Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 10 July 2013
Committee on Health and Children: Select Sub-Committee on Children and Youth Affairs
Estimates for Public Services 2013
Vote 40 - Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Revised)
The only item on the agenda of the Select sub-Committee on Children and Youth Affairs today is consideration of Revised Estimate for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The Dáil ordered that the following Revised Estimate for public services be referred to the committee for its consideration: Vote 40 - Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and her officials, Mr. Jim Breslin, Secretary General; Ms Moira O'Mara, Ms Marie Kennedy, Mr. Dan Kelleher and Mr. Gordon Gaffney, to consider the Revised Estimate and the supplementary performance information on the outputs and impact of programme expenditure. A draft programme was sent to members. Is the timetable agreed to? Agreed.
A copy of an explanatory memorandum on each Vote was also circulated to each member. I call on the Minister to make her opening remarks.
I thank the select sub-committee for inviting me to discuss the 2013 Revised Estimate - Vote 40 - for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The Revised Estimate for 2013 allocates gross funding to my Department of over €439.1 million which includes over €413.346 million in current funding and €25.76 million in capital funding. When appropriations-in-aid receipts of just over €5 million are taken into account, the net current funding allocated to my Department in 2013 is some €408.3 million.
The free preschool year in early childhood care and education programme has been allocated €175 million in 2013 and continues to be provided as a universal programme which is very important, giving all children equal access to free preschool education. Based on the statistics available for birth rates, there has been no decline in the number of children in the eligible age range and recent increases in birth rates indicate that the number of places will increase. The success of the programme can be seen in its high take-up rate. In total, the early child care programmes implemented by my Department make up over €260.5 million or almost 60% of its expenditure. I have had the discussion here a number of times with the committee on the amount of programmes available. Keeping these child care programmes at their current level costs the Department 60% of its expenditure.
The community child care subvention and child care education and training support schemes assist low-income parents with child care costs and came under significant funding pressures in 2012 owing to the increasing number of qualifying parents. I am pleased that the Government has increased my Department’s funding provision for child care by providing €11.5 million in 2013 for a new school age child care scheme to support parents entering employment. The scheme will commence in September. Some 6,000 after school places will be available under the scheme when fully rolled out and the Department of Social Protection is responsible for determining eligibility. The funding is expected to increase to €14 million per annum when the scheme is fully rolled out.
I am also pleased that the Government has increased my Department’s funding provision by €2.5 million to provide for the new area based response to child poverty programme. The new programme will be implemented from 2013 until 2016 and build on the learning from the three projects operated in Tallaght west, Ballymun and Darndale. We have a process under way to deal with the new applications that will be submitted. The three existing sites will continue under the new programme and, I hope, will be joined by at least three new sites later this year. As Deputies will be well aware, the programmes in place are evidence based and there is quite a piece of work to be done to ensure we learn from the three programmes on early intervention with children and families. We want to ensure the lessons learned are applied in the new projects and also mainstreamed to other services.
I am pleased to announce that the new area based programme will be co-funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies. My Department and I had approached it and asked it to continue to support the work being done. We got agreement to a €14 million investment in the area based poverty initiative in the past few weeks. The Atlantic Philanthropies will co-fund this very important work in areas of poverty, where families are under pressure and where we need to intervene in the same way that we have done in the three pilot projects.
Deputies will be aware that work is ongoing to establish the new child and family agency in terms of both organisational reforms and the preparation of the necessary legislation. Obviously the combination of HSE child welfare and protection services, family resource centres and the educational welfare services of the National Educational Welfare Board will provide a very effective starting point in ensuring supports for children and families are effective and streamlined. Deputies will be aware that €541 million has been allocated to the HSE Vote in 2013 in respect of children and family services. In addition, my Department has a further allocation of over €63.66 million in its Vote that will relate to the new agency.
My Department received a significant increase of over €19.4 million in its 2013 capital funding allocation to enable it to proceed with the Oberstown campus project that will redevelop and expand the children detention centre in Oberstown, County Dublin. As Deputies will be aware, the commencement of the project has already enabled us to ensure boys in detention are now accommodated in Oberstown rather than St. Patrick’s Institution and will allow me to end the practice of sending 17 year old boys to the institution from next year. The Government has made other announcements on the matter such as the closure of St. Patrick's Institution and that people under 18 years will no longer be sent to St. Patrick's Institution.
In addition, I am pleased that my Department’s capital funding of €5 million for child care services, youth cafés and other youth projects and the development of play and recreational facilities which is so important in giving children opportunities to develop and learn has been continued in 2013. These grant funding schemes are of major benefit to children and young people, whether in preschool services or availing of youth facilities.
With other Departments, my Department undertook a comprehensive review of expenditure in order to achieve the public expenditure savings required under the EU-IMF programme. The Department was required to contribute €41.384 million in savings in the period 2012 to 2014 and €16.028 million of these savings were required in 2013, which represented a reduction of just under 4%.
As part of the new performance accounting arrangements introduced in 2012, the subhead structure of Vote 40 is based on three new major programme areas: programme A - children and family support, programme B - sectoral programmes for children and young people, and programme C - policy and legislation. I shall give a breakdown of the €16 million savings required in 2013: €4.27 million is from programme A; €9.83 million is from programme B; and some €1.92 million is from programme C.
The current funding allocation for my Department after reduction for the 2013 comprehensive review of expenditure savings would have been of the order of €402 million. Additional savings of some €3.6 million would have arisen as a result of reduced staffing costs. However, the additional funding of €14 million provided for my Department in 2013 to support a new school age child care scheme and the area based response to child poverty programme has increased its gross current funding allocation to over €413 million. That is the correct figure.
Yes. All Departments have seen significant reductions in their Voted allocations in the past five years. As a result, there is increasingly little scope for Departments to deal with budget overruns, additional requirements or new initiatives. Despite this, the Government’s commitment to children and young people continues to be demonstrated through the new initiatives and additional funding given to my Department, as I outlined at the start of my presentation.
We have also been proactive in trying to find resources from within my existing allocation, for example, to enable the first phase of the longitudinal study Growing Up in Ireland to be completed during this year and next. Every European country conducts this type of longitudinal study and it is extremely important that we continue to get the range data that we obtain from the study. Departmental funding will allow us a third sweep of the infant cohort at age five years in 2013. Such a study is important because it will show us how five year olds have benefited, for example, from the ECCE scheme. This major study will examine how five year olds have benefited from preschool and made the transition to primary school and also how they are doing in other important indices.
All areas must find ways of meeting objectives with reduced funding. I am satisfied that services for children and young people have been accorded a high priority relative to overall reductions in public expenditure. However, it is incumbent on all of us to contribute to more cost effective delivery of public services.
As Deputies will be aware, my Department is leading a comprehensive reform of services for children and young people which encompasses all of the reports that the sub-committee will have discussed and suggested. It will bring together key services under the child and family agency. It also extends to the review and reform of the youth schemes which still have an allocation of almost €53.5 million and the school completion programme. The purpose is to achieve the best possible outcome within the resources at our disposal. I hope my statement is of assistance to the sub-committee and look forward to its input and discussion of the issues involved.
I thank the Minister for her opening remarks and I welcome the fact that the child and family agency establishment Bill will be published next week. Perhaps in answering her questions, the Minister might address that in more detail. I compliment the Minister on the St. Patrick's Institution initiative. The Ombudsman for Children will be before the full committee tomorrow.
I welcome the Minister and her officials here today. I will start on a positive note and welcome the announcement of co-funding of almost €14 million from Atlantic Philanthropies. I congratulate the Minister and her officials on that, which is very positive news, although I was not aware of it until I read the opening brief last night. The Minister has embarked on a reform agenda since taking over the new Department in February 2011, and she knows that as an Opposition party we have been supportive of many of the measures embarked upon. My concern relates to the slow pace at which some reforms are progressing.
I will not rehash the matter, but last week I highlighted some of the areas in which the Minister has failed to meet targets set by herself. Perhaps the Minister can comment more comprehensively on the promised and pending legislation? This morning in the Dáil we asked about the information and tracing Bill and I would also like to know about the Children First legislation and, as the Chairman mentioned, the new child and family support agency legislation. Will the Minister give a more detailed and realistic timeframe for the enactment of these key pieces of legislation, which are all part of her reform agenda?
I will go through the various subheads of the Vote. There is a reduction of €1.6 million for the Family Support Agency and, digging further into the matter, in 2013 there is to be a reconfiguration of services for children and families. The word "reconfiguration" always worries me, as I find it is a new term for "cutback". This is an extremely important agency which does important work in supporting the vulnerable and more marginalised in our society. Will the Minister outline where she hopes the reconfiguration will take place?
I welcome the maintenance of €170 million for the universal free preschool year. Equal access is fine as long as the child does not have a disability or special needs, but if a child has particular requirements there is no real and true equal access, as it is down to the discretion of an individual preschool as to whether it can provide a service. Recently we witnessed a reduction in funding from the HSE to support assistants in these schools, and this document does not indicate how the Department is picking up the slack. Will the Minister refer to that point?
Last week the Minister announced funding of €2.75 million to improve child care facilities. Ms Teresa Heaney, the chief operations officer with Early Childhood Ireland, stated that this was not new funding but rather a rehash of a previous announcement. She has called for ring-fenced funding for training, mentoring and inspections. I notice from the document that approval has been sought and received for new posts associated with the new child and family support agency. We need those posts, and I do not dispute them, but nowhere in the document is there confirmation of the additional inspectors required on foot of the RTE exposé or of funding being put aside to ensure that each region without an inspector will get one, particularly in the case of children in child care facilities after September.
We had a very lengthy committee meeting on foot of the RTE exposé and, at the time, the Minister spoke of having eight objectives to reassure and restore the confidence of parents, which had been shattered by the investigation. She spoke about training, reform of inspections and tougher sanctions for breaches of regulations. I am disappointed because I thought the Minister might have alluded to these in her opening address, as the matter is extremely important. The Minister is probably aware that I produced a Bill to introduce tough sanctions for people who break regulations, so could I take the liberty of asking the Minister to comment on that today?
Under the child care programme, the community child care subvention will undergo a large decrease in 2013 from 2012. In light of the fact that increasing numbers of children are eligible for this scheme, does the Minister not believe the overall process must be reviewed? Is the scheme sustainable in its current form, as it seems to be questionable? I can speak about my own constituency in Westmeath and Longford. A group that wishes to provide a community child care facility in Moate, which currently has no such facility, is ineligible for the scheme as it stands. There is an inequity, as certain areas have no access to this scheme. Funding was reduced in the previous year, so will the Minister comment on that?
There seems to have been a substantial increase in miscellaneous legal fees, based on the 2012 figure. Why has that happened? Is it a result of the challenge to the children's referendum? I hope the answer is that the increase has its basis in the raft of legislation that will come from the Department when we return in September, but I am afraid the former might be answer.
In May, Judge Ann Ryan mentioned the lack of detention facilities. I acknowledge the positives first, in the form of the capital allocation to build the facility at Oberstown. I welcome that work, and Judge Ryan acknowledged that a long-term solution is in place. For the shorter term, however, there is nothing in the figures to alleviate the problem. There were 18 cases over three weeks in which authorities could not find a detention facility for children, and there was no option for repeat offenders except to let them out again, which is worrying. I hope the Minister will be able to bring us up to speed in that regard. There may have been a staffing issue, so the Minister might be able to address that.
There is a major reduction in the area of youth organisations and services. In May this year the National Economic and Social Council report entitled The Social Dimensions of the Crisis: The Evidence and its Implications indicated that young people are hardest hit by this crisis. On top of high levels of youth unemployment and emigration from Ireland, we have the fourth highest percentage among the 28 European member states - 18.4% of young people aged 15 to 24 years - not in education, employment or training, despite significant increased demand. Despite that, youth work services designed to support young people through the crisis have had their funding cut by 30% since 2008. I accept that part of this happened in the tenure of the previous Government, but that reduction has been maintained and increased in the lifetime of this Government.
I do not think it is right. I think this area should be protected because we are talking about retraining children and young people who badly need this service. I thank the Minister and her officials again for coming in this morning. I look forward to hearing the Minister's replies. I understand we will be able to ask supplementary questions in due course.
Go raibh maith agat. I would like to apologise on behalf of Deputy Ó Caoláin, for whom I am deputising because he is tied up in the Dáil Chamber. I welcome the Minister and her officials. I am pleased that this committee has an opportunity to address these Revised Estimates. Having read the Minister's opening statement, I acknowledge that there are many positives in it. Sinn Féin welcomed the appointment of a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the establishment of a new Department. We had called for and advocated such a move for a long time. My colleague Deputy Ó Caoláin has worked diligently on children’s issues. It is fair to say that as an Opposition party we have been constructive and positive on these issues. While the appointment of the Minister and the establishment of the Department came at the worst possible time economically, it could also be argued that in economically harsh times, greater protection and enhanced representation for children is needed more than ever. In that context, the allocation of a budget of €439 million to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in 2013 is modest, albeit an increase on 2012.
As we continue to consider the implications of the Anglo Irish Bank tapes, we must contrast the pouring of tens of billions of euro in public money down that particular drain with the allocation of less than €500 million this year to the Department responsible for the children of Ireland. Some €175 million has been allocated for the free preschool year and for early childhood care and education. In this context, we must address the issues and concerns raised by a recent RTE documentary "A Breach of Trust", which concerns the failures of care in child care facilities in this State. Quite simply, State funding for child care should be more closely tied to strict adherence to regulations. This is essential if the free preschool year is to be extended to two years. The airing of the documentary and the subsequent highlighting of these issues show that breaches of regulations in crèches are widespread, often with distressing consequences for young children. The level of breaches of regulations - 75% - is very disturbing. The high incidence of crèches with inadequate staff numbers and without proper records on staff is very serious. The HSE has admitted that there is light-touch regulation and, damningly, that there is over-emphasis on the business interests of child care providers. This is not surprising given that previous Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Administrations opted for a model of child care based primarily on private, for-profit providers with minimal numbers of trained staff on low pay. They took the same approach to the care of older people.
The Minister needs to put in place a far more robust inspection regime, including more inspectors and more frequent inspections. It is totally unacceptable that across large swathes of the country, there are no assigned inspectors or totally inadequate numbers of them. It is clear that a review and reform of regulations with legislative change is necessary. There needs to be a fundamental review of the policy of depending on the private, for-profit sector for the vast majority of child care. The training and pay of child care staff needs to be upgraded. It is a sad indictment of this society that carers are so undervalued. I refer to family carers in the home and those who provide front-line care in crèches and nursing homes. The system is geared to ensure private providers make a profit at the expense of low-paid workers. Substandard care is a consequence of that. Sinn Féin has been advocating comprehensive and well-funded child care provision for a long time. In response, the Minister has spoken about new strategies, programmes and plans. Such proposals are all very well, but they will be meaningless in the absence of funding commitments. We are prepared to work in a cross-party manner to advance these issues. The new child and family support agency will take a lead role, but it must be funded and equipped to do so.
I would like to ask the Minister whether the allocation for the preschool year that has been provided for in these Revised Estimates will be linked to better regulation. Will it be more closely tied to proper compliance? What is the position regarding the proposed extension of the scheme to two years? I welcome the announcement by the Minister in her opening statement that she hopes to publish the child and family agency (establishment) Bill 2013 next week. This has been awaited for a long time. We look forward to seeing the detail of the Bill and working to achieve the best possible outcome. One of the smallest allocations in these Revised Estimates is the State contribution of €2.5 million for area-based responses to child poverty. I note the Minister's statement that the bulk of the funding for this programme - €27 million - comes from Atlantic Philanthropies. This covers just three disadvantaged areas in this State, with another three to be added next year.
In this Revised Estimate, we are allocating €2.5 million to a handful of areas to address child poverty, while in budget 2013 a full-year cut of €142 million was made to child benefit, which is the most direct and beneficial payment to families and children in poverty or in danger of poverty. I know the Minister's Department is not directly responsible for that particular cut, but she is part of the Government that imposed it. That cut and all the other cuts that are affecting families and children are regrettably undermining the Department's positive work and its future plans. In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that allocations for the free preschool year should be linked to better compliance. The Minister said she hopes to add a further three areas to the areas that are already covered in the programme. How will the new areas be selected? When will they be announced? I know that an application has been sent in from my home town. I sent a letter to the Minister in support of it. I would be interested in getting an answer in that regard.
I congratulate the Minister and her team on a successful year. In light of the constraints faced by this country, it is a measure of the commitment of the Minister and the staff of the Department that they have been able to punch above their weight in securing resources for the Department's budget. I wish the Minister well with the new family and child agency. We are all very excited about the fact that it will finally be established this year. I ask the Minister to keep up her work. We will continue to support her in any way we can.
I thank the Minister. I apologise for being somewhat late. I was reared by a family that thought one had to creep before one could walk, and walk before one could run. I think it is important to bear that in mind in the development of any service. One has to creep and then walk and then run, and then things will fall into place. While I join other speakers in welcoming this allocation, it is only the beginning of what needs to be done to help children and young people. I think the allocation in this area will have to be increased when more funds become available. I hope that will happen in the Department. I know the Minister is very committed to that. I would like to refer to two issues. Capital funding for youth cafés is provided for under children's services.
What kind of uptake has there been in this regard? That is all I really want to know. It is a very basic question. I am also concerned about the increase in the number of children in care. Although the figures we have been given regarding the number of referrals of children in welfare protection cover a nine-month period only, I think it is important to look at them. It is obvious that the number of people accessing information and advice through family resource centres - 140,000 - represents an increase on last year. Does the Department have an explanation for why people are turning to local family resource centres in greater numbers?
Yes; that is perfect. I thank all the Deputies for their comments. I will begin by responding to Deputy Troy. I would like to inform the committee that the child and family agency Bill was cleared by the Cabinet this week. It is a very large Bill with over 100 heads. I have consulted Deputy Troy on the Bill and discussed it with him. I thank him for his support for the legislation. It is the single biggest piece of public sector reform that is being carried out by this Government. Approximately 4,000 staff are being transferred to a dedicated agency for children and families. It is in line with a commitment in the programme for Government. I am pleased to have delivered the legislation and I look forward to the Second Stage debate, which I hope to introduce in the House next week. Obviously, people will have an opportunity to consider the Bill in detail on Committee and Report Stages. I thank Deputies for the support they have given the Bill. The officials in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and everybody who is involved in children's services have put a substantial amount of work into its development. As Deputies know, the legislation is coming forward now.
A shadow agency is in place with a new management team, for which I have received funding from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin. It is important to have good leadership in the new agency, which presents us with a new opportunity. It is also the first time we have had a top leadership that includes a post for quality assurance.
We will not resolve overnight the serious issues that have been raised over the decades about quality in the delivery of children's services. As Deputy Catherine Byrne noted, there is a process involved here and we are getting the foundations right. It was important to do detailed work on the Bill to ensure the foundations were strong. The legislation is now ready and I look forward to its passage through the Dáil and Seanad.
Deputy Catherine Byrne referred to the increasing numbers of people who are accessing family resource centres. This has clearly come about as a result of the socio-economic position, which has undoubtedly placed more pressure on families with the result that services of this nature are being used more. The feedback I have received from visiting many family resource centres is that they are busy and active in responding to new issues for families and providing them with support.
Deputy Troy asked about the new child and family agency. While there will be some reduction in funding, I assure the Deputy that family support will be a critical part of the new agency. What we mean when we use the term "reconfiguration" in this respect is that families will be referred to the family support side if they require family support and to the child protection side if they require child protection services. Assessment has become much sharper. Social workers inform me that the new model of assessment that has been introduced nationwide by Mr. Gordon Jeyes is delivering greater consistency. Previously, we did not have a consistent response to families. Family support is a critical part of this.
As members are aware, the board of the family support agency will no longer exist as the new agency develops. The board is an interim arrangement as we move towards the agency. I understand Norah Gibbons will shortly appear before the joint committee.
In terms of the early childhood care and education scheme, ECCE, and disability issues, I agree with Deputy Troy that this area requires further discussion and attention. We speak a great deal about support services once children enter primary school. However, we must also consider the disability services children aged under five years can access in preschool settings. We have a process in place, which Ms O'Mara will outline. This area has been neglected and is increasingly becoming an issue for providers. I compliment the many providers who work with children with disabilities and continue to provide a service. The issue of supports to children in such services is a live one. I ask Ms O'Mara to briefly discuss the current situation in regard to disability in the ECCE scheme.
Ms Moira O'Mara:
Preschool services are covered by the Equal Status Act and are required to make a reasonable accommodation for children with special needs. As far as we are aware, they appear to be doing so. One of our greatest roles in terms of policing is where parents telephone us to complain about services. This is not one of the issues they raise with us. We are also actively working to support services to be more accessible, for instance, through capital funding of €1 million which is being provided this year for this purpose.
In terms of Health Service Executive supports, it is true that in recent years the level of special needs supports being provided to children attending preschool facilities has been reduced to approximately 15 hours per week. The ECCE programme allows children with special needs to avail of the scheme over two years rather than one, meaning the 15 hours would match the service provision. This is how the parents of many children with special needs like to avail of the programme.
The Department and the Department of Education and Skills are working actively with the Health Service Executive to try to standardise the approach to supporting children with special educational needs. A number of different models can work. Standardisation would result in available resources being utilised much more effectively and we are working actively on that front.
The Department of Education and Skills established a working group some weeks ago with the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. My Department is represented on the group and the issue of access to preschool education for children with a disability is part of the agenda we will examine in the coming weeks to identify what further progress can be made in this area.
In regard to Children First, the heads of Bill are close to completion, with only a small amount of final work being done on them. I am not sure when precisely the revised heads will be passed by the Cabinet but, if possible, it will be before the end of this term. Other legislation is also in train, with substantial work being done on various adoption legislation.
I was asked about new posts and the inspectors. I am in negotiations in regard to funding for these positions. It is important to have a complete inspection service nationwide and new funding is required to provide such a service. As I stated, I am in discussions with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on that matter and in respect of the mentoring programme to which Deputy McLellan alluded.
The inspection reports will be published online. Under a memorandum of understanding agreed by the HSE, the reports will be made available on the Pobal website.
Some 55 service reports from 2011, 2012 and 2013 are to be published today. The services in question are from the mid-west region and the reports published will be the most recent available for each of the services inspected.
Yes. It is important to get the message across to parents that if they read a report about the service they and their children use, they should discuss it with their service provider. The reports were available under freedom of information legislation in any case. It is important that they are published as quickly as resources permit and are made available in a form that is suitable for online publishing.
My experience is that parents ask service providers about their most recent reports. Any good provider will want to share the inspection report with parents. As I noted, 55 service reports will be published online today. Inspectors have also been contacted by many parents in recent weeks seeking information. There is considerable interaction between parents and services.
I have also given a commitment that any new reports on inspections carried out from 1 July onwards will be published consistently on completion, which may take a number of weeks. It will take some months to publish previous reports online as this will entail some technical work.
I was asked about legal fees. The provision in 2012 was €650,000, whereas expenditure was €186,000. It is difficult to predict spending under this heading owing to the once-off nature of expenditure and the timing factors involved. The provision in 2013 is €662,000, which means the growth in the Estimate between 2012 and 2013 is marginal at only €12,000. There are a range of child care protection cases in which the Department must be represented and these give rise to legal fees.
Deputy McLellan focused on the changes required in child care services. I assure her that we are delivering the eight point plan I announced. I provided an update on the online publication of inspection reports. I agree with the Deputy on the need to strengthen the national inspection system and developments and changes in recent weeks and months. The inspection teams have been reorganised to operate at a national level.
What we had before was more of a local service, but it needed to be seen and operated as a national service. An interim national manager has been appointed, who, with the national audit of standards and quality in preschool services will identify the key themes emerging from the inspection reports.
A point was made in regard to the for-profit sector. The audit we are undertaking will clearly show trends and issues that repeat in the inspections in both the for-profit and community sectors. We did not have this kind of data previously. Now we will have it and will be in a position, when we have the audit, to see the precise trends in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors.
We are replacing the notification system with registration and this will apply to new services from 1 September this year. We are also introducing new standards for inspection. That work is almost complete and the results will be included in the guidance for future inspections. Therefore, inspectors will be inspecting against new standards. However, I would like to stress that section 5 in the current regulations require inspectors to examine the relationship with the child and the opportunities the child gets for development in these facilities. In regard to the child and family agency, that has now been approved by the Government.
On the area based initiative, a process is in place and applications have been received. Applications were accepted from area-based not-for-profit organisations which are either part of a pre-existing consortium or prepared to form one for the purpose of the initiative. In each case, the consortium must be led by an organisation with a proven track record of working with statutory and non-statutory services. The closing date was 31 May and some 50 applications were received and are currently being reviewed by the Department. There is an opportunity for a number of large initiatives, but the process also provides that groups which are not currently at that stage can get funding from this initiative to help them develop the work they are doing so that at a later stage they may be in a position to be involved in initiatives more like the one we have seen in Dublin.
The funding commitment is €14.85 million from the State over 2013-16, with matching funding from the groups. This funding will support the three existing sites and bring in at least three more. In addition, these initiatives will be built into the mainstream services. I hope to see the first new sites being announced later this year. The application process set out the criteria, but the initiative is being based objectively on deprivation levels of the area, but the applicants must also demonstrate that they are able to deliver the project. Therefore, we might have an area with a very high deprivation index, but it might not have the agencies there that are able to work together and deliver the kind of project we want to see develop under this initiative.
The issue of child benefit was raised. One of the reasons we have not had investment in child care services is because we have primarily delivered cash based payments to families. There has not been investment in what the Deputy would like to see, affordable and accessible child care. Any investment in that area pales in comparison to what we have given in direct cash benefits. The evidence in regard to cash benefits is that they are extremely important to families, but so is affordable and accessible child care. We must work on the goals of increasing investment in early years child care and of developing it as has been done in other countries. However, it is a very difficult time to be trying to do that when we are borrowing €1 billion per month.
I thank Deputy Doherty for her support. The establishment of the new child and family agency is a real opportunity to change how services are delivered, but it is a challenging time. Both Deputies Doherty and Byrne mentioned increasing numbers, and we are seeing more children coming into care. This is a decision people take with great reluctance and the increasing numbers are reflective of the increase in the child population. It is not an abnormally high number by comparison internationally. However, we have a bigger child population and this is reflected in the numbers of children coming into care. We are also seeing an increase in referrals - 44,000 this year. As I said, this is in line with the demographic increase. The number of children aged from 0 to 19 increased by 5% between 2008 and 2012 and the number of children aged four years and under increased by 13%. This increase puts pressure on all of the Department's programmes and I agree there should be more funding. It is very important we invest in young people and as the budgetary situation improves, we need to develop programmes further.
We will move onto the individual sub-heads now. Subhead A3 deals with the Family Support Agency. Are there any questions or comments on that? No. We have discussed it fairly well. Subhead A4 deals with the National Education Welfare Board. Are there any questions or comments? No. Subhead A5 deals with the school completion programme. Are there any questions or comments? No. Subhead A6 deals with the child and family support programme. Are there any questions or comments? No. Subhead A7 deals with youth justice and children detention schools. Are there any questions or comments?
I would like to reiterate the question I asked earlier. Judge Anne Ryan acknowledged a long-term solution is in hand, but with regard to the short-term solution - in terms of repeat offenders being released - the funding element of this has been reduced in comparison to 2012. Has that matter been finalised and is there capacity in the system now to deal with repeat offenders? If they are brought before the courts is there capacity to deal with them if they receive detention sentences? Have we full capacity and have we the required staff to deal with this?
In regard to St. Patrick's and Oberstown, will the Minister give us information on what is happening, particularly in view of the fact that capital expenditure of over €19.4 million is included in the Estimates in regard to these facilities? Will she give us some details on this, because tomorrow the Ombudsman for Children will be at this committee. She has legitimate concerns with regard to this and it is her right to come to the committee and voice those concerns.
The first point to be made is that the funding is in place. This is the first time any government has put funding aside in order to develop a new detention facility and take children out of St. Patrick's. There is no 16 year old child in St. Patrick's now. The Government has taken 16 year olds out of St. Patrick's and has made an announcement with regard to 17 year olds.
I compliment the staff in Oberstown on the way they have dealt with the 16 year olds who have been and are there. There is an increase in referrals from the courts. When 16 year olds were in St. Patrick's the average number of them was ten. We now have 17 detainees aged 16 in Oberstown and, as mentioned, we have been asked for beds there on a number of occasions but these have not been available. At the end of 2012, there were 203 whole-time equivalent staff in place in Oberstown. Sanction has been received to recruit a campus manager and this will support the overall development of a fully integrated single campus. We expect to fill this position in the coming months.
We have taken a situation where there were three units without a single overall management and where there was no movement of staff between the three units and have introduced a new rostering arrangement. It was expected the new rostering arrangement would create six to eight beds, but for various reasons these are still not available.
As we speak, a number of solutions are being developed with the staff to ensure that those six to eight extra beds will become available as soon as possible.
Young people move in and out of the facility all the time. There is a 24-hour response, so whenever a bed is available, it is used immediately and there is no delay whatsoever. I will approach the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of funding for some extra staff in the interim, because a number of staff have been out on sick leave for some time and that is putting pressure on the system in respect of the rostering arrangements. We will have to move to a permanent solution to get extra staff in place in Oberstown. We have already got sanction for extra staff for next year, once the facility becomes available. The contracts are always financially sensitive, so I cannot say anything about that at the moment, but planning permission and all steps necessary to ensure that construction will begin shortly are all under way and have all-----
Much work has gone on. There was a possibility of a change to the arrangements in the girls' unit, but although the numbers are currently low, it is not feasible suddenly to designate it as a male unit. We thought that might be a solution, but following further discussions with a number of bodies, it was decided not to go in that direction. We are relying on the resolution of the HR issues and getting some new staff to create those extra spaces as soon as possible.
We must understand that detention is the last resort for young people in Ireland, so it would be important to examine that increase in referrals. The courts have an absolute right to determine cases, but we need to understand the reasons for the underlying rise in referrals and what is happening at community level in terms of supervision and Garda diversion programmes. We have 100 such programmes, which are very effective. We will address this area as well.
I thank the Minister for her reply and I acknowledge that the long-term solution is at hand. Is she worried about the short-term solution, based on what Judge Ryan said? I acknowledge that detention is the last resort, but some of these offenders are repeat offenders and detention is the only resort. It is slightly worrying that in spite of the acknowledgment of this in May, we are now in July and the matter has not been resolved. I acknowledge the Minister's undertaking to go back to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Is it only a staffing issue, or are there other issues that need to be resolved?
I appreciate the urgency of this and I take it with the utmost seriousness when we cannot provide a bed for young people whom the courts wish to refer. Every effort is being made by the management team in Oberstown and by the IYJS, which has responsibility for this area in my Department, and by the board, chaired by Mr. Joe Horan. They have done a great amount of work with the staff.
Progress has been made in getting that new roster. There were two and a half years of negotiations, which ended in a Labour Court recommendation. The staff have co-operated with that. Historical practices have to be changed and are being changed, with the co-operation of the staff. The Haddington Road agreement applies as well, so there is an increase in the hours that are expected. That should help in respect of rosters and bed availability as well, along with funding for extra staff. The combination should lead to those extra places being available, and I will ensure that they are available as soon as possible. No effort is being spared in trying to arrive at a solution.
There was no problem providing bed spaces last year or at the beginning of this year. In recent weeks there has been an increase in the referrals, and that was hard to predict because figures for juvenile crime in Ireland are going down. Fewer offences are being committed by young people in all areas, including in anti-social behaviour. However, we are getting this group of young people aged 16 to 17 that the courts are referring for detention. We will make every effort to ensure those beds are available as soon as possible.
I raised the reduction in this area in my opening contribution. An inequity arises now because certain towns and certain areas currently have a community programme in place, but this is not open to new applicants. Given the increase in the number of unemployed and those in receipt of medical cards and family income supplement, we are going to see an increase in the number of people eligible for this scheme. Does the Minister think it is time to review the scheme in order to put it on a sustainable footing?
I think the preschool year for children with disabilities is under this subhead as well. I disagree with Ms O'Mara's analysis, with all due respect. I think parents would rather see two years of preschool for a child with a disability. In some jurisdictions, the HSE used to supplement a second free preschool year. It is now divided between two years. Does the Minister see any potential for introducing a second preschool year for children with a disability? I asked a parliamentary question last week and was amazed at the reply that only 270 children have applied to split the subsidy over two years. I thought that was a remarkably low figure at national level. I would have equated that to one or two constituencies, and I wonder why there is such a low figure. Would the Minister be happy that such a figure is accurate?
A total of 26,800 places are currently being subsidised under the community child care subvention scheme, or CCS. That is up from around 25,000 last year, in spite of the fact that the scheme overspent by €4.8 million in 2012. More children are being subsidised at the lower rate of €50 per week, instead of the €95 rate, because their parents are in low-income employment. In addition, more children are attending on a part-time basis, which halves the cost per child. That is a choice that parents are making if they are not working now or are working part time and their hours are reduced. The 26,800 places equate to 10,000 full-time equivalent places. I will ask Ms O'Mara to make some further comments on the schemes and on the disability question.
Ms Moira O'Mara:
We are reviewing the CCS at the moment, and it is a scheme that was originally introduced in 2008. The child care landscape has changed over the years. This comes back to the point of whether we need additional community services around the country. We probably do need them in individual areas, but we have 950 in the CCS and we are trying to sustain our existing services at the moment, because of the major fall off in the use of child care by parents. The number of children and the cost to subsidise those children vary from year to year, depending on their circumstances. At the moment, the bulk of them are for parents who are in employment but who qualify because they have medical cards. That is at the cheaper rate than for the more disadvantaged parents.
We have looked at the question of a second preschool year for children with special needs, or even a second year for everybody. The overall policy objective would be to continue to have a mainstream approach and have all children availing of what is out there. When we get to the stage where the quality agenda is delivered, we can see about extending the preschool year. I was not aware of the statistic on the number of children currently availing of the year on a split basis.
I think it would have been higher in previous years. I will have a look at it and see why.
Ms Moira O'Mara:
I would be surprised by it, too. I will look into it. It is true that because it was a half year when the programme started in January 2010 we allowed parents of children with special needs to have a year and a half. That was a one-off provision in order that they would not fall short. A mainstream approach to all children having equal provision is probably better for all children and feeds into their transition to primary school. It comes back to the point about the working group in which we are participating and the new high level group, to which the Minister referred, that we are joining.
This is an area that the working group set up to examine the issue of special needs can consider. More attention is being paid to the preschool sector, special needs and disability. It is hard to know what the complex reasons are for the figure of 250. It is interesting. Where else are these children accessing preschool services? Are they obtaining them privately or what arrangements are parents who can afford it making? Then there is an issue for parents who cannot afford any service; therefore, it does raise that question about children and the pre-primary school settings they are in, if any.
In respect of the child care capital grants we announced, it was incorrect to say it was not new money. It is new money. It is the first time this has been announced. It is a new capital programme for this year. It is extra money for the sector. I brought back the capital funding last year. It had been cut for the previous three years and, obviously, it is heavily oversubscribed, but I am pleased that we were able to have that €2.5 million as a support for services around the country to improve accessibility, play and recreation and general standards in facilities. It absolutely is new money; it is not money that has been announced before.
Can I be so bad as to suggest the cut in subhead B6 has led to the problem of anti-social behaviour by youths and an increase in children coming before the courts and ultimately going into detention centres? This subhead funds many of the projects and organisations which do so much of the good work done in marginalised areas where there are particularly vulnerable children. When that funding is reduced, one sees a decline in the services that can be provided. Unfortunately, the knock-on effect of reduced intervention at an early age will see children going down the route we do not want to see them taking. In the light of this the Minister might reconsider this proposal. I understand budgets are tight and that we are in a very precarious financial position, but because the funding for these projects is being cut back and there is no intervention and supports within their communities there is an increase in the number of children coming before the courts from marginalised and vulnerable areas.
This morning at a meeting of the Select Committee on Health and Children the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, referred to a review by his Department of the local and regional drugs task forces. Can the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs comment on the relationship between her Department and the Department of Health and the joined-up approach they take to these task forces?
I do not absolutely agree with Deputy Robert Troy. Many programmes and youth services have adjusted to their budgets. Most have told me that the cutback has not affected their programme of work with young people. I do not know what the figures are, but when I talk to people on the ground who are working in the services, they say they have a reduced budget and are using other initiatives to work with young people. They are not leaving them short of services or hours.
The Chairman mentioned the local drugs task forces. I am quite critical of the drugs services, particularly the national drugs task force model. I have said locally and again at the meeting this morning that we need a new model. I really believe the task forces are not doing what they should be doing. When they were first set up, they worked with families and locally, but now they have become large empires and organisations and there is a huge difference between the work they did when they started in the 1970s and what they are doing now. I told the Minister for Health this morning that I hoped with this new programme there would be a reconfiguration of these task forces because the people affected by them, particularly drug users or those on methadone, were not getting the service that they deserved. I would like to see them back under the umbrella of the HSE or to see a programme put in place somewhere in the medical service, particularly through GPs who have a lot to give to a programme for people on methadone. I hope this comes out in the study.
On youth funding, I have been chairing the meetings of the EU Council of Youth Ministers in the past six months. It is very clear that, by international standards, our youth work sector is very well funded by comparison with those in some other countries. There is no indication in the feedback we get from youth services that fewer young people are accessing services. They have reformed and changed administrative and pay costs and the figures we have show the same number of young people accessing services, for example, no service has closed. They have adjusted with some difficulty. I am not saying it has been easy for the youth sector. However, I am very impressed by the quality of the interventions made all over the country and the services the youth sector is providing. We are very fortunate to have such a good youth sector. If we were not borrowing €1 billion a month, the Government, I am sure, would want to invest further in youth services.
The successful negotiation of the youth guarantee of €8 billion to be put up front in the EU budget in the next two years offers an opportunity for the youth sector if it can organise and make applications for funding. Youth services can do much of the pre-employment work that needs to be done with young people in terms of confidence-building and developing skills, which is so important for employers. One of my priority goals during the Irish Presidency was to make sure youth work was seen as making a contribution to youth employment. The Government will work on initiatives and programmes to be delivered in the youth guarantee in the next few months. It does provide an opportunity for the youth sector.
In response to Deputy Catherine Byrne’s point on the drugs task forces, I am aware that she has a lot of experience and interest in this area and I am sure the Minister for Health will take her points on board. We do fund some services in that area also and will be working jointly with the Minister for Health on these issues.
Are there comments or questions on subhead B7, early intervention programme for children, dormant account funding; subhead B8, childhood poverty initiative or subhead B9, early child care payment?
Are there questions or comments on subhead C3, miscellaneous legal fees and settlements; subhead C4, national longitudinal study; subhead C5, national children's strategy and programmes; subhead C6, grants to organisations part-funded by the national lottery; subhead C7, Adoption Authority of Ireland? I compliment the Minister on her initiative regarding inter-country adoption. The committee supports the important work she has done in that regard.
I wish to personally thank the Minister for doing the work that I asked her to do regarding certain adoption issues. It is important for us to know that she is our advocate and strong voice internationally. On behalf of everyone, I thank her.
My query also relates to subhead C5. Has the Minister any idea of how many grants have been availed of by organisations? How much grant funding has been paid out, particularly to organisations that work with young people? Is the figure stated in the Estimates the overall figure?
Yes, but let me double check. I beg the Deputy's pardon, last year's funding has gone out but this year's has not been opened yet. I thought she meant the one that I was reporting on.
I have a reason to ask the Minister about the grant. Last year a playground needed a lot of improvements so I went to many local child care groups to ask would they apply for funding but none of them took up the offer which puzzled me. The playground is still in need of repair but it is in a park that belongs to the council. Does that have anything to do with it?
Obviously the child care capital grants would be the place. We have given out funding and I hope the same funding will be available next year. We did give out funding for capital grants to improve play group spaces. There might be a particular issue because the playground is in a park, as opposed to a centre. It probably falls under the remit of the council as opposed to our grounds.
Subhead C8 details the cost in connection with the holding of a constitutional amendment of children's rights. Is subhead C8, Office of the Ombudsman for Children, agreed? Agreed. Is subhead D, appropriations-in-aid, agreed? Agreed.
I thank the Minister, Mr. Jim Breslin, Ms Moira O'Mara, Mr. Gordon Gaffney, Mr. Dan Kelleher and Ms Marie Kennedy for attending this afternoon