this area of child protection and family support. They are not working on the hospital agenda but are working on child and family services only with discrete management responsibility. There is a change programme and external inspection by HIQA. We will receive a number of inspection reports in the coming weeks and months and will learn a considerable amount from those reports. We are responding to the reports, as we already have, for example with fostering.
There is dedicated child and family responsibility and accountability at area, regional and national management team levels. An industrial relations process has been under way over the past year and I thank all of the people involved. Staff have been informed and that has gone very well, with letters sent to 4,000 staff at what is clearly a time of change for them. Mr. Gordon Jeyes is the full-time director. Ms Nora Gibbons is the chair of the new agency. She will initially chair the Family Support Agency, which is one of the bodies to be merged. I will also seek expressions of interest for board membership of the Family Support Agency through the public jobs website. I ask the Chairman to make time available for Ms Nora Gibbons to appear before the committee in her role as chair.
I wish to speak about Children First. An interdepartmental group has been established at which Departments, the HSE and the Garda Síochána are represented. The purpose of the group is to promote the importance of Children First compliance across Government and to ensure consistency of approach. That interdepartmental group is providing supports to Departments to ensure they introduce tailored implementation plans of Children First so that all that work can take place in advance of the legislation. That work involves a benchmarking of existing structures, mechanisms and activities. The current phase of the group's work is focused on the preparation phase of Children First sectoral implementation plans, which will be finalised shortly. In addition, the Department is developing reporting mechanisms for other Departments in respect of the implementation of Children First. All of that is necessary and a progress report on that committee will be submitted to Government in the near future. These are strengthened arrangements for the implementation of Children First and represent an important step in preparing for the legislation.
A number of submissions were received on which we are working. Details are outlined on page 7. We want to ensure the legislation complements the work already done, National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 and the Criminal Justice (Withholding Information on Crimes Against Children and Intellectually Disabled Persons) Act 2012. I will submit proposals to Government as soon as possible with a view to the drafting of the Children First Bill as a priority.
Child care is a topic receiving considerable attention. I obviously want to strengthen child-care provision. Approximately €260 million is invested in the area annually. In January 2010 a free preschool year was introduced. This universal programme has been very well received and we want to maintain that universal year. Some 65,000 children are availing of the preschool provision. Under the ECCE programme, services are contracted to provide the free preschool year in return for an annual capitation fee per qualifying child. The free preschool provision represents a significant investment with €178 million being provided in 2013. With the increasing numbers of children, each year my Department needs to find the extra money to continue to support that free preschool year. Some 4,300 services are participating in the free preschool year. There is a major job in terms of inspection and monitoring to ensure the standards are to the required level, and it is going extremely well.
The introduction of the free preschool provision coincided with a change in Ireland's economic fortunes, with a substantial increase in unemployment and a reduction in the standard of living for many families. The programme ensures children get a high-quality experience at preschool and many children who would not otherwise be able to attend preschool get the value of it. It also represents a considerable saving to parents, saving up to €3,500 for families. Even though it is a half-time service, it represents that kind of saving for families given child-care costs at present.
Access to free and affordable child care is an issue we need to address because it is a barrier for families. In order to address this issue, budget 2013 announced a new school-age child-care initiative. My departmental officials have done considerable work with the Department of Social Protection to prepare for the introduction of these new free after-school places. Yesterday I attended a conference whose theme was the quality of the development of out-of-hours services for children. A group of NGOs are working together to bring a greater focus and have asked me to produce a national policy for all out-of-school services across the board, including child care, youth work, breakfast clubs and after-school care. That is an area we are examining more closely than we have in the past. There is considerable scope for the development of high standards in out-of-school services, focusing particularly on the range of services that are there.
My report contains a section on adoption and I would be very happy to take specific questions on the matter. At the moment Dublin is hosting a meeting of all the central adoption authorities from around Europe. I attended part of that meeting yesterday. It was extremely interesting to hear from the adoption authorities across Europe about the changing face of adoption in Europe. All countries outlined a dramatic drop in adoptions. Sometimes we think this is happening only in Ireland, but it is a Europe-wide phenomenon. This has implications for the various adoption agencies. Many such agencies in other countries are in financial difficulties. There is a move towards surrogacy, which is obviously a controversial issue, and countries vary in their response to it. There is an absolute move within Europe towards the adoption of special needs children.
The meeting focused on the need for families to be prepared if they want to adopt and to have an understanding of the changing face of adoption at European level. Clearly there is major concern about the number of children in institutions worldwide. The representative from the Hague Convention told me it wants to do more work in countries where children are available for adoption in trying to avoid institutionalisation. In their own countries they are moving more towards fostering and other services to avoid that institutionalisation. There is a mismatch between the many children who still need to be adopted and the capacities of countries to put in place the legislation needed to make that effective. It is an ever-changing area and one this committee may wish to consider in detail. It is very important for us to provide families who wish to adopt with high-quality information about the changing nature of adoption. There is a mismatch between the expectations of couples and that changing face of adoption.
We are still working on developing a children and young people's policy framework, which will be in place by the end of the year.
This is the overarching framework which should guide delivery of our services for young and older children over the next five years. This work is being developed, a range of consultations has taken place and work is ongoing in the Department in this regard.
I have also outlined the prevention and early intervention initiatives and the area-based response. We know the benefits of early intervention. As I stated, very good information is available to us on research being done. A total of €30 million was invested in Ballymun, Tallaght and Darndale and we are gathering the research from these initiatives, which were supported by the Government and Atlantic Philanthropies. Atlantic Philanthropies has indicated its interest in supporting further early intervention work on an area basis. We have begun work on outlining how to approach this and I can answer questions on it.
Deputies are familiar with the Irish youth justice service. I will bring to the Government amendments to the Children Act 2001 to provide for the management of all facilities on the Oberstown campus on an integrated basis. This legislation is ready and it is a question of priorities and whether we have time to take it this term.
I hope I have given an indication of the range of work in which I and the Department are involved. We have a demanding series of objectives and we are working very hard to try to fulfil them.
I welcome the Minister and her officials this morning. We have had two opportunities this week to question the Minister and while this is good, it would be more beneficial if the topics discussed on each occasion were different. Many of the questions I asked in the Dáil have been raised again today so I will focus on a number of core issues.
The community child care scheme is under immense pressure and it is being gravely affected by the cap. No new applicants are being accepted for the scheme and existing participants are suffering because more and more families are no longer eligible for the medical cards they had and are being moved to a GP card. This means community child care schemes receive lower subventions. I am aware of a local group in my constituency which has lost €10,000 a year because of moving from band A to band B. This has had a detrimental effect. Changes to community employment schemes means fewer lone parents opt to work on such schemes in the child care sector, which means more staff must be employed at a time when grant assistance is being lost. This is a double whammy. I am being very parochial, but the town of Moate in my constituency has no community child care facility. A local group is trying to initiate one and has premises, but is not able to access the scheme. We must examine this. We should consider large urban areas with no community child care facilities.
With regard to the early years strategy, what is the estimated resource package which will be ring-fenced to implement the enhancement of quality provision, circular support and workforce capacity? If the strategy is to span five years will impacts be measurable and set against a specific implementation timeframe?
At present the Department's budget has seen a 4.3% decrease since 2009, but the percentage decrease in the youth work budget in the same period is 25.3%. Everyone will agree this is totally disproportionate. Indications from the Department are that a further 10% decrease will occur in 2014. Will the Minister rule this out or clarify it? Earlier in the week, during Question Time in the Dáil, I asked about two actions the Department was to take as part of the jobs plan. One of these actions was not taken, and the other was to utilise youth services to retrain and reskill people so they would be able to take up any job opportunities which may arise in the future. How can these youth services retrain and reskill young people to enable them take up job opportunities when the budget is being savagely cut? Will the Minister clarify this?
I understand the Minister cannot comment on the referendum and I accept this. Do we have any indication on when a decision will be known? Adoption legislation is on hold pending the outcome of the referendum. Is this legislation ready to go? It was one of the big selling points of the referendum. The Minister alluded to the report on the review of child deaths. Will she reaffirm the commitments she made to the committee on the publication of the report? Unfortunately they have not been followed through.
I welcome the Minister and her officials. I wish to discuss a number of issues, beginning with the child and family support agency and the now realistic timeframe for its establishment. I appreciate the point Deputy Troy made about the two opportunities we have had this week to engage with the Minister, but sometimes it can also be a benefit. In response to my questions on Tuesday the Minister indicated she expected the legislation would be presented before the House during the Dáil session. I indicated I attended the presentation of an earlier service plan of the HSE in March. Since Tuesday I have made further inquiries and I must put this matter to the Minister again. I have received repeat indications that those who currently have responsibility, and let us not forget that child and family issues continue under the aegis of the HSE, are not only working to but also under the understanding that they will continue to have this responsibility to the end of the current calendar year. This is the information I have received. It was indicated by the regional manager, and several Deputies from the Dublin north-east region were in attendance, that the clear understanding is the new child and family support agency, as we then referred to it, would be up and running with its specific remit by January 2014. Will the Minister comment on this?
With regard to the Minister's substantial reply to the questions on this area, I note a number of other colleagues have also posed questions and all five of us referred to a body we heretofore understood was on its way and would be named the "child and family support agency". Deputy Troy asked on Tuesday what happened to "support" and when did it go off the radar.
In the Minister's response, she indicated that the Government had recently approved that the name of the new agency would be the "child and family agency". "Support" is a very important word and merits address. This is the ideal opportunity to do so. What is the explanation for the word "support" being dropped from the title of the new agency? Each of the members present has been working on the basis that it was to be included. The word indicates a particular message as to the agency's remit, which is even more important from our perspective.
The Minister mentioned the establishment day and made a range of references. She mentioned the services that would come into train as of establishment day. Psychologists working in the community setting in respect of children and families are one of the five bulletpointed elements from establishment day. We discussed this matter briefly in our exchange on Tuesday. I am not on either side of this argument. I am challenged by what appear to be soundly based concerns from the perspective of those who are working within their peer profession regarding whatever disconnect might happen. I appreciate that it will be a difficult situation to overcome, but will the Minister elaborate in this regard?
What services does the Minister expect will transfer? She stated that further consideration would be given to the subsequent transfer of additional services to the new agency at the initial set-up phase. It is important that we have a sense of the phased introduction of the child and family support agency, as I choose to continue calling it.
Regarding appointments to the board, and not including the signalled appointment of Ms Norah Gibbons, which I have already welcomed, when does the Minister intend to progress the advertisement and invitation of expressions of interest for the other positions on the board?
It is difficult to tease out all of these issues in so short a time. Will the Chairman allow me to revert on the other points after other members have concluded?
As I did not have the opportunity that Deputy Ó Caoláin had earlier this week, I will try to ask all of my questions. I welcome this opportunity to engage with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I agree with many of her comments. We saw the heads of the adoption legislation prior to the referendum, but it would be good if we could start teasing out some of the issues. We need a focused discussion. I have received a number of representations on several issues, for example, the right to identity, information and tracing. Perhaps this committee can play a role in teasing out those issues.
I will keep tripping over the term "child and family agency", as we had grown used to the term "family support". I wish to know more. It is not just about the word "support", but about the term "family support". I wish to understand what is behind the Government's decision to remove the word "support".
While I welcome the appointment of Ms Gibbons, who is of an outstanding calibre, as chair, why was the position not advertised? All appointments should be publicly advertised. I do not question Ms Gibbons's calibre. I will be facilitative of the process.
I am still struggling with trying to understand what will comprise the child and family agency. We are awaiting the Bill, to which I look forward. In recent weeks, I have met public health nurses. There is a debate on whether they should be a part of the agency, both sides of which they have discussed with me. They believe that they have a role outside of the agency, but how can we develop that in parallel to the agency's development? I have many ideas in that regard.
Regarding the three sites in terms of child poverty, I welcome the helpful information the Minister has provided the committee, but I am uncomfortable with a tendering process. Is there not a better way? Perhaps a decision could be based on deprivation levels. A rural area's selection could also be ensured, as urban areas are not the only ones in which solutions must be found and mainstreamed. However, the idea of asking communities to tender while they are in poverty does not sit well with me in terms of clarity around how that process will work.
The Minister pointed me towards the "Minister for Justice and Law Reform" on the topic of direct provision. I will continue to pursue the matter. I am happy with her answer, but he is actually the Minister for Justice and Equality. Perhaps this is an old answer or he has been mistitled.
I am concerned about children in direct provision. I have visited two centres. That environment is damaging to children. In Dr. Geoffrey Shannon's report last year, he asked for a report to be conducted into this situation. The committee hopes to hold a hearing on direct provision.
I wish to focus on youth work and its funding. Last December, I initiated a good debate in the Seanad on the value of youth work. The Minister is aware that information recently became known to the youth sector in response to a freedom of information request. That information outlined approved significant changes in the youth sector. The document could be described as a game changer. These decisions were made in the autumn, prior to our debate in the Seanad. Will the Minister confirm whether she has approved the City of Dublin Youth Services Board, CDYSB, a sub-committee of the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee, CDVEC, becoming the key agency to assume full national responsibility for administration, distribution and monitoring of youth work's main funding schemes, thereby removing responsibility for administrating funds locally from a number of national voluntary youth organisations and individual VECs in every county? Are there plans to replace the existing funding schemes with two new schemes unilaterally and without awaiting the development of the strategic youth policy framework or the outcome of the value for money review, which the Minister recently commissioned, or without consulting stakeholders? I have read the documents carefully - they assert these positions. I want clarity on these issues. Assuming these positions are being taken, it is disappointing that the document was not put into the public domain during the Seanad debate.
I wish to address the issue of aftercare. The early child care sector has seen significant developments. It would be useful if regulations and eligibility criteria could be developed. Aftercare services are springing up on an ad hoc basis. We need to be clear on what the funding will be used for. It should not be allocated locally.
I welcome the appointment of Ms Gibbons. She will be an excellent chair of the family support agency. Is it not embarrassing that Ms Gibbons will take over this role after producing a report two and a half years ago on the Roscommon case? It recommended an audit of serious neglect cases. That audit was completed two years ago by Ms Lynne Peyton.
I understand she will meet the Minister in the next couple of weeks to discuss that particular audit and the audits for the other two areas. Despite that we were promised a redacted report, an executive summary of it, an executive summary of an amalgam of the three audited areas, that publication of the report was imminent and, six months ago, that Mr. Gordon Jeyes had the report for sign-off, it has not yet been published. As I have stated on the record of this committee on a number of occasions in the past, some of the issues raised in that report, specifically in relation to Roscommon, are of huge concern to me as a public representative for the area. I do not know what has happened in the other two areas, but I have huge concerns that despite the audit having been completed over two years ago, which highlighted serious concerns, we are still awaiting publication of it. When will the amalgamated report be published and when will we have an opportunity to debate it?
I raised two other issues earlier, the first of which is when the legislation relating to the Children First guidelines will be enacted. Perhaps the Minister would also clarify if all child care services for children cared for outside the home, in respect of which money changes hands, will be covered under that legislation? The fear is that what we will have is another set of double standards in relation to child care services in this country. An issue continually highlighted, including again in today's newspapers, is the differential between rates for community care facilities and private facilities, which there is no doubt has had an impact on the Croke Park II vote. We have a situation whereby private providers who provide any service other than ECCE are liable for rates, which is leading to a restriction in the availability of services and after-school care, in respect of which there is currently a crisis in this country. The rates situation in this regard is causing a huge problem and is facilitating outcomes such as the "No" vote in respect of the second Croke Park agreement. One small step in this area could help to alleviate some of the pressure on families and open up availability and competition in the area.
I thank the Minister for her response in relation to the establishment of the agency. Like some of my colleagues, I am interested to hear the reason for the omission of the word "support". We were all under the impression it would be included in the title. It is an important element of the type of work that the agency will undertake in terms of engagement with families and preventing crises in this area.
Another issue that comes to mind in relation to the adoption legislation published around the time of the children's referendum, which should have been addressed in the Adoption Act 2010, is adoption by step-parents and the cumbersome system in place whereby a birth parent is required to adopt his or her child. Where a child is born prior to a marriage, the father or mother wishing following marriage to become a full guardian of that child is faced with an onerous task in terms of adopting the child. This is an issue which as a Government we should be able to respond to. I am interested in hearing if the Government proposes to examine this issue.
I thank the Minister and her officials for attending today's meeting. My question relates to the free pre-school year for children. To what extent is that being availed of countrywide, in particular in areas of deprivation? Does the increasing difficulty of the availability of children for adoption here mean there will be an increase in the level of adoptions from Third World countries where many children are abandoned? To what extent are some countries more open than others in terms of the adoption of children?
I welcome the Minister and her officials to the meeting and thank the Minister for her responses thus far.
The Minister stated in respect of children in direct provision that they should be afforded the same rights as their counterparts in the wider community. Does she accept that direct provision accommodation is not suitable for children? On foster care services, I am exceptionally concerned about the findings about the foster care services in Dublin north west. This is the third such report since September 2009. It would appear not a lot has changed since then. While I appreciate and welcome that the Minister has put an action plan in place I am concerned that senior management in the Dublin north west area are not being held to account. While I am familiar with HIQA's inspection methodology, I believe that when it comes to management of the north-west area more needs to be done as a matter of urgency. How does the Minister propose to address this?
On cuts to youth services, I was not happy with the Minister's response in this regard. The Minister informed us that funding of €53.173 million has been provided by her Department for the provision of youth services. However, she later stated that there will be a 10% reduction in 2013 on funding for 2012. Can the Minister elaborate further on that point? Can I take it from this that the Department has decided to cut funding to youth services that are community-based? Does the Minister plan to engage in talks with SIPTU, which represents a significant section of workers in this sector?
I thank members for their wide-ranging questions which I will do my best to respond to.
Deputy Troy asked about child care. In terms of the development of child care over the past ten years, we have not developed a free and accessible child care service. That is the reality of the situation. Many people, including members, are now calling for further development in this regard, a call I support. However, it is very often a question of resources. I want to see more resources going into this area but as members will appreciate there are economic difficulties in doing so. It must be pointed out that 60% of the funding over the past ten years was in bricks and mortar in terms of establishing the various centres around the country. Members will know as well as I the range of services in place. There are some terrific child care services in place doing amazing work in communities throughout the country. There has been a huge development of services. In terms of free and accessible child care, that is a challenge not met when more resources were available. It is difficult to meet that challenge now. We must do so in an incremental way. Earlier in the week, I outlined in the Dáil the ways in which I see this happening. Clearly, more resources are required if we are to provide more free and accessible child care. We are focusing on developing services.
The Deputy also raised a number of important points in terms of eligibility criteria and the impact on services. This issue has also been raised with me by the service providers with whom I have met. It is an issue and there are changes which I will try to address. In relation to community child care facilities - the Deputy mentioned Moate as an area wherein there are no services - it is open at any time for us to examine particular black spots and see what we can do. One of the mechanisms we use in that regard is the child care committees in each county, which are responsible for analysing the level of provision. Given the current crisis in terms of the number of people in employment, there are vacancies in many areas. The question of accessibility remains. Very often the question that arises is who will pay for those places.
As I have stated before, it is not that people involved with child care in Ireland are charging too much as, generally speaking, they are not. If anything, one would like to see the workers in the sector being paid more. It is not a question of the providers or workers being overpaid. There are some facilities which charge more than the average but there is the argument that they offer more facilities. Ms Mary McLoughlin has responsibility for the child care committees and has done much work in the past year with those committees so I ask her to outline some of the current issues facing the sector.
Ms Mary McLoughlin:
There is an issue about how we apply the resources. There are approximately 20 services that would like to come into the community child care subvention, CCS, programme but if we allow in more applicants, we will be spreading the places more thinly and there could be a negative impact. When there are more resources, we hope to consider areas where there are no current community services as a priority. As the Minister noted, we would examine those in conjunction with county child care committees. We recognise the importance of affordable child care and the benefits for both parents and children. Currently, we spend approximately €40 million on the CCS and the difficulty has been with the economic downturn, there are more parents seeking access. We have tried to target those people most in need in allocating our places. If it were possible to get more resources, it would be a major benefit to the schemes.
Over the next year or two we intend to review the targeted schemes. We have school-age child care process and CCS, as well as the child care employment and training support scheme, CETS. There are some anomalies and difficulties with how they are implemented, so working with both the voluntary and county child care committees, we intend to review those processes and have something by the end of the year that we could implement for the following academic year.
Deputy Troy mentioned the community employment schemes and we recognise the difficulty in that regard. Where people were taking up child care community employment schemes to get the double benefit, we were not necessarily getting people with an interest in child care. We are working with the Department of Social Protection to develop a more career-focused community employment scheme so that people can make a choice to go into child care and have a very real career in it. We hope that will attract people in some of the smaller projects that have been effective, with people being given a very clear message about what could be a career path. That is as opposed to just turning up at a child care scheme. We hope that will both encourage people to participate and improve the quality of services.
With regard to rates, we met recently representatives of the Department of Finance and the Valuation Office, raising the general views of child care providers. In the end, it is a Government decision as to how rates will be applied generally but the officials are well aware of the issues. With regard to the number of children taking up the preschool scheme, the rate has consistently been in the region of 95%, or between 94% and 96%. The evidence is that in general, it takes in children of all backgrounds, and the small percentage of children who are not there include the 3,000 who were in the Early Start programme and children with very complex disabilities who may not be able to participate in a scheme. Some children are home schooled and there are a number of other small groups. There is no bloc of children from a particular background that is excluded.
The county child care committees go out when there is an issue. One local co-ordinator I know knocks on doors of homes where she feels people may not take up the scheme so that they have the chance to participate. There is no evidence that there is a bloc of disadvantaged children who do not participate, and that is a benefit in the scheme.
I give credit to the last Government for introducing the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme. It is interesting to note that millions of euro were taken from parents in direct payment in order to introduce the scheme. The decision was that several hundred million euro in cash payments were taken to fund the scheme, and the committee may remember the €1,000 cash payment taken from parents. The smaller amount of €175 million was put into the universal scheme. Ms McLoughlin has indicated that the universal scheme has been successful, with children from all backgrounds attending. That makes a very strong argument for a second year as it is availed of widely, despite it covering only 3.5 hours per day.
With regard to the community child care places, despite the economic downturn the number of places have been maintained, with some growth. We have had 24,600 places this year, with 24,200 in 2011. I recognise the changing nature of the demand and we must be very conscious of that in the coming budget. There is a level of demand from families where members wish to take up employment, training or education for community child care. It is an ongoing issue. The last strategy was more general and aspirational and we want this strategy to be more targeted, with particular measures and timeframes. We hope to have the early years strategy in the middle of the year, and Ms McLoughlin is working on that with Dr. Eilis Hennessy. That will outline key targets to be achieved by a certain date.
I ask Mr. Jim Breslin, Secretary General of the Department, to make some comments on the strategy for the information of the committee.
Mr. Jim Breslin:
It builds on a ten-year strategy that has been in place and which is starting to become the language used in the children sector. It concerns outcomes and, as Deputy Troy mentioned, the next challenge is to move from high level outcomes in education, health and economic security to a five-year strategy with a shorter time horizon. With this we will be able to put more concrete deliverables into the process, as with a ten-year framework, the question is very much where we would like to be; it is a visionary piece. We now have the vision and we would like concrete strategies with action points over five years.
This year we will publish a framework and below that we will start to produce the underlying strategies for each of the age cohorts. We will start with the early years strategy, which will have very concrete commitments in an accountability framework. We will also have a youth strategy and one for middle years. We hope to address the kinds of obvious concerns of people, as we do not want to produce a document and put it on a shelf. This operational document will be used across government in order to try to deliver commitments.
The Deputy raised seven areas so I will have to work through them. The next one relates to the youth work budget. In November last year I came before the committee to speak about the budget and the challenges therein. There were extra budgetary demands from maintaining early years preschool and the range of child care services supported by the Department. Taking out that significant amount, there are few areas where savings can be made. I stated in the Dáil during the week that the fact we can maintain 90% of the youth services is important.
I understand the pressures on youth work and I opened the Edenderry youth café last night. In that case the community has come together, working with the voluntary and State bodies, as well as local businesses and the regional development authority. It is interesting to see what the agencies working together have been able to create by tapping sources other than government. They need support from the Government as well. I recently met representatives of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, which is also very interested in supporting youth work. There is an idea of philanthropy in business and corporate social responsibility with regard to youth work, and workers have told me that those in a position to do so will look to those sectors for funding.
In the meantime the cuts which the CDYSB recommended ranged from 2% to 14%. The action I have taken has ensured that no organisation will have to take more than 10%. Some of the bigger, better funded youth services are being asked to take a 10% cut this year. They will not be asked to take that next year. I am anxious to protect the youth budget next year in so far as I can.
However, it is worth bearing in mind some of the funding that is going to local organisations. The figures are €394,000, €280,000 and €330,000. The budget is being used very well. I am aware of the pressures and I have asked youth organisations to be as creative as they can be in terms of protecting front-line services. I told the Dáil this week that I will ask CDYSB to take up individual situations if there is a threat to front-line services. We have already intervened in a number of situations to ensure that workers are kept in place. There is some flexibility there in terms of the pressures on youth services. It is due to the overall budgetary situation that I have had to take these decisions, but various initiatives can be taken to protect the services. I realise it is challenging.
I will ask Catherine Hazlett, who has responsibility in the Department for this area, to comment on some of the issues that were raised regarding funding.
Ms Catherine Hazlett:
One of the issues raised related to the CDYSB and whether it was intended to transfer all responsibility for the administration of funding to that body. At this point, the Department has 33 funding administration bodies. All decisions relating to seeking the Estimate, the overall allocations and the decisions for projects remain within the Department. These administration bodies distribute the money to the organisations four times a year. There has been a need for some time to look at the extent and the numbers of administering bodies. CDYSB is one of those bodies and it has a strong reputation in the Dublin area. It manages a very large number of projects, but so do the large number of VECs, a couple of local authorities, the HSE and one or two other national organisations involved. We are examining what type of efficiencies can be gained with the organisations in terms of rationalising the number of bodies with which we must deal.
With regard to the VECs specifically, what has happened up to this point is that some of the projects of six national organisations have been transferred to the CDYSB. That was the first thing that happened. No further decisions have been made regarding any other projects throughout the country. The Department is meeting with the Irish Vocational Education Association, IVEA, on behalf of the VECs. The VECs have a very valued role because they have a long-standing engagement with the youth services in their local areas and local knowledge is very important in all administering bodies. In addition, the youth workers are based in the VECs. We have been having ongoing discussions with the IVEA and, in fact, a meeting is planned in the next couple of weeks.
I wish to make one comment. If there is any movement towards centralisation in any form, the Department should be mindful of what happened with Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, and the medical cards. We must avoid that at all costs.
No decision has been taken, and I certainly value the local input from the VECs.
Deputy Troy asked some questions as well. The referendum timeframe depends on the courts, so I cannot comment on that. I do not know what the timeframe will be. With regard to the child death report, a range of actions have been taken on implementing the recommendations of that report. I will ensure that what I said at the time regarding independence and independent monitoring of the process will be in place. I have had discussions with a number of people about that. I have met with Helen Buckley. Interestingly, the work that she does on independent child death review was not mentioned in that report, but everybody would agree that it is totally independent, very valuable and there is much to be learned by the HSE from her reports. I am very conscious of building in an independent mechanism and I have had discussions with the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, about that. I will bring the mechanism forward shortly. I also presented the work that has been done regarding child death to the Cabinet sub-committee this week. The agency was also discussed at that sub-committee and the work was presented to the Taoiseach and the sub-committee to outline the progress.
Deputy Ó Caoláin's questions focused a great deal on the agency. There was no hidden agenda in the change of name. It was very much to do with it being a shorter and easier title, and it focused on child and family. It was as simple as that. There was no hidden agenda. I assure the committee there are no implications regarding the role of early intervention or family support. The Deputy asked again about the timeframe and referred to the local meeting he attended. Obviously, the HSE is operating on the Estimates it has. They are in place for the end of the year, but no decision has been taken about the date. In fact, this arose at the Cabinet sub-committee this week. There is no decision on setting a time and the reason is that I want to see how the legislation proceeds in the Dáil and the timeframe for that. I cannot predict precisely how long it will take in the Dáil and Seanad before completion.
There are a number of other issues and I will ask Jim Breslin to give a quick summary of some of the issues that will determine the timeframe of the actual establishment. However, I have highlighted that the separation is in place at present with regard to the services. The finances have been separated and the shadow agency is in place. This week there is an advertisement for two positions that were not filled on the last occasion. On the Deputy's question about board members and public services, that will be up next week.
Mr. Jim Breslin:
Our project plan for creating the new agency is updated every week. Some key milestones in it which will determine the eventual decision include not just when the legislation comes into the Oireachtas but when it is passed by the Oireachtas. That will be crucial. We are approaching the summer period so there is a question around that. The Minister has highlighted many of the areas, including the early initiative to move towards a governance arrangement by putting the people who will populate the board in place and notifying staff in advance that they are going to move and not waiting for the legislation to be passed. We have pre-empted many of the critical steps that would need to be taken after the legislation is passed and tried to put all of them in place as soon as possible.
We do not have all of the steps in place and one of the things I must do, as the Minister takes the legislation through the Houses, is see the extent to which they are co-ordinated and calibrated. If the legislation was passed really quickly, would we be able to take advantage of that and what would be the lead-in to do that? None of us envisages the legislation being concluded on a Friday and the agency being created on the Monday, although there have been precedents in the past that have gone close to that. They are not particularly good precedents. It is important for the board and the management of the agency to see the final legislation passed by the House and to make their final preparations with that knowledge. They should do that quickly but not with the type of haste where it is five to midnight and we all move over in the morning, with the unions around the table and so forth. In view of the work that has been done, I am confident that we are not far away from it.
The budget of the agency will make it the second largest public body in the State. It will be over €0.5 billion. I realise billions do not appear to be much any more in public finance, but it will be a huge budget. It will be somewhat dwarfed by the HSE, but the HSE is a mammoth. This will be a major body compared with all other public bodies, and we must have accountability not just on finance but, importantly, on finance in place so we can account to the Oireachtas for it.
Bodies have been created before without transparent infrastructure. We need systems in place for management to make effective use of the resource. We have a project working on same. We will bring in some external support to make some changes over the course of the summer and will try to get financial systems in place. I do not have a completion point for those changes at present because we must contract the external support. The overall project and the legislation will be critical factors in when we go live.
With regard to the business of going live, enacted legislation means one can have an Estimate passed and brought before the House. If legislation is not passed then we cannot bring an Estimate for the agency before the House. The legislation would have to go through and then, if the Oireachtas was going to give the agency a budget, it would have to bring Revised Estimates through for both the new agency and the HSE because that is where the largest part of the budget would come from. Obviously there is a question on when one does that. It has been done before mid-year for the creation of agencies. It is generally not done at the back end of the year because once one reaches the November-December budgetary cycle - although the budget is a little bit advanced this year - it means January. Without giving a specific final decision, and because no final decision has been made, the three pieces are the legislation, the final preparations and I would emphasise the financial processing pieces around that. The final requirement that would be on us and on the House to vote is the resources for the agency and the timeline for those three things.
Mr. Jim Breslin:
We have an oversight group. We also have a dedicated project team led by Mr. Gordan Jeyes who manages it on a daily basis. I chair the oversight group which meets every fortnight, if not more often. We have representatives from the Department of Health and the CEO of the HSE. We have had excellent co-operation. This is a programme for Government commitment. There has been full acceptance across all elements of the management system that this must happen with due haste. We have had good support and co-operation which was commented on at the Cabinet committee meeting this week.
Mr. Jim Breslin:
There are two projects, one of which is financial due diligence. Two Departments have agreed independent support for the process so there is external due diligence on the resource of the transfer. We have made very good progress and we have refined the budget as needed. I am confident that the budget that will be put before the House will be the proper one to go with the services that are moving. That is an important component and has been done on an objective basis.
Psychology is another project. A specific working group was agreed between the two Departments and is working to see what impact the movement of psychology services to the agency would be for clients, children and family services and for HSE clients. It is important to acknowledge the major role that psychologists have played in children and family services in respect of children who are in welfare situations, in child protection situations and are potentially in care. The funding of psychology services and the strengthening of the service to provide it to the most vulnerable children has been an important addition over the past decade or more.
It is also important to reflect on the mandate of the new agency which will be different from the HSE's children and family services. It will be a broader mandate that will be present in an early intervention capacity. The delineation of psychology between the agency and the HSE must take account of the new mandate of the agency and not just the current child welfare and protection services. Whatever the outcome or employment solutions to that issue, it would be our commitment that psychology would remain as a presence in primary care. That is where we want the agency to be present. We do not want a crisis-driven agency to which a child is referred after everything else has failed. We want its employees to be active and working in partnership with other health and education professionals in communities.
The working group has not just been trying to devise how to move something about and the numbers involved, but also the management and clinical governance arrangements around moves.
Before we move away from the point on psychologists, which I raised in my opening questions, there remains significant concern among that profession in respect of the proposed transfer of that number of people who will work within the agency. They make a strong case. What efforts are being employed to assuage the genuine fears being expressed? I am certain that other members are equally exposed to them as I have been. We cannot proceed blinkered in this regard. It must be faced and addressed.
I would strongly make the case that what is compelling is that we implement the vision for early intervention that was outlined by the task force and to which the Secretary General referred. We must ensure that psychology services are available to the new agency. This is critical.
There are professional concerns and we will do everything possible to work on them. The working group and I have met the various representatives. The psychologists were invited to make a presentation to the original task force.
However, this is a question of change and professional groups adapting to it and being willing to show flexibility. We must keep the vision of the child and family agency up front. It is not just a matter of child protection. Rather, it is about early supports, of which psychology is an important part.
I assure the Deputy that we will work with the psychologists to get the best outcome. For the past six to eight weeks, the working group has examined the boundary issues. We will try to achieve the best solution, but I am putting children and families at the centre in terms of how the services are organised, not the professional groups. Some change is necessary, as the way the services are organised has clearly not worked. This is what the new agency is about. We must ensure that the professional groups understand this point and work with the new model. We will try for a solution that ensures the best services for children while taking note of the concerns of the professional groups, including psychologists, but this is a question of change and working differently.
Was the Deputy’s third question on youth work and the engagement with employment?
It related to the child and family support agency. I will get around to calling it by what the Minister wants us to call it in good time, but I am curious about the process for the appointments. How open will it be? How aware will people across the board be, namely, people from the sector and people from non-governmental organisations that have addressed children’s issues and family support services? This is an important point. Will it be open to the representatives of the Family Resource Centre’s national network to seek appointment?
This is a major public reform of a large organisation. It needs a board that has a lot of expertise in HR, community services and the range of issues identified by the Deputy. It will be a small board because we do not want to replicate previous types of board. It will have greater accountability to the Department than previous boards. We are suggesting a different governance model.
We want people to apply who have the skills to manage an organisation of 4,000 people and the finances outlined by the Secretary General. It will be open and advertised in the way committee positions are advertised. We will follow the process followed by Government in asking people to apply. The Chair will appear before the committee.
There is an expert round-table session on youth unemployment on 21 June. It involves a group of EU experts on the links between the youth sector and youth employment issues. It will be helpful.
I have answered some of Senator van Turnhout's questions. The process involves submissions rather than tendering. Consortiums are asked to apply and if they are in a position to apply for funding, there will be a mechanism to do so. Those interested in applying can attend the seminar on 25 April and get information on the project. We will provide more details shortly. The criteria will be outlined and they will be transparent, based on deprivation levels in different areas, the ability of the consortium to deliver the projects and various other criteria, which will be weighted. The submission is much the same as was done the first time and the groups already providing area-based services will be eligible to apply.
Direct provision is primarily an issue for the Department of Justice and Equality but there are many children in direct provision. I have been to various centres and I am in discussion with the Department of Justice and Equality about greater focus on the children in direct provision. I have asked the Department to collect further statistics to outline more clearly in the annual report the number of children in direct provision attending child care services. Some are attending the preschool year. The children in direct-----
There is a permeability between communities and direct provision centres. Many voluntary organisations, such as the Jesuits or local community centres, have engagement with families and children. Direct provision varies hugely internationally in terms of the services provided, such as housing. In Sweden, an apartment or some accommodation is provided, whereas other countries have very poor accommodation. Ireland is generally considered to have high standards in terms of inspections but the major problem is the length of the process. It is very complicated. It will not change until new legislation comes from the Department of Justice and Equality. Children spend up to six years in direct provision. We must focus on quality. Deputy McLellan also referred to this issue. We must put more focus on the experience these children have. I met with officials of the Minister, Deputy Shatter, to engage further on that point. They will work on it.
The Senator raised questions about funding for youth work, which I have dealt with. I have no intention at present of doing what was outlined in the question. As is clear from the comments of Ms Hazlett, dealing with 33 administering bodies means there is room for some rationalisation. We also need more information from local VECs. The quality of the information coming back to the Department needs to be stronger. Clearer information is required and we have a set of demands of local VECs that we would like to see met. We have discussed this with the CEO of the VECs. I accept points made by the Chair on the efforts at organising funding nationally. It is challenging. Equally, having 33 administrative bodies is not feasible. I am conscious of the role local VECs play and I want to see it continuing but there is room for efficiencies and better administration.
I appreciate the points made by Deputy Naughten about the audit, which will be published shortly. He was told this before-----
-----but we have checked again with the HSE. It is because it is being brought together with audits from two other areas in order to get the best outcomes. I will communicate directly with Deputy Naughten as soon as I have a precise date. I know his interest in the issue.
With regard to the Children First guidelines, their statutory basis and whether they apply to any place where money changes hands, the question of particular obligations is primarily targeted at organisations where people are paid and professionals engage with children. There will not be double standards but we must tease out what obligations we can put on small organisations. That is why we took a little longer with Children First. If the obligations are onerous, it can be too much for some organisations. We are trying to see how we can calibrate the obligations on different organisations. All of them must have child protection plans and clear criteria on how they deal with reports on child protection. There will not be a double standard but members will accept there must be less onerous obligations on some groups compared to others. That will emerge when we have a discussion on Children First. It arose in the submissions to the committee and has been one of the reasons for the delay. We must tease out how to deal with the capacity of individuals to deal with the statutory requirement. There will be a criminal sanction so we must be careful how we do this.
Deputy Conway is not present but she raised a number of questions. Adoption by step-parents is onerous in this country at present. It is part of the examination of the adoption legislation that we will bring forward.
Deputy Dowds asked about the take-up of the preschool year. It is very high and it is across the board, which is one of the great benefits of the scheme. Deputy Dowds also asked about adoption. The point raised was dealt with at the international meeting in Dublin yesterday. There was a statement that the children available for adoption because of the tragedy of their situations would be in Third World countries. The question we must ask is whether the parents have given full consent. We have seen difficulties in respect of that. Are there standards in place to protect children? We have seen examples of trafficking. Is there an ability for Ireland to have a legislative framework with another country to ensure adoption is free, with full consent and in the best interests of the child?
Deputy McLellan referred to direct provision. There is an action plan in respect of Dublin north-west. It is proactive and we have new initiatives in place to ensure the matters outlined in the Dublin north-west report will be acted upon. I am confident that, when we come back to the committee, the issues outlined in a number of reports will be properly addressed. I met those involved and the manager and I highlighted that the situation as outlined in the HIQA report must be addressed. I can meet SIPTU.
I did not get the chance to address a number of points. With regard to Question No. 13, regarding national high support units, I understand residents are not placed there under a detention order and that these are not locked units. There are only two of them and one is in my constituency. I visited it in the early stages and welcomed its location, but there have been a series of worrying incidents associated with the cohort of residents at any particular time.
I am concerned about that, as are people in the community. At one point, there were two functioning hotels in the host town but there is now only one because the other was burned to the ground and the court case is there to show from where the hand responsible had come.
I came across the most worrying situation which triggered me to ask the question. A parent came to me in great distress because her daughter - remember these are children - was inebriated in the middle of the day in a neighbouring town where her sibling had met her, and it is by court order or parental agreement that people are placed within these high support units. These are not small matters. In that instance, the distress of the mother, who is the only parent, was serious and very understandable. I am obliged to refer these to the Minister and to bring her attention to them. I do not know what the answer might be but there are issues in regard to the care regime and, in particular, unsupervised time out.
In regard to Question No. 15, the numbers and nature of deaths of children in State care, a very worrying issue, which we have addressed at a number of fora in the recent past, is the increasing incidence of suicide. Looking at the comparative figures - I asked for them having a good sense of what they would expose - in 2011 and 2012, we saw a 200% increase of suicide among children in State care. Of the profile of cases in 2011, 20% of children were suicides and it had risen to 39% of the deaths of children in care last year. It is a hugely worrying indicator. We know suicide has been on the increase across the board but in regard to children in State care, there must be something seriously in need of address given the statistics the Minister shared in response to Question N0. 15.
We are currently reading in the national media about a very serious situation in regard to child sex abuse. We cannot but ask the Minister to take on board that there is considerable concern. We are talking about a deceased former Irish language enthusiast. From all the information I have, Commissioner Callinan has ordered a review of the previous investigations. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, has ordered a review of knowledge of the crimes in the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. These are all looking at themselves and at what they knew and what they did or, most importantly, did not do. This is hugely important. Parents of young people-----
My time is up. Is it not of such importance and severity that it requires an independent inquiry? Former Ministers acknowledged that they had reports of this and that they referred it to their Department officials. Why were the gardaí not advised? It is reported in The Irish Times this week. We need answers in this instance.
The Minister raised the child deaths reports, which I raised at a committee meeting a few weeks ago. At one of our first meetings, the Minister committed to giving us the reports from the Helen Buckley review group, that is, that we would get them as they came out. We have not got them and I know a message was to be sent to the Minister's Department.
We have not got them. We hoped that as a committee we would automatically get them, so perhaps that could be looked at.
On youth work funding, I very much welcome the Minister's assurances that there are no plans to transfer the schemes to the City of Dublin VEC. Will she also confirm that there is not a plan for two new schemes for youth work funding to replace the current youth work funding schemes? We are all awaiting the youth policy framework and the value for money review. I would have thought that in light of those, perhaps new youth work funding schemes would be devised. I would very much understand if the Minister said that when the youth policy framework is published, she would ask organisations to apply in order to fulfil the strategy or the youth policy framework. I would like reassurance because there seems to be misinformation. I want to give assurances to youth organisations if any new funding schemes are being planned to replace the current funding schemes.
The Minister alluded to the fact that previously 60% of the funding was there to put in place the bricks and mortar. At least we now have the infrastructure in place. We can build on that and reinvest to ensure the infrastructure is properly and adequately used. I agree with the Minister's plans to extend the ECCE scheme, which is a good scheme and warrants extension. I was somewhat concerned when the Minister mentioned the large scale savings made in regard to direct payments at the time the €1,000 scheme was abolished and that the new scheme is only costing €160 million. Will the Minister confirm the protection of the core payments of child benefit which is very important? People have come to expect that payment.
It is great the early years strategy will be measurable and that clear targets and a timeframe will be set. The Minister failed to refer to the estimated resource package she hopes to put in place. One can have targets and a framework but as we all know, if the resources are not in place, they will not be implemented.
The Minister is to be commended on the extension of the ECCE. Has any consideration been given to how one would extend it? Will she increase the age threshold for the second year and then bring in the first year at a younger age group or will she leave the current age threshold in place and bring it in a year earlier? There are implications for the education system in regard to it. I have spoken to primary school teachers and it has been a considerable success from that perspective and children are hitting the ground running.
I mention the issue of child care rates and refer to a particular problem for rural child care providers. They cannot survive on the income from ECCE. They need preschool, crèche and after-school children to make their operations viable because they are in small rural communities. They are at a huge disadvantage compared to larger facilities near urban centres or in places where there is no competition from other providers on the community side which do not have the same overheads. It is an issue which needs to be addressed, in particular in rural communities, because in many cases, it is the only option for people and there is no alternative.
I wish to sound a note of caution in regard to the City of Dublin VEC and the provision of service.
I am glad this has been clarified because my understanding was that the decision had been made along those lines. The difficulty is that the City of Dublin VEC, through SUSI, has been an appalling disaster and what is sad is that it has not even been prepared to hold up its hands and admit that it has made a monumental mess of it. Some people have still not received a final decision from SUSI on their grant applications for this academic year, while SUSI is now seeking grant applications for next year. We are discussing streamlining and rationalisation, which is welcome. We have discussed this issue before, dealt with some of the anomalies in the current system and have agreed that streamlining is necessary. However, I would caution against what is being considered at present, given the track record.
Before the Minister responds, I wish to refer to Deputy Ó Caoláin's point about the Irish language enthusiast who is currently under investigation again. I very much support the view that the Garda Commissioner should examine the original investigation again and then, at that point, we should review the issue.
I thank the Deputies and Senators for their questions. Regarding Deputy Ó Caoláin's point and the particular incidents he quoted, I would be happy to organise a meeting between him and the relevant managers in the high-support section of the HSE so that he can be given a briefing on how high-support issues are being dealt with at present. There has been a particular focus on the part of Gordon Jeyes on improving standards and indeed, there have been enormous improvements following the HIQA reports. Obviously, children are not detained as such. It is an open setting so there will be instances of children leaving and becoming vulnerable. However, we try to provide as much specialised input on site as possible. There is a very high staff ratio, as the Deputy knows but having said that, I take his points very seriously.
On the figures for children in care and the number of deaths, I wish to clarify that in 2011, of the 15 child deaths notified to the national review panel, two were of children in State care. In 2012, of the 23 deaths notified to the panel, two were of children in State care. Two children in each of the years were in State care at the time of their deaths. However, as the Deputy knows, the deaths of any children who are known to the HSE or who might be in after care are also reported. Two were in care in 2011 and a further two were in care in 2012. Of the broader group of children whose deaths were notified to the Dr. Helen Buckley and the independent national review panel, three died by suicide in 2011 and nine died by suicide in 2012. While I do not have the precise details before me, I presume some of those deaths involved drug overdoses and issues concerning alcohol and drugs. Clearly, it reflects to some degree the increase in suicide among young people more generally. I do not know if it is statistically higher than the societal average but regardless of that, it is a tragedy to have any child dying, whether in care or outside of care. Clearly, this is an area that needs an ongoing and concentrated focus to ensure that we are protecting the most vulnerable, including young men and young people in care. Clearly many of the young people in care, as the child death review report noted, come from extremely vulnerable backgrounds, where alcohol and drugs are a serious issue and where there have been a lot of family problems. Many of the children came into care at a late age and one of the points to be reiterated, in the context of the new child and family support agency, is the need for early intervention. We must ensure that decisions to take children into care are made at the right time for those children, that proper risk assessment is carried out and the children get the right interventions to prevent the sort of outcomes that are reported in the child death review and by Dr. Helen Buckley.
The Deputy also raised a number of points regarding sexual abuse. Clearly that is a cause of huge concern and I welcome what the Garda Commissioner and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, are doing in terms of the review of files. Obviously, if parents send their children to any educational setting, in the Gaeltacht or elsewhere, they want them to be safe. Some appalling stories have been reported but I wish to await the outcome of the current inquiries before commenting further. All I will say now is that I accept the Deputy's point about the seriousness of the issue.
We need to get all the facts, I fully agree with the Deputy in that respect. That is why issues like Garda vetting and the reporting of suspected abuse are so important. Of course, once such reports are made, we must also ensure that action is taken. It is still very disturbing to see the differences between the number of reports of sexual abuse and crimes of sexual violence and the numbers of cases that end up in the courts or with successful convictions.
Senator van Turnhout asked about the new schemes and I wish to clarify that a decision has not been made to move to two schemes. What we have decided is to have more flexibility between the schemes in the interest of the youth services being able to deal with what comes before them. They will have the flexibility to use the money for different purposes. There is no question of moving to two schemes. That may have been contained in some freedom of information material that was issued but-----
It will be dealt with under the value for money report. There will be an analysis of both the funding and the policies at that time but there is no decision to move to two new schemes. A good decision has been made, however, in terms of allowing flexibility between the schemes instead of rigid demarcation.
The point made by Deputy Naughten regarding the age group for the ECCE scheme is very relevant. No firm decision has been made on that yet but clearly it is linked to the school starting age. We have to consider all of the implications and we are working on these issues with the Department of Education and Skills. In terms of the overall approach, Ms McLoughlin and other officials from my Department have been working quite intensively with the Departments of Social Protection and Education and Skills to discuss an approach to the development of second year. That work involves examining issues like whether there are sufficient staff available to implement a second year, what training and standards would be required and so forth. All of those issues require ongoing consideration, even in the context of the one-year scheme. We are also looking at the budgetary implications of moving to introduce a second year. We will have to have building blocks towards it rather than just deciding to implement it. We cannot just say it will start in September. A number of building blocks must be put in place first and we are examining those at present.
I also accept Deputy Naughten's point about streamlining a national approach to funding and we will take any lessons that are to be learned on that. Having said that, I know the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Quinn, has made great progress on the national scheme. Deputy Troy made a point about resources for the national strategy. Clearly, we must see that strategy and examine its resource implications. As the Deputy has said, clearly they go together. The other point he made related to the funding of child care. I would point out that it was a Fianna Fáil Government that took that money and reallocated it to the ECCE scheme. That Government took several hundred million euro from parents directly and the Deputy is asking me if I intend to do the same.
The funding of a second year is a matter for the Government. I must make the point, however, that if one compares Ireland with other countries in terms of direct cash payments to families, as outlined in the report published by the Minister for Social Protection two months ago, we come a very respectable fourth out of 27 countries.
I take the point that parents need it but if we also want universal and free child care the question of funding it becomes very acute, particularly in the context of current resources. I have already outlined the approach I am taking to the development of child care services. It is a budgetary issue and as our national finances improve we can invest further and, hopefully, move towards more affordable and accessible child care.
It would be open to it to apply. I have made the point previously that it is important that we know about the level of unmet needs in respect of community services. If we do not know about the unmet needs we cannot plan to meet them when and if resources become available. It is certainly open to organisations to apply and enter into discussions with the Department. We will speak to the local child care committee and analyse what services are currently available and where the gaps exist. We are doing that on an ongoing basis and one of the important projects with which Ms McLoughlin has been involved is attempting to develop a national approach to child care committees, which have tended to focus on the local. While the local and the regional are important, we also need to get data on a national level in order to identify the issues raised by the Deputy. There may be gaps and geographical inequalities and, if so, we will need to examine them.
I thank the Minister and her officials, as well as the staff and all the members who attended and contributed to the meeting. Before we conclude I remind members that the Select Sub-Committee on Health will meet to consider the Health Service Executive Governance Bill at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, 23 April 2013.