Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 21 January 2014
Committee on Health and Children: Select Sub-Committee on Children and Youth Affairs
Estimates for Public Services 2014
Vote 40 - Children and Youth Affairs (Revised)
I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, and her officials to the meeting and thank them for the briefing supplied to the committee. I remind the Minister's officials that as this is a select committee meeting they may not participate in the debate and are here only to be of assistance to the Minister, if required. I mention this because the committee secretariat was suitably admonished recently for allowing interventions by officials at a previous meeting of the Select Sub-Committee on Health. Under Standing Orders, officials are not permitted to contribute to the debates of select committees. I remind everybody to switch off their mobile telephones.
The purpose of this meeting is consideration of the 2014 Revised Estimates for Public Services: Vote 40 - Department of Children and Youth Affairs. As Members will be aware, the 2014 Revised Estimate was presented to the Dáil in the new programme-based format. This means that the Revised Estimate, as presented, contains the following information for each programme: how it is proposed to spend the money allocated to this programme and the previous year's outturn in each case; the number of staff assigned to work on the programme and how this compares with the previous year; performance-related information; departmental outputs, again with corresponding information for previous years; and what are termed "performance" and "impact" indicators with previous years' information. Administrative expenditure for the Vote as a whole is summarised in more detail than was previously the case.
The Revised Estimate provides us with an opportunity to review whether targets set and the distribution of moneys across the Vote for 2014 are appropriate in all the circumstances and demonstrate best use of resources. It also provides us with an opportunity to explore issues facing the Minister in terms of the allocation for 2014. A timetable for the meeting has been agreed and circulated. It allows for the Minister and all spokespersons to make a ten minute opening statement, which will be followed by a debate on the 2014 Revised Estimate, with questions on each programme listed therein. As this is the Minister's first appearance before us this year, I take this opportunity to wish her and her officials a happy and prosperous new year and invite her to make her opening statement.
I thank the committee for this opportunity to discuss the 2014 Revised Estimates for Vote 40 of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
Under the Revised Estimates for 2014, my Department has been allocated funding of €997 million, which includes more than €955 million in current funding and €42 million in capital funding. When appropriation-in-aid receipts of just over €22.8 million are taken into account, the net current funding allocated to my Department in 2014 is €974.3 million. This level of funding represents an increase of more than €558 million on the 2013 Estimate of €439 million. I will explain the reason for this increase later, but it is due largely to the establishment of the Child and Family Agency.
Under 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; programme B – sectoral programmes for children and young people; and programme C – policy and legislation. The largest single component of the increase in the Vote for this year is the establishment of the new Child and Family Agency which, I am glad to say, took effect on 1 January 2014. This is a historic development and a significant milestone in the programme of this Government to fundamentally reform the delivery of services to vulnerable children and families. The level of funding allocated to the agency is over €602 million in current funding and €6.8 million in capital spending. As Deputies will be aware, the key tasks facing the agency include achieving a better management and consistency of approach so as to deliver a world-class Irish service model of child welfare and protection. We all know the legacy. The challenge now is to provide that world class services. While this will not be provided overnight, we are well on the road to achieving it. The establishment of the agency brings together key services relevant to children and families, including child protection and welfare and education services previously provided by the HSE, the Family Support Agency and the National Education Welfare Board. The challenge now is implementation. As I stated, reform of services for children and families will not be achieved overnight and requires a sustained effort to address weaknesses.
The 2014 Estimates provision is for expenditure due for payment in the current year and will not go towards meeting any over-spending or deficits arising in previous years. I acknowledge that there are significant demands on the services for which the Child and Family Agency is responsible. These arise from demographic and social factors, such as alcohol and drugs, and from the fact that people are now more aware of how important it is to intervene and do the best for children. In recognition of these demands, the Government made an additional provision in budget 2014 of €6.7 million, rising to €12 million in a full year, to support the major reform of child welfare and protection services, which is under way. This additional investment will support ongoing reforms which are aimed at improving the quality and capacity of child protection welfare services in response to the historic legacy of failings highlighted in numerous reports and in response to increased demand in child protection referrals. We all know that referrals increased by almost a third in 2012 and 2013 to more than 40,000. It appears at this point that referrals will continue to increase going forward. Our population has increased and the number of children going into care is reflective of that increase. By international standards, we have relatively low numbers of children in care.
I have issued a performance statement to the agency under the Child and Family Act 2013 setting out overall priorities for 2014, and specifically the priorities for the deployment of the additional resources provided. The agency is currently finalising its business plan for 2014. The plan was discussed by the agency's board last week and I expect to receive it shortly. The business plan will detail the use the agency will make of the resources available to it and its plans to recruit key additional staff based on the additional funding provided in the budget. I wish the board of the new agency, led by Ms Norah Gibbons, and all of the staff of the agency, led by the chief executive, Gordon Jeyes, well. A huge amount of work, in terms of establishment of the agency, has been completed, not least by the staff of my own Department. A HR programme has now been put in place following consultation with the trade unions, employers and staff. The transition of the 4,000 staff has been completed and the budget has been separated out.
The free preschool year is expected to cost €175 million in 2014. This is a universal programme and expenditure arising is a function of the number of children in the eligible age range. I was pleased to learn recently from the latest published tranche of the Growing up in Ireland, GUI, study on children aged five in this country that their transition to primary school had in the main been very successful. The researchers also commented on the value of the preschool year in terms of preparing children for school. This information is very helpful. This is the first time we have had a group of children studied in this detail who have made the transition to school having availed of the free preschool year. Some 68,000 or 94% of children eligible for the free preschool year are benefiting from it. Participating service providers are required to implement Síolta and Aistear as much as possible. It is a fundamental principle of the programme that the preschool year is available free to parents.
I am glad we have been able to continue to provide that and obviously I hope to develop it, as I have often said previously.
Funding of child care programmes continues to be a major item of expenditure for the Department. The funding allocation for 2014 amounts to €79.129 million, comprising current expenditure of €75.879 million and capital expenditure of €3.250 million. We subsidise the cost of child care for parents with low income and those who are accessing education and training programmes. We provide for this in the community child care subvention, CCS, and child care education and training support, CETS, programmes, which continue to be rolled out every year. At the meetings of this committee we have commented on the importance of child care to families, and we are anxious to continue the programmes we have. We have been able to achieve some developments as well.
An additional €4 million has been made available to this subhead in 2014 to support the quality agenda for preschool services. Members of the committee are aware, as we have discussed this several times, of the range of actions that have had to be taken in respect of quality in the preschool sector. We are making progress on a number of those elements. That includes legislation to provide for a registration system for preschool services in Ireland, and I thank Deputies in the committee who supported the legislation in the House before Christmas. A further €500,000 in additional funding is being made available to provide for the recruitment of additional preschool inspectors. The Child and Family Agency will work on that. There are a number of preschool inspection reports on the website. The legislative change provided for the statutory registration of preschool services. There are new enforcement powers for the inspectors and there are increased penalties at District Court level for any offence under the Act. The process also involves the preparation of new national preschool quality standards, the recruitment of additional inspectors and increasing the minimum qualification requirements for staff working in preschool services.
The area based childhood programme, co-funded by my Department and Atlantic Philanthropies, will receive an allocation of €4 million in 2014. This is an increase of €1.5 million over the 2013 allocation. It is worth noting that this budget allocation is going to areas where there are huge needs and where children and families need support. I am pleased that this Government has been able to provide a budget of almost €30 million over the period 2013 to 2016. It is half funded by the Department and half funded by Atlantic Philanthropies. I was very pleased to get support from that body because it is finishing its work in this country. It is a recognition of the work that has already been done by the various community groups around the country in this programme that Atlantic Philanthropies has agreed to continue it over the next three years. We will continue with a range of programmes to address literacy, speech therapy, parenting, health and pro-social behaviour. That is being done already in the three sites, Tallaght, Ballymun and Darndale. It will continue in those sites and will be expanded to the extra sites. All of the announcements have been made in that regard. Thirteen sites have entered the programme design stage, which will involve finalising the proposals, to allow them proceed to drawdown and delivery. Service provision will begin to be effective during 2014.
I will comment briefly about progress on the national children's detention facility. The objective is to provide sufficient facilities to enable the child care model of detention to be extended to all under 18 year olds who are ordered to be detained by the courts. That has been a priority for me since my appointment. We do not wish to have young children in a prison setting and the Government has made a decision to provide the capital and resources to develop that project. It is on track to deliver the three new units by the end of 2014. The timetable has been adhered to since the developers went on site. The total multi-annual capital funding for the project is over €56 million and €31 million is being provided in 2014. It will be complete in 2015. We must replace some of the older buildings. The existing detention buildings used by Oberstown Boys School will be replaced with improved education, recreation, security and other facilities. The new manager has been appointed for the facility and I will bring forward the legislation to bring the three units together - the legislation is at a very advanced stage - and to make some other changes in respect of detention.
The national longitudinal study will be continued in 2014, as well as some other research programmes. It is really important that we have data about Irish children and that we are not relying on data from other countries. The longitudinal study has given us a huge amount of data over the last number of years about the progress of Irish children. We can see that approximately 80% of Irish children are doing extremely well on a range of variables, but there is a group of children who are more vulnerable and we must target and work with those young people.
I achieved agreement in budget 2014 to reduce the 2014 saving that had been envisaged by the comprehensive review of expenditure, CRE, for youth services. That has gone from €2.968 million to €1.968 million. That is very significant because Deputies here have expressed concern on many occasions about reductions in funding to youth services. Effectively, it has meant this year that instead of facing reductions of 7% to 10% in income, it is a 3.5% reduction across the board. The youth organisations have told me that this has made a huge difference to them and that they will be able to manage it. It is a help to them in terms of providing front-line services that the extra €1 million that was allocated in the budget for youth services has meant a reduction in the savings that were expected from them.
We have a very full work programme. I am anxious to build on the good work that has been done by both voluntary and State organisations for young people, to continue to reform services and to ensure we deliver the services in the most effective way. There will continue to be reports highlighting areas where improvements can be made. That is the reason we have asked HIQA to inspect so many services. When one reads the HIQA reports one can see improvements in certain areas, and it continues to highlight areas that must be addressed.
I hope this statement is of assistance to the committee and I look forward to the members' input and discussion on these issues.
I welcome the Minister and her officials. I acknowledge that a number of positive developments have taken place in the Department in the past 12 months. We have finally seen the establishment, on a legal basis, of the Child and Family Agency from 1 January this year. I wish both the board and the staff well in their new roles. It is a reform that was broadly supported by all sides of the House.
I note from the Minister's statement that the deficit is not being carried forward. However, last week at a committee meeting her colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, had a different view regarding the deficit. In response to a question from Senator van Turnhout he indicated that the deficit would have to be partly borne by the Minister's Department. I do not have the exact quote with me but I can forward it to the Minister and perhaps she would confirm the position.
I still have worries about some of the key services which have not come under the remit of the new Child and Family Agency, such as child and adolescent mental health, public health nurses and children of preschool age with disabilities who remain under the remit of the HSE. This is despite the Minister's advisory group recommending that they should come under the remit of the Child and Family Agency. Will the Minister identify when she hopes to bring these much needed and critical services under its remit?
The voluntary sector has received bad press in the last number of weeks, rightly in the case of the Central Remedial Clinic, CRC. However, many voluntary bodies are providing good services for the State, where the State is not doing its duty. Will the Minister identify how many voluntary and not-for-profit organisations will be working directly for the Child and Family Agency? Are we sure that the money allocated by the State to these agencies will go to the services that are required?
It is important we learn from the mistakes identified in the past week.
The business plan for 2014 must be published by 30 January of this year. Will we have an opportunity to debate it? Recruitment of additional staff has been mentioned in the plan. Where will they be deployed? Obviously front-line staff such as social workers should be recruited.
More than 12 months ago I identified and highlighted the need to improve the quality of the free preschool year. Nothing was done until the RTE "Prime Time" exposé highlighted major deficiencies in the preschool year initiative, but I acknowledge that the Minister has made improvements in the area. Earlier the Minister said: "Participating service providers are required to implement Síolta." When will the requirement be implemented? It should only be implemented after the national roll-out of training. It would be unfair for the requirement to be imposed on the services before the national roll-out of training.
With regard to the child care programmes, the Minister has said that additional inspectors have been recruited. Can she confirm that all regions now have a full-time inspector? How many new inspectors does she envisage hiring this year? In the last tranche of advertisements for the positions, recruitment was restricted to public health nurses. Why? We have debated the matter at Question Time in the Dáil and the Minister agreed that the position of inspector should be opened to professionals from the early years sector.
With regard to the national preschool quality standards, is the Minister aware that there is a conflict between regulation and legislation? Is she aware that data protection legislation does not allow training agencies to pass Garda clearance to third parties? The matter is of major concern to service providers. It means that if I worked in the early childhood sector, gained a FETAC level 5 qualification and Garda clearance was sought for me, the Garda clearance could not be passed to the service provider that wishes to give me a job. The provision has caused major havoc. Is the Minister aware of the situation? How will she tackle the problem?
I welcome the Minister's assertion that the national children's detention facility is on target. Last September there was an issue about the lack of places, and the problem persists. I know she was involved in intensive talks with the service providers about the matter and HR issues. Have the issues been resolved?
For the past number of years at budget time the Minister has identified key outputs that she wishes to achieve in the coming years. In 2012 and 2013 one of her key outputs was to develop an early years strategy. I am somewhat surprised she did not mention it in her contribution today. When will the early years strategy be published?
My party agrees and supports her wish to pass legislation in the Dáil. As part of her reform agenda she has mentioned critical legislation such as the Children First Bill. In fact the legislation was one of the first aims she identified when she was appointed Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in March 2011, which is almost three ago. She said that it was an agreed priority that the Children First guidelines would be put on a statutory basis. Children remain in vulnerable situations due to the legislation not being enacted. I am surprised she did not identify it in her contribution today. I would appreciate it if she would identify when she will be in a position to bring the legislation through the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Two other key pieces of legislation are the adoption Bill and adoption information and tracing Bill. I compliment the Minister and the Government on acting in a compassionate manner prior to Christmas when we dealt with adoption legislation. It was the right thing to do and I advocated the move as far back as August or September of last year.
I understand we must wait until judicial proceedings are finalised following a challenge to the children's rights referendum before the adoption Bill can be dealt with by the Oireachtas. Can the Minister give a timeframe for when this key legislation will come before the Oireachtas? The adoption information and tracing Bill is other key legislation that was promised by the Government and yet remains to be seen.
Prior to Christmas the Government rapporteur, Dr. Shannon, appeared before the committee. On that occasion he highlighted the abuse and misuse of alcohol as being the single most important issue in and contributing factor to the neglect and abuse of children. He called upon the Members of the Oireachtas and the Government to act in a decisive and comprehensive manner to bring about legislation to ban the advertisement of alcohol because he felt the issue was so serious. There are conflicting and opposing opinions in Cabinet on the banning of alcohol advertising. I would welcome the Minister's opinion on the matter. Can she indicate if the ban on alcohol advertising is something-----
The Minister mentioned alcohol. The debate is my opportunity to respond and ask her about key issues. The Chairman was present for the meeting before Christmas and will know how forcefully the independent rapporteur spoke about the issue. Today's meeting is the first opportunity that I have had to ask the relevant Minister about the matter. It is only right and proper that I pose the question.
Every year the Government rapporteur on child protection produces a comprehensive report. I have asked the Minister and ask her again to provide an implementation plan for his report. The rapporteur's recommendations should not be left on a shelf and forgotten about. We need an implementation plan that is based on the recommendations in his report.
Before I call Deputy McLellan I acknowledge that the former Deputy and Leader of the Seanad, Donie Cassidy, is seated in the Visitors Gallery. He is very welcome and I thank him for being here. I call Deputy McLellan.
I welcome the Minister and her team and thank them for their presentations. I also apologise on behalf of Deputy Ó Caoláin who unfortunately could not attend. He asked me to substitute for him this evening.
The backdrop of the Estimates has been revealed, at least in part, by the latest "What's Left" tracker produced by the Irish League of Credit Unions and published today. It showed that around 1.6 million people have €100 or less at the end of the month once all of the bills have been paid. The figure has dropped by more than 100,000 people when compared with last September's figure, which is welcome. None the less it is a very large number. The group includes people who have less than €100 and simply cannot make ends meet. Issues of income inequality and poverty, particularly child poverty, continue to play a significant role in determining the demand on services provided by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. There is a strong relationship between inequality levels and demand on services. It would be remiss of me not to raise this broader point at the outset. The mantra goes "We are where we are", but I must add that we are where we are for a reason. Broader economic conditions have, in real terms, affected the Department's budget just it has for every other Department. Vital supports and interventions that have a real and meaningful impact on the lives and outcomes for some of the most vulnerable people in our society will be diminished. This is the reality. However, we are expected to be grateful they have not diminished by more.
I have some queries on individual subheads that I will raise under questions. At this point I note that the 2014 gross funding allocation for the provision of services under Vote 40 is €997.154 million and is up from €439.106 million last year.
In the meantime, there has been considerable reorganisation in the Department, including with the establishment of the Child and Family Agency. I would like to get a sense of the real net gain or loss, as the case may be, to the overall budget for child services and if assurances could be provided that adequate funding will be available for the new Child and Family Agency and that it is not carrying forward any HSE debt. This would be most desirable.
I wish the Minister, her officials and those with new responsibilities in the Child and Family Agency the very best in the year ahead. I understand the Minister is doing her best in very difficult circumstances. It is very important work.
That is fine.
I thank both Deputies for their comments, particularly the good wishes for the new agency. As I said, it is a historic development and there is a very strong team in place led by Mr. Gordon Jeyes and the management team. A huge process has taken place already. An implementation group has been running for well over a year and a half, chaired by the Secretary General who is with me today. An outstanding job has been done in terms of the transition to the new agency but many challenges remain for it to meet, to which both Deputies referred. It is the right direction in which to go.
There is a budget of €602 million for current expenditure and €7 million for capital expenditure. I reiterate what I said earlier that we are not carrying over any deficit from the HSE. There has been a separating out of the budget. In fact, the departmental budget has increased overall by 3%. The Deputies will agree that at a challenging time that is a recognition of the priority the Government gives to young people, children and the services which will be provided by the agency and our Department.
We have some additional funding in a range of areas and it is important I put that in context. There has been increased funding and Deputies will see the figures have gone up for child care overall and for the youth programmes compared to what had been intended. There is also the development of the area based childhood initiatives. In regard to the point Deputy McLellan made on the overall economic situation, clearly job creation and lifting people out of poverty through the creation of jobs will impact on the very children we are talking about. In particular, the area based childhood initiatives will make a qualitative difference to the lives of children and families having difficulties. We have seen that from the work that has already gone on in the three areas where these programmes have been implemented. That is why the voluntary organisations are so pleased and excited by this and why we have seen in the docklands area of Dublin, for example, 42 agencies coming together to work under the umbrella of the ABC initiatives. We are seeing that in other areas also. To take up Deputy Troy's point on voluntary organisations, the approach being taken by the ABC initiatives deals with one aspect of the point he made and I will deal with the other one on increased co-operation among the voluntary sector and accountability. The umbrella approach being taken, asking agencies to work together, is very positive.
Deputy Troy raised a number of issues, which I will go through as quickly as I can. He asked about the provision of public health nurses and the CAM service to families and the integration into the agency. The task force made a broad series of recommendations. A decision was taken to move ahead with the agencies currently under the umbrella but this year, I intend to start of process of discussion and examination of the best engagement with public health nurses, because that must go on whether they are inside or outside the agency, and with CAMs. We have started this discussion in terms of making sure CAM services are available to the children and families being served by the agency. That is very important, as is the question of precisely how that will develop.
In the same way we had to have a lot of discussion about the integration of the National Education and Welfare Board, for example, into the agency, the same process will have to be gone through in regard to that engagement with public health nurses and we will begin to do that. Deputy Troy spoke about discussions with the public health nurses. Some public health nurses specialise in working with the children and families while others have caseloads which are mixed where they work with the elderly and deal with a whole range of issues which arise in primary care. In terms of precisely how that will develop and what the end point will be, the task force said they should be in the agency and we will certainly start that discussion in more detail this year in regard to CAM services and the public health nurses. However, it is very important we give the agency an opportunity to begin the work from where it is currently and to integrate the agencies it started out with and to develop the services. In advance of developments in that area, there must be very close co-operation between public health nurses, the CAM services and the agency.
Recently, I had a meeting with officials of the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and some of the voluntary organisations to discuss how we can develop that close co-operation between mental health services and the kind of work that is being done by the Child and Family Agency. It is very important that continues and, as I said, we will begin discussions with both groups with a view to teasing out the current relationship and future potential and how that can develop.
Deputy Troy raised a point about the voluntary sector and clearly people are very concerned about governance in that sector. Mr. Gordon Jeyes has issued a letter to all voluntary organisations which come under the remit of the agency and, more importantly, he met all of them last year and had discussions about the services provided. The tradition has been to give money to agencies, perhaps without a detailed and specified contract. I think he is very much moving in the direction of service level agreements with the voluntary organisations with whom the agency works.
Some €100 million is provided to voluntary organisations by the agency, in addition to the more than 100 family resource centres. The establishment of the agency will lead to a greater alignment between the work of the voluntary organisations and the priorities of Government and the agency. In fact, as recently as yesterday, I spoke to Mr. Jeyes about this issue. As I said, he had meetings with all of the voluntary organisations last year and he is certainly moving in the direction of service level agreements in line with the priorities he has. That is very important because there was a more distant relationship previously, as we have seen very clearly in recent discussions about voluntary organisations.
Yes. As I said, Mr. Jeyes has been working on that since last year and has been very clear about accountability.
The arrangements which need to be made with service providers is spelled out in section 56 of the legislation. There are very detailed instructions for the agency and how it will carry out its business with the voluntary organisations. If the Deputies read it, they will see they must submit a copy of the audited accounts and the auditor’s certificate and report on the accounts to the agency within such period of time as may be specified by the agency. The legislation has clarified the situation quite a bit in terms of what is expected from the voluntary organisations under the remit of the agency.
Deputy Troy asked about additional staff. That will become clear when we receive the business plan from the agency but clearly it will be in the areas identified where more staff are needed currently.
The management team, having analysed the postion around the country, may come back with recommendations for additional social workers or care workers as inspectors for the preschool service. That will be determined by the demand perceived by the agency. This will be clarified in the business plan.
The plan must be submitted to me by 31 January 2014. The board discussed it last week.
In response to the Deputy's question, all services under the early childhood care and education, ECCE schemes have been required to adhere to the principles of Síolta and Aistear from the outset. The local child care committees provide assistance for the services to do this and use the online tools developed for that framework. In addition, we have piloted a mentoring programme. In fact, I went to the presentation of that pilot programme, which was really impressive. More than 20 mentors have been working in the service. Obviously from next year onwards, I hope to have a new mentoring service in place which will see a further 30 or 40 mentors available to child care services to increase their implementation of Síolta and Aistear. It takes training, supervision and mentoring for the services to achieve the standards envisaged in Síolta and Aistear.
On the question of recruitment of inspectors, the posts have been advertised but to date they have been confined to public health nurses. I will have discussions about broadening it out. Five inspectors have been recruited and it is envisaged that a further ten will be. They will cover the vacant postions in Louth, Dublin south, east Wicklow, Cavan, Monaghan, Sligo-Leitrim and west Cavan which will effectively mean that most areas will be covered. It will bring the number of inspectors up to 50. We were allocated money in the budget to do this.
The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, is addressing the issue of the transferability of vetting. There are concerns about transferring vetting because if it was allowed to be transferred to every other agency, there is a worry that an offence committed in the meantime would not be picked up. That is the reason there is such regular vetting. I understand the Minister is examining the issue and will publish proposals on making the system more effective. He is examining the issue of transferability to see what improvements could be made. The Deputy is correct when he states it is very difficult for agencies and many have asked that if a person has been vetted by a child care service, whether it could simply be transferred if he or she was taking up another job in the child care service. I do not think the proposals have been published yet, but in the meantime additional staff have been made available to the vetting service.
There are places available in detention centres. That is due in part to the recent court decision that young people in detention should have remission. The provision of places has not been a problem in recent months. The position varies considerably, as the Deputy is aware, and in the course of last year there were periods when no beds were available.
We published the expert group's report on the early years strategy Right from the Start some weeks ago and it is the intention, as I have always said, that, first, we will have an overall framework document and that very quickly after this we will have the early years strategy and youth strategy published. Intensive and extensive work is in progress on the framework document which will set the scene for these two other policies. The framework should be published in the early part of this year and the early years study and strategy will follow from it.
Progress has been made on the legislative programme. We had a significant workload on the legislation to establish the agency and the emergency legislation which has been welcomed. It placed major demands on the Department and, in addition, we had the child care legislation. Last year the Department had to deal with three pieces of legislation. I will not go back over the history of Children First, but in all probability it will be the subject of the next piece of legislation to be published and is very close to finalisation. We have received legal advice on sanctions which has changed the approach we have been taking somewhat. That is the reason we have needed more time to take account of it. Let me assure the committee that work is ongoing on the Children First legislation. The fact that the agency has been established and will have a number of months to get on with the work of implementation before publication of the Children First legislation will work well. I do not accept the assertion that children are not being protected because the safeguards are not in place. Obviously, we want to bring forward the Children First legislation to remove any ambivalence among professionals about reporting child protection concerns. The evidence is that referrals are being made; there has been a significant increase in the number of referrals. People are also contacting the agency if they have some concerns and are getting good advice from the agency. The Bills dealing with Children First and adoption will be introduced in the next period.
The Government recognises the points made on alcohol by the special rapporteur on child protection. Many of the issues raised by the Deputy will be covered in the proposed public health Bill. Just a few weeks ago the Government made a decision for the first time ever to publish a public health Bill dealing with alcohol. It will take account of and deal with many of the issues that affect children such as advertising, cut-off times for certain advertisements and billboard advertising. I agree with the Deputy that this is an issue that must be taken extremely seriously and I have expressed my view on it that we must have the strongest possible legislation because alcohol is such a key factor in terms of admissions to care and child protection concerns. I think one third of children in care are there because of alcohol issues in the family of origin. It is a very serious issue and the Government has shown that it takes it very seriously by its approach to the legislation.
Deputy Sandra McLellan also raised the issue of the budget reductions. I hope I have made it clear that there is a budget. There are clear challenges not least of which are the cost of legal services and the adversarial nature of child care proceedings in court. Generally, there is significant legal representation. We will bring forward the guardian ad litemreform which will help in dealing with legal costs. Mr. Gordon Jeyes has taken more control of the legal budget within the Child and Family Agency to ensure costs are contained as much as possible. The move to a family court will really make a difference in the approach to child care cases. That is part of the reforming plan of the Minister for Justice and Equality.
I think I have covered the main points raised.
We will now consider the Estimate and consider performance in terms of both current and capital expenditure in 2014, programme by programme. Programme A covers children and family supports. Let me remind members that we want questions, rather than statements. I will list the subheads. Subhead A3 deals with child and family services.
I am delighted that the Minister has confirmed that there is no budget carry-over. That is good. Is the Minister confident that the level of funding assured for the Child and Family Agency is adequate? How are the projected figures for service demand calculated? Can the Minister be confident of them? Can the Minister outline what the impact of the cut in the school completion programme will mean in real terms?
I would like to remind the committee of what the Minister, Deputy Reilly, had to say about the budget for child and family services at the Joint Committee on Health and Children last week. He referred to having been asked "whether child and family services will carry any deficit forward" and confirmed that they "certainly will bring their proportion of it because otherwise other elements, such as disability and the HSE, would have to take it". I hope that what the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, is saying is accurate. However, the Minister, Deputy Reilly, seems to think the Department of Children and Youth Affairs will have to take a proportion of it.
I reiterate that very detailed work was done. We got great assistance in this regard. As Deputies can imagine, it is not the easiest thing in the world to disaggregate what was relevant to the Child and Family Agency from what was relevant to the other health budgets. That has been done following a rigorous process. A great deal of work was done by the team involved. I have to say they received significant co-operation from the HSE. A great deal of work was also done by my Department. The budgets were examined. The amounts that were used in the delivery of services for child protection were identified and separated out. As I said in my opening speech, there is no reduction in those amounts which have come across to the agency. That is the situation.
The reality is that there are huge demands on the agency. The same thing applies to the HSE, the Department of Education and Skills and all other bodies that are trying to deliver these services. We also have to look at reforming how we deliver many of these services. More co-operation between the voluntary and statutory sectors is needed. Clearly, I will keep a close eye on those demands. The board of the agency and the management team will do likewise. I would expect to hear back from them on how the budget is meeting those demands. We received some extra money for a range of services. Clearly, there are more demands in this area because there are more children coming into care. Expensive special care placements are necessary for a minority - 0.3% - of Irish children. There a level of demand for these expensive services. We need more foster placements, but they cost money.
It must be accepted that €609 million is a sizeable budget. It has to be managed by the management team and the board. Like everybody else, they are aware that substantial amounts of money cannot be found anywhere else in the current climate. We are subject to the comprehensive review of expenditure. Having said that, the budget shows an increase despite the current difficulties. As I have said, it was separated very carefully from the HSE costs. While there is no deficit, there are huge demands and costs, not least from a legal perspective. These issues have to be managed and dealt with. I do not doubt that the agency will come to me during the course of the year. We will keep a close eye on the budget and the demands on it.
On the Estimates, if one Minister is saying this new agency will have to absorb a portion of the deficit, where will that absorption take place? The Minister has rightly said that the overall allocation has increased this year. It has increased this year as a result of the amalgamation of the services. The Family Support Agency and the National Education Welfare Board have come under the remit of the new Child and Family Agency. That is why there is an increase.
I remind the Deputy that the Government allocated an additional €12 million for services for children. We separated out the funding that had previously been allocated by the HSE for children and families and allocated it without any deduction to the new agency. In fact, the Government's allocation for dealing with child protection services was increased by €12 million. That is the reality of the situation, as I have outlined clearly here today.
We will move on to subhead A4, youth justice, children detention schools, the Family Support Agency, the National Education Welfare Board and the school completion programme. It relates to retiring subheads in 2014.
Can the Minister outline what the impact of the cut in the school completion programme will mean in real terms? Have individual schools been identified, for example? With regard to youth justice, when will all the additional staff be recruited in Oberstown? Are moneys ring-fenced for this purpose?
I can inform the Deputy, in response to her last question, that we have received sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to go ahead with the recruitment. Obviously, we will have to see how many staff need to be recruited this year. It will depend on the stage of completion. There will be a build-up towards the full use of the new units. We have got sanction to go ahead with recruitment. The Deputy also asked whether particular schools have been identified as part of the review of the school completion programme that is taking place at present. Over 100 projects are involved in that programme. The projects were concerned earlier in the year that they were not going to continue, but they have continued.
We will move on to programme B, sectoral programmes for children and young people. It consists of subheads B3 to B7, excluding administration. We will begin with subhead B3, the early childhood care and education scheme preschool year programme.
In light of the increased demand resulting from the recent baby boom, is it fair to say that the provision of the same budget actually means we have a reduced budget, relatively speaking? I suggest that this applies to many schemes. On subhead B5, child care initiatives-----
In the case of subhead B3, the early childhood care and education programme, we have been able to supply the budget that is needed every year for the last few years. It is based on the number of children on a per capita basis. The providers are getting their funding on the basis of the increased number of children. We have made available the budget that is necessary to cater for the children who require the early childhood care and education programme. It is allocated accordingly.
I would like to ask about these two programmes. There seems to be a ceiling in place under the community child care subvention programme. There is no need for potential new applicants to apply because the various county child care committees are not accepting new applications. Does the Minister feel there is a need to review this scheme in light of the changed circumstances so many families are finding themselves in? At the recent launch of a report that was commissioned by the Donegal child care committee and carried out by Indecon, the Minister suggested that she might consider reviewing these schemes in the current year.
Have sufficient resources been allocated to carry out a comprehensive review of the schemes?
We will review the eligibility criteria for the community child care subvention, CCS, and child care employment and training support scheme, CETS, in the course of 2014. I have identified this as a priority because the schemes need to be reviewed. The Department is also developing, in conjunction with the Department of Social Protection, a new child care initiative which will provide 1,800 places for people on community employment schemes. Having additional child care places available for those who are engaged in community employment will be of assistance to parents. I believe the demand for places will come from this area. A cap was applied to the number of places available in the past.
As I stated, the increased demand is coming from the community employment side, which is where our primary response to need will be. Some 950 community groups participate in the community employment scheme and 2,500 full-time equivalent child care places are provided under the CETS. Trainees contribute €25 per week and there is a capitation fee of €145 for each full-time child care place. If resources permitted, even more places would be provided but I am pleased we are providing additional places for community employment participants.
The funding allocated under this subhead has been reduced by 17.4%, which is a significant decrease. Has an assessment been done of the performance of the scheme? The barriers to women entering the workforce are well documented and any scheme that alleviates some of the impediments women face, including in respect of child care, should be supported. How will the cut affect the 600 participants in the scheme? Will it force some of them out of work?
On the €2.5 million allocated for the mentoring programme, when will we learn precisely how the programme will be delivered? Is the Department certain existing services will not be replicated? The Minister indicated it will be a stand-alone programme administered by Pobal. The county child care committees could administer the programme, thus reducing administration costs. The allocation of €2.5 million is small but welcome and we must ensure the greatest possible share of it is used for mentoring rather than administration.
On the €1.5 million allocated for the training fund, having taken a particular interest in this fund last year, I welcome the decision to extend its scope in terms of those who can provide training. The approach taken in 2013 was not appropriate. The change is, therefore, welcome. Should the fund not be broadened to allow applications to be made for a wider spectrum of training? While I accept that certain services require employees to obtain FETAC level 5 and 6 qualifications, others require different types of training which does not qualify for funding under the new regime applicable to the training fund.
When will funding under the capital grant programme become available?
I ask Deputy McLellan to consider the combined amounts provided in subheads B3 and B4 as they show an overall increase of €3 million for child care. What we are doing is redirecting the funding to the area of greatest demand, namely, the community employment schemes. This is the reason the allocation under subhead B4 has been reduced. The amount in question remains within the child care allocation and will be used to provide the range of child care services to which I referred. The allocation for child care has been increased by €3 million, which should be welcomed, and our focus has shifted to the areas of greatest need. This is the reason certain funding has been reallocated within the two subheads.
Deputy Troy referred to mentoring and training support. It is important to focus on FETAC levels 5 and 6 because we require that child care staff reach these standards. Our objective is to improve standards and training for those currently employed in child care services, more than 3,000 of whom require basic training. For this reason, we chose to focus on this group at this time. Once staff have reached a certain standard and obtained a FETAC qualification, I do not rule out using the training fund for a broader range of training and qualifications. At this point, it is important to achieve our objective of ensuring that child care workers obtain FETAC level 5 and 6 qualifications. Many of those who require these qualifications find it very difficult to pay for the training. Under this programme, they are subsidised to obtain the services they need.
On the mentoring service, we have provided €2.5 million for preschool services. This will involve the recruitment of graduates in early childhood care and education who will work directly with the services to improve quality, including assisting services in the implementation of Síolta and Aistear. It is expected, although agreement has not yet been finalised, that the mentoring service will be administered by Pobal on behalf of the Department. Details should be available in the next few weeks.
On the €1.5 million allocated to the training fund, I concur with the Minister that a large number of child care staff need basic training and require FETAC level 5 and 6 qualifications. However, some service providers who have acquired this basic level of training need to obtain other qualifications that are critical to the management and operation of services. The Minister may recall a "Prime Time Investigates" exposé of certain child care practices which found serious management weaknesses in one of the offending service providers, notwithstanding that staff were fully trained to FETAC level 5 and 6 standards. The weaknesses in some services are not confined to a basic level. We should ensure a broader spectrum of training is available.
Our position was that it is important to prioritise certain areas. I agree with the Deputy that there is scope for management to do further work, as became clear in some of the cases we heard about. Strong management is essential in child care services. We are discussing subsidised places. As with any other professional group, one would expect child care staff to avail of ongoing training of their own accord.
On subhead B5, I understand the proposed number of places available under the new scheme launched in the previous budget was 6,000. Under this subhead, funding will be cut by €2 million or 17.4% and the uptake will be approximately 600 places in 2014. Why has provision been made for such an abysmally low number of places?
The reality is that the Department of Social Protection through its work with individuals at its Intreo offices identified the area of greatest need. This was a pilot scheme for which there was an initial allocation. The expectation was that the after school service would be more in demand. In fact the Intreo offices and the Department of Social Protection identified a greater need for the community employment scheme, that it was the type of scheme to which it would refer people and that is the reason the change has been made.
It was a pilot scheme to assess the best direction in which to go and that is why the decision was made to introduce a new scheme which would allow community employment participants to avail of child care education and training support child care places. It has 1,800 part-time child care places.
In 2012 this area took a hit of €3.5 million, in 2013 a hit of €5.4 million and this year it has a further hit of €2 million. I said previously on Question Time that it was regrettable that such an important element of the Minister's budget, one which provides the best bang for the buck in terms of investment, has once again had a large decrease in its budget. Have the youth services been informed of their budget for 2014 as prior to Christmas they had not been informed and, therefore, could not plan what works to undertake. This is very much a disproportionate cut in terms of the percentage of the Department's overall budget. The previous Government has to take its share of responsibility also given that since 2008 this area has seen a cut in the region of 48%.
I was very pleased this year to receive an extra €1 million for the youth service. Across the whole of Government we have had to examine budgets very carefully. In fact, I have been able to reduce the pressures on the youth service by ensuring that instead of a 10% or a 7% cut that across the board for national organisations and local youth organisations there is a 3.75% reduction. Given the national circumstances in which we find ourselves economically, obviously I would prefer not to have to ask the youth services to take a 3.75% cut. I would point out that a huge amount of my budget, effectively, goes on fixed expenses in respect of child care. Some €50 million is still being given to youth services across the country. That is a very substantial amount of funding that is being given to national and local youth services and no local youth service took a cut. The ETBs were informed before Christmas of the allocation for the youth services.
Sorry Chairman. With respect, the cut this year is €1 million less than envisaged but it is still a cut of €2 million on top of a cut of €5.4 million last year and €3.5 million the previous year. Quite simply, youth services and youth organisations are at the pin of their collar. I gave an example prior to Christmas of a youth service in Cabra which had to cease offering tea and toast to its students in the evening. That is how tight is the funding. I alluded to the Department of Justice and Equality which acknowledged that services cannot operate below a certain level. In the past two years it has ceased cutting the grant aid to the youth justice system, the exact title of the grants escapes me, but it has acknowledged that it cannot sustain any further cut. While the Minister wants praise for making only a €2 million cut, one has to remember what the cut has been in previous years. Last year the cut was €5.4 million and the previous year €3.5 million. Quite simply, youth organisations are at the pin of their collar and are not able to provide much needed services at a time when 37% of young people, under the age of 18, are at risk of poverty and social inclusion. This is a budget which should have been ring-fenced this year, bearing in mind the cuts it had to accept in recent years.
Clearly, I prioritised youth services this year and I have got extra funding for them. I would point out that we are borrowing €8 billion this year. Had we not inherited the disastrous economic financial situation we would not have to make these cuts. In the current circumstances we have had to make the cuts to which the Deputy referred. I have protected the youth services this year and I intend to continue to do so. As the economic situation improves and the public finances get in order we will not have this discussion but will talk about investing in youth services to a greater degree. Like the Deputy, I recognise the value of the youth services and want to support them. In my discussions with City of Dublin Youth Services Board, CDYSB, and the local education and training boards, making sure the youth organisations can sustain their work, has been to the fore. In the allocation of funding made at local level through the education and training boards and through the CDYSB, they are very conscious of protecting frontline services, and have been at pains to ensure those frontline services will continue, and have supported the organisations where there were some difficulties to ensure the services described by the Deputy will continue.
Subhead B7 - area based childhood programme, early child care payment and early intervention programme for children. Okay. We come to programme C - policy and legislation, excluding administration. On subhead C3 - miscellaneous legal fees and settlements, I call Deputy Robert Troy.
During the course of the debate today the Minister said she would reform the guardianat litem. That is welcome. The Minister may remember in the summer of last year or earlier that the Sunday Business Postidentified these cost in the region of €28 million the previous year for legal services. In the area we have just discussed, youth work has had a cut of €2 million this year and in the same breadth we provide €28 million - €29 million for legal services. That is where the savings that have to be made should be targeted, at the provision of professional legal fees and not cutting the budget to frontline services. Will the Minister state the timeframe for reform of the guardian at litemand what savings she expects the Department will make by bringing about those reforms?
We are working with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, on this issue in order that it will form part of some legislation which he is introducing this year. It has been in place for a long period and needs to be reformed. We will reform it. For example, Barnardos has a very effective guardian at litemsystem which it provides to the courts. Clearly the scheme was set up without any clarity on the criteria for either professional qualifications or fees. It is much too open. We need to examine precisely when guardian at litemis used.
We need to be very clear about how it should develop. My Department has been working on that with officials from the Department of Justice and Equality and we will bring forward recommendations on how to change it. It has been in place since 1991, under the Child Care Act 1991, and will certainly be done this year.
The next headings are C4, national longitudinal study and other research programmes, C5, children and young people’s policy framework and other programmes, C6, grants to organisations part-funded by the national lottery, and C7, Adoption Authority of Ireland.
I see there is a small reduction in the budget this year for the Adoption Authority of Ireland and I see also that the staff number has been reduced from 32 to 25. Does that reflect a decrease in the number of applications coming to the authority? I understood there could be an increase in the number of applications. If so, is it right to reduce its budget now? Can the Minister clarify that for me?
The funding amounts to €2.594 million, which is a slight reduction on the 2013 Estimate. The reduction in 2014 relates to reduced pay provision as a result of the Haddington Road agreement.
When the Department was set up there was a range of expenditure necessary. Now that it is set up, that will not be repeated. Our EU Presidency involved a significant amount of travel by staff who were working on the youth presidency and bringing forward our programme of work. That will be zero this year as opposed to the expenditure incurred last year. The amount in question is €200,000.
I do not have that figure here but I can get it for the Deputy. I will get back to the Deputy on that. The reduction is of the order of 24%. That is significant. People always ask if our administrative costs will be cut back.
I would like to see the Deputy welcome that. It is impressive but it is mostly in the area of travel and subsistence and related to the EU Presidency. There was office equipment and external IT services necessary in the setting up of the Department that do not have to be repeated.
I thank the Chairman. I compliment the Minister and her staff, who in a very short time have done a great deal for children in this State who are vulnerable. The Minister and her Department have brought to the fore the question of our children, their welfare and safety, etc. Historically, we do not have a very good track record, to our great shame. It has taken all of this time, and the Minister’s work, to bring about a referendum to give all children in the State some status. That was never done before because politicians did nothing about it. This Government and the Minister have done that. That is to be welcomed, given our track record, as revealed in some of the inquiries that have taken place and documentaries that have been broadcast.
Sometimes when I come into committee meetings I have to reflect on whether our country was banjaxed a few years ago, because we are in a different place. Departments such as this one have survived on loans from our neighbouring states, which should be recognised. These are not the greatest of times but it is to be hoped we will move to a better place where we can provide funding for vulnerable children and the sort of services they deserve, about which historically nothing was done.
I want to correct the record on fact because a cross-party group did a great deal of work on the referendum on children’s rights. The Minister acknowledged it and she was a member of that group. I do not like to hear people say nothing was done. Previous Governments certainly did get things wrong but some people would have one believe that previous Governments were almost abusing children. That is not the case. A great deal of work was done to improve and protect children’s welfare, including the Ryan report and implementation of its recommendations, appointing extra social workers whether the establishment of the-----
Before concluding, I thank the Minister, Jim Breslin, Dermot Ryan, Moira O’Meara, Paul Fay, Ger Banville, Gordon Gaffney and Jason McLoughlin for being here and for assisting the Minister and the officials. I apologise that we did not hear from them today. We were rebuked the last day but I hope we will not be rebuked today. I thank all members for their deliberation and involvement in this meeting.