Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 11 June 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children
Child Care Facilities and Inspections: Discussion
I remind people in the Visitors Gallery, witnesses and Members of the Houses to turn off their mobile telephones rather than leave them on silent because they interfere with the broadcasting of the proceedings and it is unfair to staff. We have received apologies from Deputy Catherine Byrne.
Apologies have also been received from Deputy Regina Doherty, who will be late, Senator Imelda Henry and Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick. We also have an apology from Senator John Gilroy who will be replaced by Senator Aideen Hayden.
Following on from the recent "Prime Time" programme which revealed a shocking insight into certain child care facilities, members of the committee took a unanimous view on the need to convene a meeting to deal with this issue. We invited the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, the HSE and other key stakeholders in the child care area to discuss what was an appalling exposéand insight into some of the activities correctly exposed by RTE in a shocking piece of investigative journalism by its reporters. I do not use those words lightly. Many of us who watched the programme and are involved in this committee were disturbed not only by what was revealed but by certain attitudes and the mistreatment of children. I thank the committee members who were unanimous on the need to convene an early meeting.
Parents and guardians expect their children to be treated properly and with dignity at all times. I hope our meeting with the Minister and the officials will provide an opportunity to discuss not only our concerns but a pathway whereby we can ensure that child care facilities which, in the main, have excellent staff and are run superbly will continue to be provided, that the bad practices and the unease experienced by some parents after the programme will be brought to an end and that there will be a focus on the issues of vetting, inspection, enforcement sanctions and regulations.
I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and her officials Mr. Jim Breslin, Secretary General, Ms Moira O'Mara and Ms Mary McLoughlin; from the Health Service Executive, Mr. Gordon Jeyes, Ms Annie Callanan and Ms Fiona McDonnell; from Early Childhood Ireland, Ms Irene Gunning and Ms Teresa Heeney, and from Startstrong, Mr. Toby Wolfe. I thank them for appearing before the committee at short notice.
Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give the committee. However, if witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members of the longstanding parliamentary practice and ruling of the Chair to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite the Minister to make her opening remarks.
I thank the committee for asking me to come before it today to discuss issues relating to the quality of early childhood care and education in our preschool services.
Those services have, for more than a decade, suffered as a result of an excessive and unbalanced focus on bricks and mortar and supply of places, rather than on quality assurance, workforce development and outcomes for children. From the moment I became Minister I have said that we must focus on quality early years interventions and parental support, as all international research and experience shows that the supports provided to children in their early years results in improved outcomes for children and an economic and social return to the State. For a long time that fact has not been reflected in Government policy.
Previously I addressed the Seanad on why we were moving our emphasis towards early intervention, some months ago. I outlined the benefits that can accrue both in terms of better outcomes for children and in terms of economic return to the State. I spoke of our legacy of providing direct cash payments, instead of investing in services. As I told our colleagues in the Seanad, we have lagged behind many other developed countries - when it comes to our early years sector and we must improve quality standards and workforce capacity in all sectors of child care and early years services.
What we witnessed on the "Prime Time" programme two weeks ago today was distressing, shocking and absolutely unacceptable. The footage shown will have disturbed every parent in the country and I am particularly conscious of the huge distress caused to the parents of children attending the crèches identified. The poor practice, the dereliction of duty and care, resulting in the appalling mistreatment of young children is currently and rightly the subject of a thorough and comprehensive investigation by both the HSE and the Garda. In addition Gordon Jeyes, CEO-designate of the Child and Family Agency, has commissioned a review and analysis of past inspection reports so we can identify the patterns of non-compliance, with particular reference to the for-profit chains. I consider it to be of critical importance to get a national picture of what has been found through inspections. That has not been done previously. I expect an interim report in July and a final report in September.
While the practices of individual staff, highlighted in the broadcast, raise serious concerns, the roles and responsibilities of management must also be questioned. I wish to advise the committee that, at my request, Pobal is engaging with the three child care providers featured in the broadcast with respect to assessing compliance with their contractual obligations. In the past two weeks I have held a series of high-level meetings to discuss the broader issues and our ongoing work programme. The meetings included Pobal, the INMO who represent the public health nurses who carry out inspections in child care services, SIPTU who represent some staff in child care settings, Early Childhood Ireland, which is represented here today, the Association of Childhood Professionals and the Department of Education and Skills, as well as holding detailed discussions with Gordon Jeyes, Annie Callanan and Fiona McDonald from the HSE who are also with us today.
Our work programme with respect to preschool quality is, of course, part of a broader Government agenda that focuses on children's services. In line with the programme for Government the Department is pursuing an ambitious and comprehensive reform in the area of child and family services, including establishing, for the first time, a dedicated Child and Family Agency with a dedicated focus on children, legislation for which will be published imminently. The programme for Government also contains a commitment to improve quality in the free preschool year.
I have been progressing work on Ireland's first-ever early years strategy. Last year I established an expert advisory group, which includes national experts in early childhood education, child welfare and health and well-being, along with leading representatives of the early years and child care sector. I expect its report by September.
In line with this work, as members will be aware, we are working on a comprehensive preschool quality agenda; those are very important words. We have identified eight key areas of action, which need to be considered and addressed as a matter of urgency. Work has been ongoing on these areas, namely, publishing inspection reports online as soon as possible; strengthening the national inspection system; introducing new protocols on regulatory compliance and enforcement; increasing and widening the sanctions which can be taken for non-compliance; increasing the qualification requirements for all staff in pre-school services; introducing a registration system - we have had a notification system up to now; implementing the new national preschool standards; and supporting implementation of the Síolta framework and Aistear curriculum. Many speak about Síolta and Aistear, which were developed in 2006.
Publishing inspection reports online as soon as possible is an essential step in ensuring high standards and accountability. From 1 July, all new inspection reports, which are quality-assured once issued to the providers, will be published online. Much work has been done, led by Mr. Gordon Jeyes and his team, to develop a new national inspection system, including standardising operating procedures. It has not been a national system and I am sure Mr. Jeyes will address that. There are currently 44 - 37.8 whole-time equivalent - preschool inspectors operating nationally, with an average caseload of 126 services per inspector, although the caseload of the preschool inspectors varies across regions. There are also some vacancies. If all services are to be inspected annually, this would mean that each inspector should have a consistent caseload of 100 services or less. The HSE is reviewing the regional spread of resources, including to determine whether additional resources or redeployment of existing inspectors is required, and I am engaging with my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, on the additional resource implications.
On introducing new protocols on regulatory compliance and enforcement, there is a need for greater clarity and consistency of approach as to how inspection reports record serious non-compliance and what happens as a result. For that reason I have directed that a new and different approach will be taken to enforcement, prosecution, closure and suspension or termination of State funding. New protocols between the Department and the HSE and, as appropriate, with Pobal, will mean a more graduated approach, differentiating between very serious, serious and minor breaches and providing for proportionate responses. With respect to the ECCE scheme, the free preschool year, payments to providers have been suspended on a number of occasions. There must be a substantial deterrent for non-compliance. I am reviewing the penalties in place for a breach of the preschool regulations under the Child Care Act so as to increase the range and severity of the existing penalties including the actions which can be taken by inspectors without recourse to court prosecution.
Increasing the qualifications is an issue I have addressed on a number of occasions.
I have announced that the minimum requirement of FETAC level 5 for preschool leaders within the preschool year will be increased to FETAC level 6 and that preschool assistants, and all other staff caring for children in all preschool services, should be subject to a minimum requirement of FETAC level 5, with an effective date of September 2015 for existing services and September 2014 for new services. I am examining measures to support training in line with the increased qualification requirements. Clearly, training is a big issue for the sector and it needs to be supported in terms of gaining those qualifications and examining a mentoring system that has proved very successful in other jurisdictions.
With regard to the registration system, child careproviders are only required to notify the HSE at least 28 days before they open at present. I can confirm that a new registration system, that has been examined by the HSE and my Department, will be introduced by the HSE in September. Persons wishing to open a preschool service will be required to register with the HSE and be deemed compliant and suitable for purpose before they will be permitted to operate. Registration will be extended to existing providers as they renew contracts.
Later this year I will launch a suite of new national preschool standards, including the day care standards and standards for sessional care and child minding that are being finalised. Much work has gone into the preparation of those standards during the past year. They will replace all current guidelines. They will be implemented and inspected in line with the new registration system and improved inspection systems.
As I have mentioned already, I want to see the implementation of the Síolta framework and Aistear curriculum. I am examining options to develop a mentoring system for our preschool sector to support the implementation of them both. The system has proved very successful in the North of Ireland. At a meeting of international experts in Dublin three weeks ago, it was clear that the mentoring system works in the preschool sector. We should support it now. Some pilot work has been done. About 150 services implemented a pilot mentoring programme around the country in recent years that now needs to be extended.
In conclusion, my preschool quality agenda and measures to be considered in the context of Budget 2014 are an essential building block and first step in a multiannual approach towards the future extension of universal preschool provision. Let me stress the multiannual aspect of the work. Like the other child protection reforms that are under way in my Department, let us be clear as a committee charged with examining the issue, that a sustained effort is required for a significant period ahead. The work will not be done overnight. I have no doubt that members of the committee know that what was broadcast two weeks ago is not the norm. The programme makers made clear that they found instances of excellent care, even in some of the crèches about which complaints had been made. Our challenge is to make sure that the norm in every service is the high quality, which is what we all want to see, and does the best for the young children who are in the care of preschool services. We want to make that excellent care the cultural norm across every service.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
I welcome the opportunity to clarify the role of the HSE's children and family services in the inspection and regulation of early years services. I shall reference specific changes that have been accelerated as a consequence of recent justifiable concerns. I shall also offer some observations regarding the overall structure of State involvement in child care and early learning for children aged zero to five years. I am joined by Ms Annie Callanan, head of quality assurance and Ms Fiona McDonnell, national specialist in early years services.
As the Minister has said, the HSE employs 37.8 full-time inspectors which are unevenly spread across the country as a consequence, in part, of the moratorium on recruitment. Members can read the range of inspection provided by the inspectors in the attached appendix to the report. There are many types of inspections. They range from the large institutions, as part of change that we saw in the film, to small locally based ones and to public provision usually through an external force.
Inspections are carried out predominantly by public health nurses acting as early years inspectors and in collaboration with environmental health officers. Where non-compliance is identified during an inspection or as a result of a complaint, specific action points are agreed and a follow-up is pursued. If appropriate action is not taken by the providers of services or if the infringement is serious, enforcement action is taken in the courts. The number of enforcement actions is low with an average of four per year. In some parts of the country it is difficult to get enforcement action in court. I wish to research the matter further. An average of 250 providers cease trading each year but the reasons for their closure needs to be explored.
The HSE's children and family services commissions early years places as part of its early intervention strategy. However, the HSE does not provide them directly. They are generally provided through a third party such as Barnardos or the Daughters of Charity. There is considerable early years provision in Family Resource Centres that are scheduled to become part of the child and family agency following legislation to be considered by the Dáil later in this session.
In preparation for the establishment of the child and family agency, design work carried out has led to consideration of which services should be managed at a national level or the most local practical level. The management team has proposed and agreed that the early years inspection should be run on a national basis for two reasons, difficulties with resources and to ensure a consistent service is provided. It is fair to say that the project got a little lost within integrated arrangements and needs clear and consistent leadership. As an interim measure, I will shortly appoint an acting national manager of the inspection service but that is subject to further trade union discussion. I want to ensure that we can stand over our current resources and provide consistency, not least in the regularity of inspections. That means that we can at least, with current resources, move to a minimum of 20 months between inspections instead of an average.
For some time it has been agreed that all inspection reports would be readily available online to allow parents make an informed choice about provision for their children. Of course, that follows a tightening up and improved quality in inspection reports. We should make use of the reports. Clearly, there have been resource difficulties. As a consequence of recent events and to reassure parents, the initiative will be brought forward. As the Minister has said, all new reports will be available online by the end of the month and as they become available. Work will be done to ensure that each centre's most recent report is online in the next few months.
In addition, I have commissioned an analysis of the reports of the past 18 months that will be followed by an annual standards and quality report. We can all hypothesise about the exact point of weakness but we need to base it on fact. There were similarities between the three types of provision. Should we focus on them? Is it a particular problem for children on full day placement? We may, within our resources, target the areas most in need of additional regulation and support.
I welcome the early years strategy and the introduction of a clear set of relationships. The initiative will ensure that people are clear about their roles and responsibilities. We need to ensure the following: that there is strategic leadership; that there is a body to drive improvement in the services; that the components, consisting of Pobal, the school inspectorate and the HSE's inspectors, are provided in a singular, consistent and robust manner; and we must strengthen our efforts to ensure compliance.
We, as a society, must consider our approach to commissioning. The approach must be informed by and based on the needs of children and their parents in order to get the right balance between the private transaction that parents want for good child care and the investment that Irish society wants to provide for children aged zero to six years. We must also focus on what we can afford.
Early years provision reflects the need for parents to source high quality child care that promotes the welfare of their children and is a positive experience for them in which they learn to socialise and develop skills. Early years services play a key role as a common good, providing benefits to the whole population. Therefore, Ireland along with many other countries, is still coming to terms with how it will invest in and develop this sector in line with investment in other stages of education. The approach taken to early years provision needs to ensure a high quality service, with management and staff taking responsibility for quality and parents being encouraged to engage with provision. An early years strategy will be welcomed in terms of bringing focus, direction and clarity to this important sector as we seek to bring about better regulation, stricter and more immediate enforcement and higher quality services.
Ms Irene Gunning:
My name is Ms Irene Gunning from Early Childhood Ireland. I am accompanied by Ms Teresa Heeney. We welcome the opportunity to make a presentation to the joint committee on this issue. Early Childhood Ireland is a national voluntary organisation and NGO, with more than 3,300 members who share its mission of enabling the provision of quality early childhood care and education in Ireland with positive outcomes for children. Our members operate full day care, playgroup and after-school services and have more than 40 years experience in the sector. It must be clarified that the majority of these services are small, private settings with an average of five to six child care professionals supporting on average 33 children. Some 76% of them have level 5 qualifications, which is a one-year post leaving certificate qualification. The average pay rate is €10.50 per hour.
Why are we here? What we saw on Tuesday, 28 May was totally unacceptable. The footage of children being manhandled, flipped, strapped into chairs, force-fed and shouted at has sparked a crisis of confidence in the sector and among parents. Moreover, we saw poorly trained staff who were disinterested in their work and services that appeared to have inadequate management and operated to a timetable designed to meet the needs of the setting and not the children. We were also confronted by an inspection regime that was inconsistent, not analytical and requiring an overhaul.
Children are citizens too. As a society, we have a duty to our youngest citizens and a vested interest in getting them off to the best possible start. As stated by the Minister and Mr. Jeyes, ideally children in every early childhood care setting should be happy. Children should laugh, make noise, play and be busy. Ideally, they should have materials, toys and equipment which enable children to become engaged indoors and outdoors. Adult care providers should take an interest in the children, know them and engage with the warmly, affectionately and responsively. They should understand their needs and follow their interests and strengths. These adults understand that children thrive in predictable consistent routines but need to be flexible so that when a child is busy doing something different from the rest of the children that interest is followed on. Nap time is an individual thing and predictable routines require flexibility. This can happen. I have worked in services where this happens. There are many good services throughout the country.
We have a five-point plan to address issues. I would like first to highlight some matters that have been already mentioned but require emphasis. Early childhood matters. In particular, quality counts. Poor quality services at best make no difference and at worst can lead to negative outcomes for children. We know that training and mentoring are key. The evidence from Northern Ireland is compelling. It has invested not only in a universal year, but also in mandatory training and mentoring. The recent scores on the international literacy and mathematical ratings, such as PIRLS and TIMSS, show it to be far ahead of the Republic of Ireland. Whether it is centre-based or childminding, private or community, children need to get the best care and quality we can provide. We must develop the mechanisms, structures and sanctions to ensure best quality. It must be remembered that quality is systemic and requires and involves relationships with children, families, staff, management, training organisations and inspectors. We have a collective responsibility to ensure quality services. While the "Prime Time" programme was shocking, there was an amazing outpouring of goodwill from parents to service providers throughout the country, many welcoming that their children were being cared for by a particular service and in some instances bringing them gifts and so on.
My colleague, Ms Heeney, will now outline our five-point plan.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
The first point of the plan is development of the workforce. We welcome what we have heard already today from the Minister in terms of new initiatives in this regard. We propose the introduction of a registration system for all staff working in the sector and that every staff member working directly with children as a supervisor or manager has a suitable qualification, be that a level 5, 6 or 7 qualification. As stated by Ms Gunning, the "Prime Time" programme showed services that clearly were being poorly managed. Training must be funded because people working in this sector are poorly paid. Under the terms and conditions of the free preschool year no time is provided for planning, evaluating, training or holding meetings with parents. We would urge that this be addressed as a matter of urgency. There are many professionals working in the sector on 38-week contracts. These people become unemployed during the summer months. This is no way to grow the sector if we want to retain a professional workforce therein.
The second point relates to quality. We welcome the Minister's comments in regard to a mentoring system for Síolta and Aistear. We have been part of the pilot to which the Minister referred and part of the EU presentation which was well received by people from the Nordic countries where it appears everything is glowing. They were very impressed by what they saw in the Clock Tower a few weeks ago. We intend to do a further presentation for Members of the Oireachtas on 19 June in the AV Room. We will be in touch with Members before that.
On the issue of quality, there is huge concern among our members in relation to the lack of special needs assistants for preschool children. Many of our members are currently reporting that they have to refuse access to their services to children with additional needs because they do not have the staff to give the children the time and attention they need. We recently heard an example of twins, one of whom attends a playschool in Kildare while the other spends most of her time at home and only attends for three hours per week because she does not have access to special needs assistance hours.
We again want to take the opportunity to raise this matter. We welcome everything we have heard today about the inspection system. We would encourage the adoption of that graded approach to which the Minister referred, which is in line with the approach in England of awarding bronze, silver and gold levels following inspection. We know from our colleagues in England that parents are very attracted to this grading system as it gives them an understanding of the levels of compliance in the sector.
The fourth issue in our five point plan is the need to ring-fence investment. We know we lag well behind. As the Minister alluded to, under our system parents are given a substantial amount in direct cash payments, but only recently has the State invested in infrastructure. We encourage the Minister to plan for a guarantee on rates of capitation and child to staff ratios for the sector.
Our fifth point is the need to reform legislation. In the main child minders and after school services for children are not governed by legislation at present. We would like to reiterate the need for regulation of these sectors.
Mr. Toby Wolfe:
I welcome the opportunity on behalf of Start Strong to discuss issues arising from the "Prime Time Investigates" programmes with members of the committee. Start Strong is a coalition of more than 50 organisations seeking to advance children's early care and education in Ireland. We work from a children's rights perspective and on the basis of research evidence and national and international experience.
The footage in the "Prime Time Investigates" programme showed individual cases but the causes and the risks are systemic. Taking our early care and education system as a whole, quality is variable and the lack of assurance is unacceptable. If we are to prevent the sort of distressing scenes seen on the documentary, we need both immediate action as well as an ambitious programme of long-term reform. I very much welcome the initial steps that have been announced by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and by the HSE. Certainly stronger sanctions for non-compliance are critical and minimum qualifications are essential. These are positive measures but we will then need a major programme of change in the sector in the years ahead backed by public investment and driven by strong leadership.
The forthcoming national early years strategy offers the Government the ideal opportunity to set out its plans for long-term reform. In April of this year, Start Strong published its submission on the national early years strategy, "Shaping the Future", in which we set out a wide range of detailed recommendations. Some of those that are of most relevance to the issues raised in the "Prime Time Investigates" programme are highlighted in the briefing note that was circulated in advance of this meeting. The central recommendation of our submission was that the Government's core objective in the National Early Years Strategy 2012 should be to ensure that no child is in a low-quality setting. I think the "Prime Time Investigates" programme illustrated clearly how important that objective is.
Much of the focus of attention in the programme and in the discussions that have followed has been on the inspection system. We most definitely need a robust and fully-qualified inspection system. It has been rightly pointed out the inspection system is only part of the problem, ultimately it is the skills and competences of those working in the sector that will ensure quality. When I talk about those working in the sector I mean all those working in the sector, not just those working directly with children but those in management and supervisory roles, those who are providing training through county child care committees or through further education colleges as well as advisers, mentors and the inspectors themselves.
In 2011 a major European Commission report was published on competence requirements in early childhood care and education and care, known as the CoRe report. It was based on both new research and a comprehensive literature review. It argued that the key to achieving quality is not just competent practitioners but a competent system. The CoRe report specifically set a benchmark that 60% of those working in early care and education services should be graduates and that there should be qualified staff in every room. In Ireland the proportion of graduates is currently around 10%. A quarter of staff remain unqualified, in particular those working with the youngest children, those under three years old. Neither those who provide the training nor those who carry out inspections are required to be qualified in early childhood care and education. A competent system requires not just qualifications but good management, team work, non-contact time for staff to engage in planning and reflection on their practice, and wages that are high enough and working conditions that are good enough to keep staff turnover to a minimum.
We definitely need minimum qualification requirements for all those working in services as the Minister has announced but we need to move progressively beyond minimums towards a graduate workforce to achieve that 60% European benchmark. To achieve that we will need a training fund that will require significant public investment. To show what is possible I want to refer briefly to New Zealand. New Zealand has recently completed its ten-year national strategy for early childhood education. The official evaluations, were led by Professor Linda Mitchell. Start Strong invited Professor Mitchell to Ireland last September and she gave a briefing to the expert advisory group and to members of the Oireachtas. It showed a dramatic improvement in quality during the course of the ten year strategy. The evaluation involved detailed observations of the quality of practice in a sample of services. During the course of the strategic plan, the number of services in the sample evaluated as "poor" dropped to zero; while the number rated "very good" increased tenfold. How did they achieve this? It was a wide ranging strategy with many elements but the central objective was to achieve a graduate workforce. The proportion of graduates doubled from 37% to 69%, let me repeat the proportion in Ireland is approximately 10%. The key to achieving this was a fourfold increase in public investment in early care and education. New Zealand now invests more than 1% of GDP per annum in preschool services compared to less than 0.2% of GDP in Ireland. They also used public funds to positively incentivise services to employ graduates and to pay them wages that matched those of primary school teachers.
One aspect of the "Prime Time Investigates" programme that rightly raised concern is the way that public funds flow into child care services with minimal regard to quality. There is a real concern about the lack of financial sanctions for low levels of quality and that the quality bar for public funding is too low. I know the Minister has spoken about changing that. We are also not taking full advantage of the opportunity of the lever that public funding gives Government to create positive incentives for higher quality levels. We need to look at building on the higher capitation grant for services with a graduate leader in the free preschool year, though it will be essential to link such measures to adherence to agreed salary scales to ensure that higher rates of public investment turn into higher wages for appropriately qualified professionals rather than resulting in higher profits.
It should not be forgotten that there is no regulation or inspection of school age child care or of most paid child minders. The absence of regulation in those areas means that the risks of unsupported work and poor practice are in many ways even greater.
Thank you, Mr. Wolfe. I will call members. The first three speakers are the party spokespersons from Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Technical Group who have between five and seven minutes and all other members have three minutes.
I thank the Chairman for convening this meeting. It is extremely important that we are all here today to discuss this matter. We were all horrified, shocked and sickened after watching the cruelty, emotional abuse and physical heavy-handedness of staff caring for children. We witnessed the exclusion and isolation of children, seeing children being flung on to a sleeping mat and being shouted at. It could have been a great deal worse. We were spared because we did not get to see the facial expressions of the children as their identity was withheld.
A question that sprung to mind when watching the programme was why it took RTE and an undercover child care worker to expose these practices. We have all expressed our shock. What does it take for the HSE to close facilities? Unfortunately there seems to be a certain culture in these facilities because in one short week, a new staff member was able to expose the ongoing practices.
I have been contacted, as I am sure many other have been, by parents, numerous crèches and child care facilities and it would be wrong not to acknowledge the good work that is being done in the sector. It behoves all of us, whether the Opposition or Government, to ensure that adequate corrective measures are put in place to ensure the safety and well being of all our children, that they are being looked after in a warm and loving environment, that we alleviate the concerns and address the breach of trust on behalf of parents. In my opinion, there are some actions which the Minister can take immediately.
I welcome what the Minister said in her opening address. Some actions will require a short to medium-term approach to restore confidence and trust. One such action that can be taken straight away - the Minister alluded to it in her contribution - is to amend the Child Care Act 1991. It is unbelievable that big businesses, making profits in excess of €1 million, if found to have breached regulations, are fined €1,270. That is not good enough. There is a need for amending legislation in this area. We facilitated the Minister previously when she brought forward technical legislation in this area and, I can assure her, we will facilitate her again. There is a need for punitive penalties to ensure large business do not get away with breach of practices because we are talking about the safety and well-being of our children.
I had thought the Minister might have alluded to the children first legislation. It has been promised repeatedly in recent years. The absence of this legislation is leaving some children in vulnerable situations. That legislation should be in place before the summer recess. We can facilitate this by sitting on Fridays and late at night to ensure this critical legislation is put in place. It needs to be in place before parents take their children back to the crèches and child care services in September. That would help restore a renewed confidence and ensure that the protection and welfare of children is finally put on a statutory basis. I am aware the Minister is committed to doing that and I hope she replies to my request when she gets an opportunity to do so.
I seek also the registration of all child care services. I welcome the fact that the Minister has advised in her contribution that this will be done in September. It is also welcome that she has committed to the hiring of additional inspectors. It is unbelievable that there are more inspectors in the animal welfare area than in child welfare.Will the focus of the new inspectorschange from compliance based to ensure the well-being and learning developmentof our children? Will it be similar to the joint evaluation process debated some weeks ago in the Dáil?In her contribution the Minister said she had spoken with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform but will she confirm if she was successful in getting additional workers? It is imperative that additional resources and a national training fund are provided to ensure the implementation of the Síolte framework and Aistear curriculum.Perhaps the Minister will give a timeline for same. Given that she has made many promises and commitments today, willshe commit to publishing a quarterly report to ensure all the targets she has set will be met?
In regard to the issues exposed by the RTE programme, were any of the issues brought to the attention of the Minister or the HSE prior to being exposed by RTE? May I put a few direct questions to the HSE officials?
I request some leniency as I did not get to speak on the issue in the House. All I am seeking is an extra minute. The crèche has stated that it conducted an investigation of the events outlined following the resignation of the covert worker. What oversight had the HSE of this investigation? The HSE was made aware of the incidents filmed in a letter on 21 March. What actions did it take to conduct an investigation? Given that the crèche and the HSE were made aware of the allegations, and disciplinary action was taken against the staff member, why did it take two months, an RTE investigation and the threat of broadcast, before the families were informed of the incidents that led to a member of staff being disciplined? What supports has the HSE put in place for families affected? Have the families been offered counselling support? Have the children been medically and psychologically assessed and, if not, why?
I welcome the Minister, Mr. Gordon Jeyes and the other officials. What we witnessed on the breach of trust programme was hugely distressing for everyone who watched it. We can only image how distressing it must have been for the children directly affected and for their parents to see this all over again on their screens, assuming they were already apprised of the detail of it. I noted last week, it is no surprise to me, in the course of the Dáil recess that in meeting with people who are front line child care providers that it was hugely distressing for that greater number of people who are involved in preschool provision and who are adhering to the highest standards and providing proper care for children. One has to acknowledge that. However, I would do the issue no service if I failed to also say that breaches of regulations are widespread. We have to face up to that because it needs to be on the basis that there are breaches of regulations occurring with a regularity that is beyond acceptance. That needs to be confronted. The most important point is to recognise the terrible consequences for children not only in terms of the direct experience but in preparing children for later life. We have all spoken in the committee in the past about the formative years which have such an impact as young people develop, grow up and become young adults. The echoes continue throughout lifetime.
Many points have been made in the Minister's contribution and that of Mr. Jeyes. I noted that she mentioned the child and family agency legislation which has been long promised. I am not taking out a bata mór, a big stick. The legislation has been long promised and some of the expectation has been created. Given her own commentary and that of Mr. Jeyes earlier, there was an earlier expectation of this legislation. That is not to pretend ignorance of the scale of what is being undertaken but I am reflecting the growing frustration outside by all across the sector. There is huge interest in seeing the child and family agency established. We need to see the legislation. The Minister said it is imminent. I hope so. That would be my certain wish. Both the Minister and Mr. Jeyes made the point that all new reports and all new inspection reports will be put online but when is this likely to show? The Minister mentioned 1 July but how long will it take before reports are available online for all preschool facilities? It takes effect as of 1 July.
When will parents get a comprehensive opportunity to review the reports? Clearly, it will not be 1 July. What date are we talking about in real terms?
On 29 May as many as 11 Deputies recommended sanctions for a Topical Issues debate. It was also addressed during Leaders' Questions in the Dáil earlier that day. All political views are represented on the committee and all members share the view that sanctions and penalties are inadequate. Of course we must understand that there is a difference between breaches and they range from minor ones to the serious breaches presented in the RTE programme. Recently I read a description that likened breaches to ranging from noting a cobweb to seeing abuse of a child. Let us be clear, we are talking about the latter here. I echo the views expressed by Members in the House that we need serious sanctions. The establishments identified were, in the main, private for-profit entities. There is only one language that they will understand. In terms of bringing all such facilities up to the required standard and bringing an end to cutting corners and taking shortcuts, financial sanctions are the only ones that will speak loud enough.
The Minister mentioned the preschool quality agenda and identified eight key areas of actions which she said need to be considered. I have great respect for her but she is the Minister. Each of the eight key areas are what may be termed "no-brainers" and do not need to be considered for an extra minute. They need to happen. The time for consideration and for further reviews is long past. The Minister also stated that she will undertake a review of the penalties currently in place. Let us get to the point where there are no more reviews and no more need for consideration. The eight points that she mooted all need to be done and introduced as quickly as possible.
We need immediate action to ensure that there is no repetition of what we witnessed in the programme. The television exposéwas very welcome. We would not be addressing the issue and focusing on child care now only for what the programme makers exposed. We need more inspections. Clearly, we need more appropriately qualified inspectors. We need an upgrade in the qualification requirements for staff. It is also important that we have improved pay and conditions for staff. On the day of the Topical Issues debate, the day following the programme, I highlighted the fact that over 30 JobBridge opportunities for these positions. That is not the staffing requirement that we need to look after our children in a preschool setting.
I totally support the comments made by both Ms Irene Gunning and Ms Teresa Heeney, Early Childhood Ireland, about the provision for children with special needs. It is very important that the matter is taken seriously. The Chairman and everybody else here knows where I am coming from on these issues. We need a fundamental review of an over-dependence on the private-for-profit sector for child care provision in the State. That is the only review that I want to hear from the Minister this evening and everything else should be fast-tracked and introduced.
I welcome the Minister and the other guests. I wish to make a declaration of interest. I am chair of Early Childhood Ireland, which is a Government role.
I have had an opportunity in the Seanad to express my concerns about the television programme. Therefore, I shall immediately address some of the issues that we must work through. Deputy Troy has asked the HSE direct questions such as when was it informed, did the programme research write to it and what action has been taken. I support his questions and have similar ones. Why did two months elapse before families were informed?
We have all talked about the inspection reports. What will the new inspection reports look like? I have read some of the current inspection reports. If I was a parent trying to choose a child care place I would find them uninformative. They are not like HIQA nursing home reports because one can get used to reading them and thus understand them. I have talked to one child care provider who informed me that an inspector can spend two days on a premises examining the service but only one box will be ticked in the report that merely states that regulation 5 has been fully complied with. That does not share information or provide qualitative data. I would like to be assured that the new inspection report will include a qualitative section and will give us an understanding of the setting. I want to know whether it was a minor fault or is it a far more serious matter which would be of concern to a parent.
Why have no inspections taken place in some areas? When will we be able to say that every child care setting in Ireland has been inspected within the past six months or year? What guarantee do we have that will happen? When will we reach the point and can be assured that every place has been visited?
I seek clarification on the "unannounced" versus the "announced" HSE inspections. My understanding is that the majority of inspections are unannounced but there is a public perception that they are announced. I want it clarified that they are unannounced.
I have spoken to several providers about the regulations. For example, regulation 5 deals with quality, regulation 8 is on ratios, regulation 14 deals with vetting. Providers have told me that it takes eight weeks for a person to be vetted at present. That is the reality faced by a provider when he or she needs staff. There are two issues, ratios and vetting. Providers are faced with the impossible choice of which regulation to break or breach. If a staff member hands in his or her notice tomorrow is there a panel of vetted, qualified people available? Substitute teachers are available in education. Is there the same provision in the child care sector?
I wish to raise an issue about vetting. I tabled amendments on the vetting of childminders when the national vetting bureau Bill was debated in the Seanad. My amendments were not taken on board but we must return to the issue.
Last summer the committee gave great consideration to the heads of the Children First Bill. Several members of the committee and the organisations concerned suggested that emotional abuse should be included in the definitions of abuse. At the time emotional abuse had not been included in the definitions. The "Prime Time" programme clearly showed why emotional abuse must be included in the list of definitions.
That brings me to my next point. Where do staff go? Where are the whistleblowers? As I watched the programme I thought about the staff who work in such settings. Where can they lodge a complaint? The Children First legislation would be one place to turn to if it was enacted. Where can staff go?
I agree with the Minister's comments about professional development and qualifications. Salaries, subvention and ratios are issues when it comes to having higher qualified staff. The equation does not work. We need to talk about the matter.
We need to examine provision for children under three years of age. The State gives a subvention for a preschool year and the Minister has mentioned qualifications. What about children who are under three years of age? Most of the children shown in the programme were under three years of age.
They were not actually in the preschool year. I also have concerns about the revelations on the lack of management. If we are seeking to put in place quality staff and professional development, an issue arises in regard to the preschool year in that it is funded for 39 weeks out of the year. I understand staff are paid for approximately 42 weeks, which means they are expected to go on and off the payroll. Furthermore, they are only paid for their contact hours with children and even a meeting with a parent will take place outside the hours for which they being paid at an extremely low rate.
On the question of registration versus notification, I agree we need a registration system but should it focus on staff, settings or both? How do we reconcile these areas?
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland website states that all restaurants are inspected twice a year, with the less risky ones being inspected once a year. The authority operates a clear system of improvement notices and closure orders. We cannot seem to operate a similar system for child care settings. I agree that the reports should be online but they must also provide information rather than simply indicate whether the boxes are ticked. I want to know what that means in practice.
Child care settings are important but I ask that we put these issues on the agenda in order to reassure parents in particular. I propose that we revisit the subject in six months because I am getting a feeling of déjà vuin that we discuss issues without finding out where they go. I would like to know that we will be examining the issue again in six months time.
I welcome the focus of this debate on the transparency that needs to exist. RTE changed the context in which we are having this discussion by bringing to it the national focus I have advocated from the moment I was appointed Minister. A number of the Senators and Deputies present have a close interest in this area but the kind of national focus that now obtains is important. When I hear members speak about inspection regimes for restaurants and farms, I ask why we do not pay the same attention to the care of children under the age of five. That is precisely the point I have been making as Minister.
We all need to focus on services for children under the age of five and the nature of the inspection regimes, compliance levels and qualifications. Deputy Ó Caoláin noted that I used the word "considered" but I also used the phrase "addressed as a matter of urgency". I assure members that is the case. Since setting up the early years group, I have been aware of the need to focus on this sector. This is why I gave the group terms of reference which included examining services for children under the ages of five, three and one. Parents, not to mention the country, will need these services in the future. Not everyone enjoys the support of parents, grandparents or neighbours. We have to offer that reassurance to parents. I acknowledge the point made by members that the programme must have been upsetting for parents. I think a shiver ran up the spine of every parent and, indeed, citizen in this country when they saw the disturbing images contained in this programme.
I am dealing with the issue of inspection in the same way that I brought the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, into the area of child protection. It is important that the inspection reports are online. I will ask Mr. Jeyes to deal with the details and timeframe for that initiative. By publishing the reports online we can provide parents with transparency and thereby allow them to feel more confident about these services.
Deputy Troy asked what it takes to close down a facility. Even with the low level of sanctions, it has been difficult to pursue prosecutions. The question arises of what is considered acceptable. We have to move to a more graduated approach whereby the response is appropriate to the level of difficulties exposed in a child care setting. We cannot deal with every issue in the same way and our sanctions must be appropriate. I will amend the child care legislation and am examining how that can be done. We will bring forward those amendments at the earliest opportunity.
The Deputy also asked about safety and well-being. We have learned the hard way in respect of child abuse and protection that a range of factors are required to work together. It requires a change in culture, training, information and education, and it requires people to act when they see abuse. There is no simple solution. We must act in a range of areas. Certainly the robust inspection regime I have outlined will be important. The changes to the inspection regime will be informed by the new national standards to be introduced in September. I met the inspectors last week. The new standards will ensure inspections are based on a set of criteria that focus on quality and care.
The mentoring programme is important. Clearly, that is a budgetary issue which will have to be discussed. When approximately €300 million was taken back several years ago after the establishment of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme, the money was not reinvested in dealing with quality issues. We are now trying to address these issues after the services were established. Under the ECCE scheme, Pobal has been working to ensure compliance, but the RTE programme revealed issues with compliance in respect of children aged three and under. These issues will be addressed through a more robust inspection regime, through management taking its responsibilities seriously and through changed recruitment practices.
Deputy Ó Caoláin referred to the new child and family support agency, the legislation for which is close to completion. The legislation comprises more than 160 pages over 100 heads. It is the largest public sector reform this Government has pursued, with more than 4,000 staff involved. We will bring the legislation before the Government in the next few weeks. I pay tribute to my officials and Mr. Jeyes and his team for the huge amount of work they have done on the legislation. People have discussed the need to bring a focus to children's services, and this Government is introducing that reform.
I ask Mr. Jeyes to respond to the specific questions on inspections.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
I want to be clear that I see this as an extremely important programme which was difficult and embarrassing for all involved. It should be particularly embarrassing for the providers of these very expensive services to parents in the areas in question. While I take the general point about salaries, which is an issue for an under-qualified and under-rewarded cohort of staff, in this instance a service was being transacted between parents and companies which have posted significant profits. Something about the public good and private transactions was not working. It was extremely important to shed light on that type of provision and we need to drill down to examine the patterns and correlations.
It is all very well for us to sit here and announce we are doing this or that. We are making our announcements because the revelations in the programme have led to a sense of urgency. It is not that we were not pursuing these measures but we were doing so at the pace of Ireland 2013, which is sometimes quite slow in these recessionary times.
Much needs to be reformed. The Minister immediately commissioned an early years strategy but putting in place a strategy after the bricks and mortar is extremely difficult. The investment was made before who does what was clarified. This needs to be done with rigour and discipline, but it will be more difficult to do now than it would have been when the investment was made in the first place.
With regard to Deputy Troy's comments on incidents prior to the RTE programme, we are working in co-operation with the Garda on the child protection investigation and this must take primacy, which in some ways we all find difficult because it can hold up or slow down other aspects of our considerations. To the best of my knowledge child protection concerns or referrals did not come to our attention until parents were informed during the weekend beginning 17 May. The Garda did not receive footage from RTE until it was requested, which I believe was on 20 May. At this point it became a child protection investigation with our full involvement as per the 1991 Act. It is not for us to oversee any internal investigation or pre-emptive action taken by the crèche to which Deputy Troy referred, but we are investigating it further, and in parallel we are working with it and looking at its compliance with standards.
As committee members can imagine, I went over the timelines on this as carefully as I could in preparation for today. I am not aware of any letter being sent as early as 21 March, so if the Deputy or anybody else has such a letter, I will be happy to examine it. It would be a matter of considerable concern to me. The RTE researcher left one of the crèches involved on 29 March and e-mailed a complaint on 8 April. Having been at another crèche for six weeks, the researcher left on 20 March and made a complaint on 15 April. The RTE presence at the third crèche continued until 14 May and an e-mail of general complaint was sent to the inspection service on 17 May. I do not have all of the complaints in front of me but I would be happy to go through them with any Deputy or parent who wishes to see the paperwork. My notes clearly state the detail was of a general nature and several meetings took place. There was immediate contact with the complainant and requests for meetings on the detail in order that it could be fully investigated. Some of the milder footage was shown to the Garda and some of my colleagues in the week beginning 19 May, the week prior to broadcasting. This is the best of my knowledge of what was going on at the time and I am happy to go through it further.
I have been briefed, although I have some doubt in my mind following a conversation with a parent, that support through a counselling psychologist was available at the request of parents, but there was no intervention as such and the advice is that assessment is not necessarily advisable. To be helpful to the committee, I wish to examine this further to ensure we have not stood back too far because of what has been going on. As I reflect on these issues I am uneasy.
I wish to comment briefly on sanctions and judicial accountability. I can quote a case where we, in a very organised way, took a prosecution over an incident similar to what occurred this week whereby a child was left behind on an outing in a very dangerous part of the city. The judge threw it out despite the great detail and accused the HSE officers who brought it forward of behaving in a fascist way by threatening the livelihood of the child care provider. It was not in doubt that on the way to a picnic in St. Stephen's Green, one child had been left behind on Lower Baggot Street, which is not a safe area for a four year old.
All reports will be online by the end of September at the latest. We have designed a process to put them on Pobal's website. We just need to do some fairness checks so all comments are from the institutions. As the Minister stated, and picking up on Senator van Turnhout's comment, we are working on the quality of our editorial processes with inspector colleagues. We are trying to be specific with regard to regulation No. 5. I wrote to all providers this week asking what they do to communicate with parents. I understand that on low pay they will not have supervision but they should at least have staff meetings. I also asked about their approach to training. As Early Childhood Ireland has pointed out, there is a range within the sector. A small unit can invest in training and may need differential support. This training can be modest. At the very least, parents should expect a greater degree of training from larger units.
Ms Irene Gunning:
I wish to emphasise that having reports online will mean providers will have the right of reply. We have spoken about the programme and how it has changed everything. It certainly has changed our view of children and childhood in Ireland. This is a very important point. When we speak about inspection and how it can be reformed, we must speak about the support system which must be in place. We have spoken about training, but it is essential that a support system such as mentoring is made available to the sector.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
In Ireland the sector has grown up in the main from women running playgroups in their family homes. It can still be characterised in this way. Approximately 4,600 services operate in the country and 70% are private. Of this 70%, 214 services are operated by chains. This means the vast bulk are small local operations which very much act like community-based services. I am sure we all recognise this description of the services. In our infrastructure design, we need to recognise we are speaking about a number of women, many of whom were only recently forced to engage in training to be able to offer the free preschool year. This is the nature of the service. The vast bulk of these women are poorly trained, forced to become unemployed in the summer months and earn on average €10.50 per hour. We must recognise what we have. They do not all make large seven figure sums.
Mr. Toby Wolfe:
To answer why it took RTE to uncover this, we have very little concrete data on the quality of early care and education in this country, and the lack of data, monitoring and evaluation is a systemic problem which we must address. Publication of the inspection reports will help and will shed some light, but only a little because of limitations on the types of questions asked and in the composition of the inspection teams. The composition of inspection teams needs to change. We need broader teams with broader quality focus. One of our recommendations is for an audit of quality of practice to be carried out, perhaps of the type done in New Zealand at the beginning of its early years strategy which allowed it to monitor progress during the course of its strategy.
There was a question on the registration system. Senator van Turnhout asked if we wanted the registration of services or staff - I believe both. We certainly need a registration system for services and I believe steps are already being taken to introduce that. However, we also need a register of qualified early childhood professionals, which would show, for example, those who have achieved the minimum qualification requirements or gone on to a graduate level, those who have Garda vetting and those who are meeting continuing professional development, CPD, requirements. We may need changes to the Garda vetting system to achieve that, but that is the sort of thing we need if we are to develop this sector as a profession.
There was also a question about qualification levels for dealing with children aged under three and the difference between that and the free preschool year, especially given that the "Prime Time" programme focused on children aged under three. A problem at the moment is that we have higher standards involving a minimum qualification requirement in respect of the free preschool year but not in respect of younger children. Moving to minimum qualifications for all is a step in the right direction. Quality matters for children of all ages and in all settings. That is why children aged under three matter and, if anything, children's development is even faster in the very early years. The regulation in support of childminders is critical because a very large proportion of young children are being cared for every day by unregulated childminders.
Regarding sanctions and penalties, I am still considering the programme that has triggered today's meeting. Mr. Jeyes spoke about judicial actions in this regard. Without the need for recourse to judicial action, is consideration being given to a more instantaneous response to serious regulatory breaches or repeated such breaches rather than dependence on a protracted judicial process which will not get to the point sufficiently quickly?
I know very well the make-up of those providing such services, and with five children, I have enjoyed and appreciated that very much. I take my cap off to them all. We had only the most wonderful experience. Not to take away from that, while we all might feel apologetic and not want to offend those who are doing such a good job and the network Mr. Jeyes has described, the reality is that it is not about offending anybody but about what is best for our children. The fact that they are doing it is because the State has failed to do it heretofore.
Mr. Jeyes has said he has no knowledge of the letter dated 21 March, which I mentioned earlier. Will the Minister publish a timeframe for the targets she has set? Will we see the Children First legislation before the summer recess? In the absence of that legislation, it will be extremely difficult to prosecute anybody who is breaching the regulations.
The next three speakers will be Deputies Conway, Naughten and Dowds. I will bring them in, in response. To be fair to the other members, they have been here since five o'clock. Deputy Conway has three minutes.
I thank the Minister and the other witnesses for attending. I wish to pick up on a number of points in the presentation of Early Childhood Ireland. While this meeting is taking place because of what we saw happening in preschools throughout the country, are people aware that the after-school sector that covers children aged four, five and six is completely unregulated and uninspected, and in some cases those involved do not even require Garda clearance? Is this another scandal that is waiting to unfold? We need to be proactive regarding after-school provision. There is no training available for people involved in the after-school sector. A FETAC model for after-school provision was developed, but for some reason it has not been included in this round of FETAC training for child care workers. That is a scandal that needs immediate action rather than waiting for another "Prime Time Investigates" programme.
As a public body, I imagine that RTE was duty bound to make a child protection or welfare referral as soon as it got the information. Based on the timeline Mr. Jeyes provided, it first made contact on 29 March but failed to make a child protection or welfare referral. Did RTE make one? If it did not, the committee should ask RTE to provide us with its reasons for not doing so. It is imperative that we get that information as soon as it is known to a person. As citizens of this country, we are duty bound to make referrals. This committee had lengthy meetings on the heads of the Children First Bill, involving, I understand, representatives of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, because we asked representatives of all Departments to attend as they all have responsibility in the protection of our children. I would like to know the position in that regard.
What commitment does the Government really have to the Síolta and Aistear programmes? They have been around for a long time and have been piloted but never fully implemented. The recent service level agreement between Pobal and the service providers now places a requirement on child care providers to become compliant with Síolta. I am talking about people who provide the free preschool year, certificates or subvention. Heretofore they did not need to have Síolta implemented in the setting, which is not good enough.
The county and city child care committees provide infrastructure. However, I understand there is not always a good reporting relationship between preschool officers and the county or city child care committees. A preschool officer could unearth something but it is very unclear as to whether he or she is allowed to share that information with a county or city child care committee. That is nonsense and needs to be addressed here and now. It is an abhorrence that one arm of the Government can determine that a particular facility is not fit but that information is not being shared with another arm of the Government which is then recommending that facility to parents. It needs to be stamped out straight away.
As a parent of children in the child care setting, I found the "Prime Time" programme very disturbing, as did every other parent. It made us all wonder what is happening in our own service. In fairness, the majority of services throughout the country are excellent and provide a high standard of care, and parents are very conscious of what is going on. It is not only upsetting for parents themselves but also for many workers in these facilities who are working for very low pay and providing a very good service in a very difficult situation.
Some of the questions I wanted to ask have already been asked. Deputy Conway stole my thunder to a certain extent. Mr. Jeyes said there are on average four enforcement actions every year and he spoke about the challenges of getting convictions in those cases. The Minister pointed out that the ECCE payments have been suspended on a number of occasions. How frequently have they been suspended? Is it along the lines of the four a year that Mr. Jeyes mentioned? Are they based on the HSE inspections that are taking place? Are the public payments being suspended for serious failings within any part of the service or just in regard to the ECCE part of the service? It is important that incremental sanctions are applied depending on the level of breaches in particular facilities.
The economics relating to the preschool services throughout the country vary dramatically between the types of services provided.
There are different challenges relating to rents, rates, subvention, salaries, ratios and the cost of including children with disabilities and children from marginalised backgrounds, so there are an array of issues and different challenges relating to the different types of service available.
Following on from Deputy Conway's comments about after-school services, budget 2013 made provision for an after-school fund but there do not appear to be any guidelines on how that will be disbursed and operated or guidelines relating to the standards and inspections that need to be put in place. Could the Minister elaborate on that?
In respect of the mentoring programme, it is important that mentoring occurs right across the system from after-school down to the care of young children and not just in respect of the early childhood care and education service, because it is crying out for that level of mentoring. The providers are looking for that mentoring, which would be hugely beneficial to staff and management across the country.
I thank all our guests. It is very important for us to recognise that preschool education and child care is incredibly important given that children are at such a formative stage in their lives. It should always be in our minds when we discuss an issue like this. From my experience as a teacher, one can often come across a view that something to do with infants or first class is not that important, which is very false. What we are discussing is of significant importance for the development of our society.
In respect of the abuse shown in the "Prime Time" programme, have any of the delegation a sense of how widespread that abuse is? This is one of the major concerns people have. Could I get some clarification about how often inspectors visit different facilities and the penalties for non-compliance? How easy is it to close down a facility if it is not operating properly? It may not be appropriate for the delegation to answer this question, so they should feel free not to answer if that is the case. What will happen to the child care facilities examined in the "Prime Time" programme? To return to something mentioned by Deputy Ó Caoláin, would it be better if we had a State-owned, not-for-profit system for both preschool education and child care?
A number of members asked about regulation of after-school child care. The introduction of a regulatory environment for after-school services is a priority for the Department and must be dealt with. Previous child care legislation did not include after-school services, so legislation must be introduced to deal with it. We must amend the legislation to deal with that. The child care regulations were last amended in 2006 and we must deal with after-school services as part of the review of the regulations. In the meantime, amendments will be made to the contracts for the provision of services to school-age children under the CCS and CETS programmes to provide for appropriate regulation. This will be done when the contracts are being drafted. There is work to be done in terms of legislation and regulation of the after-school sector. Again, like much in this area, the sector has grown up incrementally without regulation being in place. That is the reality of how services have developed in Ireland. It is not good enough and requires a change in legislation. In the new scheme we are introducing, the regulation will be built into the contracts to deal with the current scheme, which is very important.
In respect of Síolta and Aistear, the preschool year has required services to implement Síolta since its introduction in 2010. What we need to do now is to build in the support for this. I mentioned that the only support that has been given so far has been via the Department, the local child care committees or voluntary child care organisations and under the preschool year. International practice has indicated that the best way to support the development of the Síolta and Aistear framework, which is about the curriculum and the work done with the children, is to provide regular mentoring support. I will be seeking resources to put that layer into preschool services because it is badly needed and is the best way to build up the quality that is needed. I think Mr. Wolfe said that this has happened in Northern Ireland. It is the way to go forward but it requires resources, which I will be fighting for, because it is essential that we move towards that.
I do not know the details concerning RTE and reporting because that is being dealt with directly by the HSE. Mr. Jeyes will address that. Deputy Conway also made a point about co-ordination, which is extremely important. I have already said that there has been no national approach to this issue. In much the same way as was the case with child protection and reporting from local child protection teams, we needed far better national data that we have had. We have been addressing that, which is the reason we are setting up the new Child and Family Support Agency. Equally, we need better co-ordination. I accept Deputy Conway's point and discussed this with Pobal last week. We need more co-ordination between Pobal, the inspection regime within the HSE, the education inspection regime and the child care committees. The approach has been fragmented and needs to be more co-ordinated. This is precisely what the CEO designate, Mr. Jeyes, has been doing in terms of moving to a national approach. This is the challenge we are meeting in every area relating to children's services. We must move from local and regional to national and bring about better co-ordination between the services that are out there. That is being worked on and I can only agree with Deputy Conway that this issue needs to be dealt with.
Deputy Naughten raised a point about compliance and how we can look at what is happening, and said that sanctions need to be more varied where there are breaches of regulations. That is very clear from the events of recent weeks but also from what inspectors have been saying. It needs to be much more nuanced than it is at present. It needs to be more graduated, which will happen as we build in the new national standards. We will begin to see that in the inspection regime. As I said earlier, I have already replied to Deputy Naughten's question on after-school services.
Deputy Troy asked about how widespread abuse is. Clearly, the cameras saw unacceptable behaviour. The way to avoid that and to ensure that children are not having that experience is through the combination of factors we have been talking about here today. It is about reporting. Under Children First, if people see abuse, it should be reported. There are very clear guidelines on reporting that kind of abuse. If people see it, it should certainly be reported. Other changes are required as well with regard to training, and management needs to pay more attention to recruitment and suitability for the work. Not everybody is suitable to work in this sector and we need more focus on the suitability of staff. This is a very basic requirement with regard to CVs, taking up references and making sure that people are suitable for the work, because training and qualifications will do much but if one does not like working with children there is not much point in working with a child care provider. That came across very clearly.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
I completely agree with Deputy Ó Caoláin's points about enforcement. I endorse the spirit of the question in that enforcement action should be available to whomsoever has an inspection and monitoring role. Even at the moment, I am not the commissioner. If I was engaged in similar activity as director in Stirling or Cambridge, I would have been able to take action with court stages later on. I would have had immediate power, so I would argue for that.
In response to Deputy Conway, I expect all public bodies and others to know about Children First. It does not need to be statutory for us to know what to do. Until the parents saw the footage and contacted us, we did not receive any child protection notifications. Generalised complaints were made. In one instance, the investigator left on 20 March and reported a complaint to the inspectors on 15 April.
The other investigator left on 29 March and issued a complaint on 8 April, 3, 14 and 17 May.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
In light of the Government's interest in this area, I have corresponded with public bodies on the need for them to ensure they are in compliance with the Children First guidelines. As a consequence of previous correspondence, I am sure the public body concerned was aware of the Children First guidelines. A body which believes children may be at risk does not hold back and think about whether it is an issue of child protection. That was one of the faults of the church during the previous decade. Such matters should be reported to the HSE and Garda Síochána who will then make a judgment on whether it should be considered a child protection issue. We did not receive any child protection notification but did receive general complaints about the management and operation of each of the crèches, in each instance some days after the researcher had left their employ.
With regard to Deputy Naughten's point about consistency, I have acknowledged that there was system failure. There is much we must put right. Reforming a system in a time of recession is challenging. However, I am confident in public health nurses as inspectors. The skills of the workforce are excellent, and this applies across Ireland. The problem is that often things are organised in such a way that those skills are not properly utilised. I am not suggesting they should be the only ones in the workforce with responsibility in this area. As this sector matures, there will be others with early childhood qualifications who should also be recruited. Existing public health nurses have good qualifications and do a good job. Often, the system lets them down despite that they have reported accurately.
I understand one of the crèches identified in the RTE programme received a clean bill of health shortly before the programme aired. Let us be clear, RTE obtained those reports through freedom of information and chose to investigate crèche facilities about which we had reservations. It was not an arbitrary choice. They chose crèches about which they knew there would be a story.
The final question related to how often inspections are carried out. I will ask Ms McDonnell to comment on that. A lot of issues have been raised today. It is now up to the committee to focus on where investment should best be targeted. The shopping list from members here today is quite lengthy.
Ms Fiona McDonnell:
On how often inspections are undertaken, unfortunately, it depends on where one lives. Some inspection services have capacity and carry out inspections annually and conduct follow-up and review visits in the same year. In other areas, predominantly Dublin areas, there is only limited capacity. This is the result of the moratorium and the large number of retirements over the past two years. Inspection services in these areas range from 18 to 24 months.
On registration and the HSE reform programme in respect of inspection, the rationale for registration is to enhance the regulatory position of the HSE to ensure early years services are subject to inspection prior to opening. Currently, the HSE inspects retrospectively. Phase 1 of regulation will include assessment of the regulatory requirements applicable to determine how a service is designed and the suitability of persons working therein. Phase 2 will provide for the introduction of national standards and examine outcomes for children. As such, there will be a change in our inspection reports. The design and lay-out will be different. Reports will be more explicit and will provide information to parents on the type of service available from providers. The reports will also detail the care, welfare and development of the child and look at supports for curriculum and programmes of care. They will clearly demonstrate the HSE's view of a service on inspection. The existing inspection regime is compliance based and includes many regulations. In future, we will look specifically at the health, welfare and development of the child and the components around care of children.
On Senator van Turnhout's question in regard to protected disclosure for whistleblowers, protected disclosure is a mechanism within the HSE and is underpinned by the Health Acts 2004 and 2007. It sets out procedures and specific duties for the HSE in regard to acceptance of disclosures. In the normal course of events, employees who want to report concerns generally do so to their line manager or, if appropriate, to another manager in the workplace. However, in exceptional circumstances, employees may raise their concerns with anyone in the system, which will then go through the protected disclosure process. Under legislation enacted in 2009, a dedicated protected disclosure office was set up in the HSE in 2010. It welcomes and values reporting and ensures impartial investigation of good faith reports made by staff. I hope that provides some assurance on the matter.
On county child care committees and their work with the HSE, there is great co-operation between both organisations. The HSE has identified areas which require further development in terms of regulation No. 5. Our colleagues and support workers on the county child care committees would provide this support and training. There is evidence of this but it is not standardised countrywide.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
I accept the RTE programme has engendered a sense of urgency. I would like to have in place annual standards and quality reporting, and in this regard I have commissioned such in this area. I need to look at the range of provision and whether particular issues or areas for development are associated with particular types of provision. It would appear from the programme that a number of the crèches had a number of things in common, including that many young children were there for lengthy periods. I do not want to hypothesise but will comment when I can provide more detailed evidence to the committee.
Ms Moira O'Mara:
The visits are compliance checks rather than inspections. The contract which we have in place with all of the services sets out quality standards. The visits concentrate on checks of the attendance register, the number of children participating in the programme, the fee payment policy, ensuring parents are aware of the free preschool year, staff qualifications and so on. To facilitate parents and children, we allow transfers in and transfers out. They are the issues being checked.
They keep their antennae raised as to quality and also look at the implementation of Aistear and Síolta. It is a useful backup of compliance visits, which are not inspections against the regulations.
Ms Irene Gunning:
We have conducted a very small pilot project with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment on the implementation of Aistear, the curriculum which was mentioned. We are very proud of the curriculum, in the development of which so many of us were involved. It includes themes of belonging, communication and identity. The outcomes from the pilot project are very positive and we were only just discussing and assessing this morning ways in which we might extend it. We have been involved in the Síolta pilot projects, which have begun to produce a type of Irish model in mentoring that is really good. When the migration of FETAC courses took place, the awarding bodies insisted that the after-school course which we developed generically for the awarding body was dropped. It is a strange one.
Mr. Toby Wolfe:
A couple of questions were asked about the not-for-profit and profit issue. It is fair to say that many viewers of the "Prime Time" programme were shocked at the high level of parental fees and public subsidy going into services in which staff were paid low wages and quality standards were low. It came across, rightly, as shocking. At the same time, it is important to note that much of the provision in Ireland is small-scale and non-profit community provision. There are models, including those in New Zealand and Norway, where high quality standards have been achieved through a mix of private and community provision. A national debate on the question is certainly welcome. The Taoiseach was absolute right to say in the Dáil the other day that we need to see child care not as a business but as a profession.
It is important that we do not raise unnecessary fears among parents. We all know that parents take very careful decisions on the care of their children. The vast majority - 70% - of parents make the decision that their child should be looked after by a childminder. On the other hand, we know that it is very important to be vigilant. If parents have questions or see something they do not like, they should link in with the child care committee, the inspections system or ECI to ask questions of providers. Publishing the reports online will certainly help. The other issues we have spoken about in relation to training are also important. Parents make careful decisions but their confidence will have been shaken. I am sure the parents who had their children in the services in the facilities in question felt that they had made the very best decision for their child. I am sure the confidence of every parent has been shaken by what they have seen and heard. Perhaps, people had not realised that there were the kinds of issues we have been discussing as to how the sector developed and the catching up that falls to be done at this point. As Gordon Jeyes said, there is a large shopping list of issues that need addressing. We are working on them and I hope I have given an indication of the dates of the various changes which are under way. The early years strategy will give us the overview later in the year.
I appreciate the comments that have been made about the fact that we approach this issue in a recession. That must be borne in mind. Certainly, in preparation for the meeting it was brought home to me by a number of child care providers that they are struggling in the current environment and have lost clients. A number of them are in serious difficulties.
However imperfect, what we are doing is putting in place a two-tier system in relation to child care in Ireland. One tier involves what will, hopefully, be a well-regulated and well-qualified professional cohort of carers for children. I take the Minister's commitments on board on the introduction of legislation for after-school services. I am concerned, however, that a very significant number of parents have children who are being cared for in very informal situations and who are outside the loop completely. We are carrying a legacy from the past and the choices made by previous Governments as to how child care would be approached. If our starting position is that anybody working with children should be suitably qualified, we will have to deal with the informal child care sector. Does the Minister have any proposals as to how that can be achieved? One of my concerns, looking at what is currently happening with ECCE and the funding being provided in the formal sector, is that services are being funded for 38 weeks of the year with low-paid workers having to sign on the dole during the summer months. If we are to establish the kind of professional child care situation Mr. Wolfe and Early Childhood Ireland were referring to, there will be very significant cost implications for the majority of small child care providers.
Everybody providing child care services should have some level of professional qualification, whatever it may be. I would like to see an overall package of measures from the Department to deal with the formal and informal child-care sectors. We are going to have to look again at the concept of tax relief. Has the Department considered how we can expand regulation of child care to cover every sector in which child care is being provided?
I thank the witnesses for their presentations and apologise for having had to leave the room for a few minutes. Everybody has mentioned the shocking effect the "Prime Time" programme had. I could not understand where other people were at the time the filming was going on and why they did not step in. It does not make sense to me. If I am in a room where a child is being abused, I do not care whether I am filming or not, I step in.
I reared my children preschool in a parish playschool and received a wonderful service. It was a friendly place where children were brought into an atmosphere which involved parents and where teachers were qualified to be there. There was something different about it then. There was a gentle touch with people who were in preschool. They had a way of dealing with children. It was not about the paperwork. One can have all of the certificates one likes, but if one does no have the gentle touch and a good reason to be there, one is not doing one's job. Child care is a very important profession. One can have all the degrees in the world, but if one does not have the ability to be able to cope with snotty-nosed kids and puts children standing in a corner, one loses the effect of what child care is all about. One of the most significant problems is the larger professional organisations that have come into child care and have 130 children in some facilities. How, in God's name, can one manager in a building be responsible for that many children and what level of care can be provided?
There are many good people working in child care. I know many small, private and community child-care facilities where excellent work is being done. I was very impressed by what Ms Gunning said about children being part of a place where there were only 30 or 33 in a class. When one goes outside those numbers, one loses the whole point of putting children into pre-school. I have every sympathy for parents who have to work, but leaving children in school from 7.30 a.m. to 7.30 p.m. is wrong. No child should be in any place for 12 hours. I have a grandchild who will not stay in one room for five minutes.
Arising from the Minister's contribution, I have a question. She said her Department is examining measures to support training in line with the increased qualifications requirement. Could she expand on that? It was the most important thing she said this afternoon.
I need to know what is meant by examining measures. I have a great grá for community child care facilities and there are wonderful examples around the country. They are doing a wonderful job and many of them involve parents completing FETAC courses. They provide wonderful child care and it is incorrect for the committee to give the impression that child care in the local parish does not matter; it does.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. The "Prime Time" programme is the reason we are here. Everyone who watched it was absolutely horrified. It is the worst nightmare of a parent with a child in preschool. It was also very distressing to child care providers providing a good service. What struck me about the presentation is that all of the witnesses identified the same problems and the key issues that must be addressed. These include low salaries, the lack of a full year, training and development, poor management, lack of supervision, and the need for better qualifications, although I agree that qualifications do not necessarily make people suitable. It is not in everyone's nature to love kids and to do this job, one must love kids.
Providers in some of the facilities cater for too many children. Smaller groups are more homely and more loving. We also need a register of qualified child care providers, more robust quality inspections and publication of the inspection reports.
A child care provider came into my constituency office who has not been inspected since 2009. This person phoned to ask if someone could carry out an inspection but was told the inspector only works 18 hours and did not have the time to do so. It is outrageous. There are some 37.8 whole-time equivalent inspectors. If this is to be brought to a head, the number of inspectors will have to be increased. Does the Department have the funding to do so?
I thank the witnesses for the presentation. It is useful to have this meeting. Mr. Jeyes mentioned that RTE specifically targeted three crèches on the basis of inspection reports in which the HSE had previously raised reservations. Still, RTE did not make any child protection complaint to the Garda Síochána. Can Mr. Jeyes confirm that he said that? What were the concerns of the HSE about the three crèches? When did RTE get copies of the inspection reports highlighting the HSE concerns? What action has the HSE taken arising from the inspection reports that highlighted concerns?
People mentioned the raising of the bar with regard to qualifications of those caring for our children. Until we genuinely address the fact that we expect professional people with qualifications to mind our children for €10 an hour, we are fooling ourselves.
I am not a member of the committee but I am interested in this issue. I welcome the witnesses and officials from the Department. The Minister launched the new association, the Association of Childhood Professionals, last week and I presume the group will be at our future meetings. Early Childhood Ireland has also been a professional organisation for many years.
I must declare my interest in that I went around Ireland inspecting Montessori schools before there was any inspection regime. I lectured in Montessori colleges in Ireland. Accountability must be paramount in respect of those running and managing premises. Deputy Catherine Byrne asked where the management was in any of those situations. Qualifications are important but we cannot lose sight of the people and the small facilities that have been working forever with children. They have excellent services. The system of accreditation of prior learning, APL, must be introduced to ensure people who have worked with children all their lives and have the empathy and sympathy are recognised and that it is part of training. People have acquired master's level qualifications in recognition of APL but it has not been considered by the Department of Education and Skills in the context of childhood education. It is important it is done to ensure people working there are recognised.
In Scotland, 10% of the inspection staff come from the education Department and there is integration between it and the health Department. It should not be on one Department to supply all of the resources in early childhood care and education. Why do we call it education if the Department of Education and Skills gets off scot free without providing any funding?
Some 80% of the child's development takes place between birth and three years of age. We are losing the plot if we do not put money into the child at that age. Between three years and six years, the child needs care and education. A report from Scotland dealing with 2005, 2006 and 2007 shows integration and care and the development of a model. We must examine it.
There are so many issues and I have such short time. We must expand what we are inspecting. In 1991, I sat on the expert working group on child care along with Ms Gunning. Many of the points being made now came up then. These include physical, emotional, language, learning, family support and needs support. It is important not to lose sight of what is not regulated. This includes after-school care and au pairs. We must have the correct debate.
I congratulate the Minister on what she has done since her appointment, which has put the issue on the map. It is excellent that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs exists for the first time. It recognises that we can put children first, not on paper but in a Department. I congratulate Mr. Gordon Jeyes on his appointment. In July 2011, he said that things had changed and were seen to have changed. Accountability structures in HSE are similar to those in the Catholic Church in regard to child abuse when the HSE should be on the side of the public. It is hard to find people in the HSE on the side of the public and on the side of children. Mr. Gordon Jeyes is changing that and I welcome it.
It was a pleasure to listen to what everyone said, including elected representatives and officials. It is an ill wind that blows no good. We were all children at one stage so it is great to discuss the programme even though it was dire to watch. The ideas are getting out and hopefully something will come of it.
We are talking about two sectors, although they overlap. Early education is needed by every child and child care is another area. One of the main reasons we need child care is for when parents are doing something else. That might seem obvious but the point is that the vast majority of people do this because they need to work or want to work for variety. We cannot suspend reality when we talk about how we need to pay more to people who work in the child care sector and ignore the fact that the higher the wages, the seesaw of whether parents can go to work works against people. That must be taken into account.
Looking after children is the most important job of all as far as I am concerned. They are the future. If it is the most important job, we must have the best people to do it and pay them the best wages. However, if we pay them the best wages, how can I or my wife go out to work? There comes a point where it is not practical.
We have been here for two hours and 40 minutes but, and I never thought it would sound radical to say this, there is one matter that has not yet been mentioned, the idea that, God forbid, we might be able to look after our own children. Obviously it could not happen all the time as we have to be practical and people have to go out to certain jobs and so forth, but can we not structure society so that in the early years one can look after one's own children, if one wishes? Where have we gone that it is radical to say this? It has not been mentioned in the nearly three hours we have been in this room. We talk about child care but nobody mentioned, or it does not appear to have entered anybody's head, that there is a form of child care called looking after one's own children. Can we structure society in such a way that it is feasible to do that, if one wishes? That has been said many times to me by the people I have spoken to in the last couple of weeks. How do we do that? After all, we work to provide money for food for our children. Ultimately, it is about the children, and the work should not be the most important thing. It should be about life and not about turning life into a factory, which is what we appear to be doing.
A number of issues have been raised in this part of the discussion. Senator Hayden asked questions about child minding. It is true that most parents in Ireland make their own informal arrangements with childminders. They do not go to the more formal sector. There is an international debate about how regulated that should be. Over the last few decades we have taken the decision, for whatever reasons, that if a childminder is looking after fewer than three children, it is a private arrangement and is not subject to a huge amount of regulation. Parents have generally seemed happy with that.
A changing society and the move to more urban living, where parents perhaps do not know neighbours or do not have access to childminders they know, may well mean that this area will increasingly be the focus of a request for regulation. However, that has many implications in terms of resources and inspections. If one asks a childminder who is taking care of one child or two children to notify the authorities, what are they notifying for? Is it for inspection or a more formal registration? It raises many questions. We favoured a more informal approach when the regulations were introduced in 1991.
Of course, childminders were always encouraged. Childminding Ireland, which receives funding of approximately €300,000 from the Department, tried to encourage childminders to link with child care committees and to register. In fact, the registration has not been successful in terms of numbers. It has been very low. However, there are thousands of childminders working with child care committees, going through quality training and getting support for themselves. That has been happening, but there is scope for more of it. Of course, the child care committees work with the childminders. However, whether all childminders in Ireland should be registered is a very big decision and one that would require a degree of discussion. Other countries have taken that direction and it is certainly a possibility, one that is more likely to become a focus as we discuss the quality issues further and as parents seek more information about the quality of care. Parents have always wanted that, but they might feel that the State has more of a role with regard to childminding. Toby Wolfe's organisation Start Strong has made submissions in that regard.
However, the agenda we are discussing here today is very wide. It particularly illustrates the approach that has been taken over the years to this sector. The focus has really been on direct cash payments as opposed to building an affordable, accessible and high quality child care service, which everybody is demanding now. One cannot produce it overnight, but one can certainly begin to deal with the issues we have discussed here today - the importance of inspection, regulation and stronger sanctions, as Deputy Byrne mentioned. That is very important but Deputy Byrne also said there are very good people involved in child care, and it is very important that we make that statement today.
Deputy McLellan talked about the multifaceted response that is required. That has certainly become clear in the discussions over the last few years. The Department has a register of every child care worker, and their qualifications, in the ECCE scheme. That could be extended, and a number of members made that point today. It is something that could be considered, as well as the concept of panels. In Roscommon there has been an attempt to operate a panel system, where workers would be available when there is an urgent need for them. That could be extended as well. There is much work to be done in that area.
We need more inspectors and I am in discussions about the funding for that. It is clear there are some areas where there have been unacceptable levels of non-inspection, so we need more inspectors. We need to fill those vacancies. Undoubtedly, some redeployment will be possible but we must also examine the issue of extra funding for the sector. Clearly, extra funding will be needed for mentoring and developing the programme I discussed earlier.
Deputy Flanagan spoke about parents' choices. The point he made is very relevant in respect of giving parents the maximum opportunity to make choices about being at home or being in the workforce. We all know the economic realities surrounding that. My approach to this has always been to say that the State should give the most generous maternity leave possible, as well as parental leave and paternity leave, to ensure that parents have as much choice as possible, particularly in the early years. That has been the approach in other countries and it is one on which we should continually try to build, whereby parents will have choice in those early years as to whether to stay at home with support or to be in the workplace. Increasingly, however, the reality for many couples is that both will be working and the issue of providing high quality child care will not go away. We must address it and in addressing it we must ensure that the quality issues we have been discussing and which were so starkly illustrated in the "Prime Time" programme are dealt with.
We know the various initiatives that must be taken but they are resource intensive at a time when we are borrowing €1 billion per month. It is a huge challenge but many initiatives are being taken that will make a difference.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
In response to Deputy Doherty, I did not use the word "targeted" but in reviewing nearly all of the inspection reports, RTE clearly chose those particular crèches to visit because of concerns raised in the reports relating to management, staffing, Garda vetting and regulation No. 5 in terms of health and welfare in each of the instances. Clearly, our follow-up work with them at that time was insufficient. It is one of the things that is illustrated in this relationship between the challenge and monitoring of inspection and the responsibility for improvement and support, as well as the complexities of enforcement, as discussed. I can confirm that we did not receive any other child protection notifications for us to consider until receiving them from parents on the weekend that they were informed, beginning on 17 May.
Ms Fiona McDonnell:
In respect of management and staffing, Garda vetting and the regulation on child welfare and development of the child, all three services had difficulty. They did not have full compliance, but it would be unfair to say that a lot of services struggle with these two regulations. We put a great deal of focus on supports for providers to assist compliance. With Garda vetting specifically, we have changed our inspection regime and made it more explicit regarding what we look for in management and staffing. We are looking for Garda vetting and police clearances that previously might not have been requested.
We would also like validated references to be in place and verification of qualifications. They were weak in regard to Garda vetting but they were in process.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
With regard to the other points, I am almost nostalgic for Scotland. In 2005, Scotland was having the same debate, namely, a debate on what it believed its early-years service was. Those in the education sector were not exactly putting their hands up to volunteer to participate. I was at that time Scotland's sole integrated director of services. What I describe affects the early-years sector because it is not just an education sector, a care sector or a health sector; it is all of these, and one cannot distinguish one from the other.
I get irritated when the sector is called the pre-five sector because four-year-olds deserve the right to be four; being four is not a preparation for being five. It is a matter of standing up for the right to be four. In some ways, this reflects back on the sector. We cannot quite work out whether it is about keeping them away so we can work, or whether it is about their socialisation. The balance between the private transaction that families want and the common good must be borne in mind. The debate is welcome as it will ensure Irish society as a whole will be clear on what is important to it in regard to early-years education and where it is desirable to pitch investment. For me, this underpins much of the work I am doing right across the sector. Irrespective of whether one is dealing with children in special care or children in foster placements, it is about the attitude to children and respect for them. It is about trying to come to terms with that in an Ireland that has coped with change at an enormous speed. It is now declining and reflecting back to a particular period when change happened very rapidly, when Dublin expanded and extended families and inner-city links were broken. These were the great strength of Irish communities. Family patterns have changed because of the new Irish and various practices, and it is to these that staff and others must adjust. It is that context that chief executives and others need guidance and advice on resources and top priorities. It is in this area that this debate is invaluable, but at the end of it we need to have clarity of responsibility and clarity regarding society's priorities.
Ms Irene Gunning:
Deputy Flanagan referred to care and education. Whatever we do, we do not want a split between care and education because they go together. We, as the adults, provide the care and education while the children learn and develop. Regardless of what we provide, the children develop all the time. Positively or negatively, they learn all the time. What we must do is provide the relationships for them to do so. It is a choice between parental care and centre-based child minding. From brain research, we know that children only learn. Small babies learn. I have heard people question whether we need education for babies. Babies are the ones who are learning rapidly. They learn only within an emotional environment that is conducive to that learning. It has to be a nice, emotional environment in which they are seen as centre stage. This must be emphasised.
Many of us would like to see collective retraining of inspectors in order to augment their expertise in early childhood development.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
In Scotland, there is a police vetting passport-type system. This may make Mr. Jeyes even more nostalgic. Our Irish Garda vetting system is such that one could find oneself seeking Garda vetting from five different organisations. This has led to a very congested system. In Scotland, there is a passport-type system, and the passport travels with the individual for a defined period. A key issue with regard to many breaches pertaining to Garda vetting compliance is that there are now very many international staff working in services. It is virtually impossible to secure Garda vetting for many of them because we do not have agreements with their countries.
Let me return to the school-age child care issue. If we want to have quality school-age child care, we must have appropriate levels of capitation when the Government is funding the CETS programme. The levels of capitation for the current programme are grossly inadequate. The Department of Social Protection is funding that measure as a Labour-enhancement measure. I hope this discussion will lead to the leveraging of more funds from the Department.
Mr. Toby Wolfe:
There are just two questions on which I would like to pick up. The first concerns the possibility of tax relief. Whatever funding is put in place, be it through the free preschool year, CETS scheme or tax credits, it is critical that quality be linked to any funding measure, as was clearly evident in the "Prime Time" programme. Irrespective of the merits of tax credits, a mechanism has to be in place to ensure that only quality services will give rise to tax credit entitlements.
On the question of supports for parents, I agree that many parents are struggling financially and with the difficulty of achieving a work-life balance. Sometimes parents struggle in their parenting role also. If we are to develop a comprehensive national strategy for children's early years, it must address the circumstances of children in all settings, including centre-based services, childminding facilities or informal care. It must set out ways in which we can support parents at home. Specifically, the extension of paid parental leave beyond the six months of maternity leave to the period that UNICEF recommends, which is at least one year, should be included so children under one will not need to be cared for outside the home. Second, work-life balance measures should be catered for. A right to request flexible work is a critical measure that would not incur a cost but which would empower parents to ask for flexible working arrangements. It is critical to ensure there is a national plan for the delivery of parenting supports. It would support parents in their parenting role.
We agree that staff need to be well qualified and that if they are to be well qualified, they will have to be well paid. Could someone suggest practically how this could be afforded? Why are there no men working in this sector?
Senator van Turnhout mentioned the national vetting bureau legislation that was introduced earlier this year. It is not possible at present for an individual to apply for a Garda vetting. If I were a childminder minding only two children, it should be possible for me to obtain Garda vetting in my own right. Allowing for this throughout the entire child care service would be useful.
Senator van Turnhout made a proposal regarding revisiting these measures in six months. We will discuss that on Thursday morning. In principle, we agree with the proposal.
I thank everybody for attending. I apologise for keeping everybody here until 8 p.m. but this was a very important discussion. It is important that committee members reassure parents and guardians that we have a very good child care system, a Minister who is very much concerned about bringing about change and officials who are responsible and accountable. There is a need for change, and this will happen. I compliment RTE on its programme. The exposé was required. The committee will revisit this matter on Thursday morning.