Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children

Children and Youth Issues: Minister for Children and Youth Affairs

9:30 am

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly, and his officials led by the new Secretary General at the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Dr. Fergal Lynch, with whom we look forward to a positive working relationship. We formally congratulate him on his appointment.

This is our regular quarterly meeting with the Minister on issues concerning the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. In advance of the meeting members submitted written questions, to which the responses have been circulated. Disquiet was expressed by some members that responses were only received last night and that a copy of the Minister's speech was only circulated this morning. Perhaps we might work on the protocols in that regard. I thank the Minister and his officials for appearing before the committee. It is welcome that they appear before it regularly.

We received apologies from Deputy Regina Doherty who may arrive late, Senator Imelda Henry who has been unavoidably detained and Deputy Seamus Healy.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If, however, they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite the Minister to make his opening statement.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased to have the opportunity to update the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children in its quarterly review of my Department’s work. The last occasion on which I met the committee for this purpose was 13 November 2014. Of course, I met a number of members on 3 February at a meeting of the select committee that considered the 2015 Revised Estimate for Vote 40 - Department of Children and Youth Affairs. We addressed a number of issues which will come before this committee today.

I hope the responses I have provided in reply to the written questions submitted by members in advance of this session will assist in their examination of the issues concerned. I expect members to have further questions for me. I noted the Chairman's comments on delays, which I will take up with the Department. I want members to have ample time to examine responses in order that they can formulate further questions. That is the purpose of the committee and I will seek to ensure it will not happen again.

I do not want to delay proceedings, given that the time available to the committee is limited. Therefore, I might briefly take the opportunity in my opening statement to mention some key developments in my Department since our last meeting in November 2014. I am very happy to be joined by Dr. Fergal Lynch who was recently appointed Secretary General of the Department; Mr. Dermot Ryan, assistant secretary; Ms Mary McLoughlin, acting director; Mr. Alan Savage and Ms Michele Clarke.

The 2015 Revised Estimate for Vote 40, as published in December 2014 by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, allocated gross funding to my Department of €1,026 million. This includes more than €991 million in current funding and €35 million in capital funding. When appropriation-in-aid receipts of just over €26.6 million are taken into account, the net current funding allocated to my Department in 2015 is €1 billion, an increase of €26 million on the equivalent figure for 2014. While operating within difficult budgetary constraints, the Government is strongly committed to delivering important reform and service developments to support children and families. I am committed to ensuring real reform of child welfare and protection services and making this country a better and safer place in which to be a child or young person.

The most significant part of my Vote - 64% - is to fund the services and programmes provided by the Child and Family Agency, Tusla. In 2015 the agency will have a budget of €643 million which includes more than €12 million in capital funding. This represents an increase of €34 million, or 5.6%, on the 2014 provision.

I met with the board of the agency in December 2014. We had a useful exchange of views on challenges and opportunities facing the agency in 2015. The agency has recently submitted to me its draft business plan for 2015 in response to the performance statement that I issued to the agency setting out overall priorities for 2015 in accordance with the process set out in the Child and Family Agency Act 2013. I intend to respond formally to Tusla very shortly.

I am pleased to confirm that there will be no reduction in the €50 million in funding for youth services in 2015, which was a key priority for me and for youth organisations. Furthermore, in December 2014, I announced capital grants for 50 youth projects and organisations throughout the country for small- to medium-scale equipment and upgrade projects. I would like to take the opportunity again to congratulate and thank all those who were involved in volunteerism in this sector. We could not deliver what we deliver without their enthusiasm and generosity.

The balance of funding in Vote 40, €383 million, relates to other programmes funded directly by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Of this, my Department will provide €260 million to support the child care sector to enable children and parents to access high-quality and affordable child care, with more than 100,000 children benefitting from support under these programmes. While I have been pleased that we managed to protect the significant investment in child care in very difficult economic circumstances, I would like to see increased investment in the sector as funding becomes available. Investment that is evidence-based and well considered can help support parents, improve the pay of staff and benefit children as well as having a positive impact on society and the economy. I met with the Association of Childhood Professionals last week and accepted a petition yesterday from groups campaigning for more investment in child care. We are in agreement about the importance of future investment. It is crucial that we develop a coherent whole-of-Government approach to investment in child care services. For this reason, I have established an interdepartmental group to look at provision right across the zero to six age group as well as to consider the after-school needs of older schoolgoing children. This new group will include representatives of the Departments of Education and Skills, Social Protection, Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Public Expenditure and Reform, Finance and the Taoiseach, and will be led and supported by my Department. Preparatory work has already started and the first meeting of the group will take place next Wednesday. I am asking the group to report to me by the summer.

We have made significant progress towards the establishment of the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes and certain related matters. In January 2015, the Government approved the draft order to establish the commission. I published the terms of reference and have since secured the approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas. Earlier this week, the Government agreed the order to be made by the Taoiseach. The issues to be investigated by this commission are by definition matters of significant public concern and expectation. I can assure the committee that my Department has engaged with Judge Yvonne Murphy, the chairperson designate, to ensure a smooth start to the commission’s work. The commission will be located at 73 Lower Baggot Street, Dublin 4. Work is ongoing to provide the facilities, equipment and staff required to support an effective commission. I am now making arrangements to formally appoint the three nominated commissioners and will shortly announce the formal establishment of the commission.

We are progressing the priority items on our legislative programme and I am determined to push ahead with this important programme of work. I hope shortly to seek Government approval to bring theChildren First Bill 2014to Committee Stage in the Dáil and intend to seek the enactment of that legislation shortly thereafter. While I am not yet in a position to share details of proposed Committee Stage amendments, I can assure the committee that they will not affect the general thrust of the Bill as published. I can also assure the committee that, in recognition of the fact that this legislation will introduce new statutory obligations, the commencement date will be scheduled to ensure that the range of sectors involved have adequate time to prepare for implementation.

The committee will be aware that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, recently published the Children and Family Relationships Bill 2014. My Department had considerable involvement in matters relating to guardianship and adoption issues being addressed in the Bill. This is complex legislation, and the Minister pointed out that there have been significant changes in the period since the publication of the general scheme of the Bill in 2014. There have been extensive consultations between officials of my Department and the Department of Justice and Equality, in conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General. There have also been detailed consultations involving the Child and Family Agency and the Adoption Authority. The Bill, when enacted, will address the needs of children living in diverse families. It will provide for parentage, guardianship, custody and access across a range of family circumstances that are not addressed adequately in current law. From my own perspective, I welcome the provisions for same-sex couples to be eligible to apply to adopt jointly in specified circumstances. I worked closely with the Minister for Justice and Equality on this important issue.

In December 2014, the Supreme Court concluded its hearings of the appeals against the outcome of the referendum on children’s rights which was conducted in 2012. The judgment of the court is awaited.

Work on the development of the heads of the adoption (information and tracing) Bill is at an advanced stage in my Department. This Bill will, for the first time in the history of the State, give adopted people a statutory right to certain information related to their adoption and the right to request the State to trace their birth parents, and will give people who have placed a child for adoption the right to trace that child. The Bill will put the adoption information register on a statutory basis. It will also provide for the safeguarding of all adoption records. I am aware that the Bill initiated by Senators Power, van Turnhout and Healy Eames advanced in the Seanad this week. I have not sought to oppose the Bill because I believe it is well motivated and have no difficulty with their initiative. However, I think it will encounter constitutional complexities in the area of private rights. I believe the general scheme of the Bill that I will submit for Government approval will address these issues in a comprehensive way.

Thechildren (amendment) Billwill update the legal framework for the detention of children, including the amalgamation of the three existing child detention schools. This will coincide with the completion of the national child detention facility project that is under way at Oberstown in Lusk, County Dublin. We have provided a further €13.5 million in capital investment in the Estimates for 2015 towards the completion of this project. It will see an end to the detention of children in adult prisons, delivering on a commitment in the programme for Government. I am committed to working with the board of management and with the campus management to ensure that the current change programme in the child detention school system is completed successfully.

The committee will be aware that earlier this week President Higgins appointed a new Ombudsman for Children. Dr. Niall Muldoon was selected as the most suitable candidate for the position following an independent rigorous recruitment and selection process conducted by the Public Appointments Service. I want to thank the children who participated at various stages of the recruitment process. This is possibly a unique feature in public service recruitment in this country, but I am convinced that these children made a valuable contribution to the selection of the best candidate for the job. I want to thank members of this committee and their colleagues in both Houses for their contributions to the debates relating to the resolutions passed in the Dáil on 11 February and in the Seanad on 12 February giving unanimous support to the nomination of Dr. Muldoon for appointment by the President to this important role in Irish public service. I wish him every success in his endeavours.

One of the most enjoyable events that I have attended since our last meeting was the Comhairle na nÓg National Showcase in Croke Park on 20 November 2014. I know that this committee met in Croke Park on that day, and perhaps some members share my view of the event. Five hundred young people aged 12 to 17 from Comhairle na nÓg from all over Ireland celebrated the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNCRC, in the company of the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny. It truly was a celebration. They discussed the opportunities and challenges they experience in having their opinions heard and respected on a range of issues that affect their lives. Themes covered included transport and travel, life at home, health and well-being, education and school, community and facilities, social life and "Just being myself". While we might come together to debate and argue over various issues in this forum, I hope we can all agree that an event such as the Comhairle na nÓg showcase gives great cause for optimism for the future of Ireland when we see the energy and potential in our young people. I would like to reiterate what I said on the day - that I feel very secure in the future of this country knowing it is going to be in the hands of these young people.

In talking about how I have been most impressed by groups of children, I must also mention the group Teenagers and Children Talking in Care, TACTIC.

The members of TACTIC presented the output of their work on 17 December last in Dublin Castle. This was the same event at which Tusla published its new Alternative Care Practice Handbook.

These young people spoke movingly about what was good and what was hard about the experience of being in care. They had drawn on their own experiences to help create a series of guidebooks for young people, and a storybook for younger children, going into care. The purpose of the documents is to reassure children and young people when they first enter the care system, and provide them with information about how they can have a voice in the decisions made about their own care. The TACTIC group have worked closely with my Department and with Tusla to develop these resources, which are now available to every child and young person entering our care system.

I was truly in awe of these youngsters, with the confidence and courage they displayed in speaking openly about such a difficult and personal topic. We have a lot to learn from listening to children, really listening, not just in a tokenistic way, to hear what they have to say about the decisions we make that impact on their lives.

I believe their ability to input into the system is critical to the decision we make. We need to empower them at every opportunity to have their voices heard. These young people on that day proved the value of that. Having talked about the need to listen, I am very pleased to listen to members.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I join in congratulating Dr. Muldoon on his appointment as Ombudsman for Children. In due course the committee will invite him to outline his views on his office.

I speak for all the committee members who were there when I share the joy we experienced at holding our meeting at the Comhairle na n-Óg event in Croke Park. I want to thank all the officials in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs for their involvement in the organisation of that wonderful day, which the Minister rightly said was a showcase of what is good about our young people. It was a wonderful occasion and we had a brilliant experience. I thank everybody for being involved.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I am conscious of the fact that we met the Minister a couple of weeks ago and we discussed many of the issues he addressed today.

First, I will address issues relating to the inter-departmental committee on child care. The Minister is aware that up to 3,000 practitioners took to the streets two days ago to express their concern at the lack of investment in the sector. At the meeting of the select committee on the Estimates, I highlighted the reduction in funding to the ECCE scheme and the payment of a reduced capitation fee for each participant. My colleagues across the political divide and I ask that, as a minimum, the Minister considers increasing the capitation grant to what it was originally, as it would be a major benefit to the scheme. Did the Minister have an opportunity to consider this or is he in a position to do that?

I welcome his statement that, "Investment that is evidence-based and well-considered can help support parents, improve the pay of staff and benefit children". I take it the Minister no longer agrees with his statement on "Prime Time" that the pay and terms and conditions of the staff was the sole responsibility of the service providers. A third of the service providers are community-based and the main contract of the remaining service providers is with the State. Will he confirm whether he accepts that the State has a responsibility for the pay and terms and conditions of the staff working in these services? The Minister should be looking at including the terms and conditions in the low pay commission.

There are conflicting views emanating from Government as to how working families can be supported to afford child care. In early January, the Irish Independent covered a leaked report, I take it that it came from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, that tax credits were being examined. The Minister dismissed that when responding to a question in the Dáil and during a debate on the issue in Private Members' business. On Monday last the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, stated on "Claire Byrne Live" that it was being considered and had not been ruled out. Will the Minister give a definitive answer on the Government's position on it?

I welcome the establishment of the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes. I ask once again for reassurance that the people who were in institutions that are not named in the terms will have an opportunity to have their voice heard and that it will be down to the commission to decide whether further investigation is warranted. I would appreciate if the Minister could confirm that.

I welcome that the Children First Bill 2014 will be brought forward but it is disappointing the Minister cannot give us more information on Committee Stage. The Minister said he would be happy to listen to us today, and I hope he has heard the concerns that we articulated on Second Stage of this Bill. One of my main concerns at that Stage was that I felt the Bill was watered down from what was originally published in that there were no sanctions for people who do not report child welfare concerns. I used the opportunity to speak on the Children and Family Bill. The heads of the adoption (information and tracing) Bill has been promised for a number of years and I hope a Bill will be before us in this term. Is it true that the Bill will deal only with prospective adoptions? If that were the case, I would have a real worry that it will not address the issue of identity for the tens of thousands who have been adopted prior to and after the enactment of the Adoption Act 1952. Will he allude to that?

I have asked about the procedures in place to provide cover to deal with the case load of social workers who are on maternity leave? A person who proposes to take maternity leave will be in a position to give advance notice. I have been informed that the group who are charged with the responsibility for sanctioning cover for maternity leave will not even look at approving cover for the period of maternity leave until the individual goes on maternity leave in spite of the fact that they have given notice from 12 weeks into the pregnancy. Surely once the person has given the required notice well in advance of going on maternity leave, the process should begin and not when the person goes on leave? That contributes to the prolonged period of time without cover.

During Private Members' business I raised the issue of equal opportunities for children with special educational needs. The free preschool year is a means of ensuring that every child has an equal opportunity to attend preschool. Unfortunately there is provision in the legislation for the service provider who does not have the necessary supports, who can refuse a place for a child with special educational needs. That is wrong. I was disappointed when the Minister said that the HSE in some instances provides supports to children with special educational needs.

That is not good enough. We have a very inconsistent approach to children with special educational needs who require early education. What is the Department doing to ensure we have a consistent approach and a detailed strategy to deal with children with special educational needs in the early childhood care and educational setting?

In regard to the guardian ad litemservice, we all acknowledge that the best interests and the voice of the child must be heard in all court proceedings. When will we have a reformed system that will provide much greater efficiencies? The money that is being spent in this area is coming out of front-line services when it could be better spent.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I congratulate Deputy McLellan on her appointment as the Sinn Féin spokesperson on children.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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She is very welcome on her debut day as her party's lead spokesperson.

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Chair. I welcome the Minister and his staff to today's meeting. I will concentrate initially on the question of accessibility to preschool year education of all children, including those with disabilities. While I welcome the Minister's goodwill and the intentions expressed in his reply, unfortunately the main issue is that most crèches do not have enough proper facilities, equipment or highly trained staff to deal with the needs of children with varying disabilities. While Dublin might be in a better position to cope with children with special needs and disabilities, quite often rural areas do not have the equipment, the facilities or the staff to deal with children with special needs. Some parents are paying for special needs assistants so they can send their children to preschool. The Minister said in his opening statement that the interdepartmental group will have its first meeting next week. When will the group make some findings on appropriate provision for children with special needs? Can the Minister give us an idea of the timeframe in that regard?Does he think this will happen before the end of the summer? Will it happen in time for the next school year?

Children with autism find it very difficult to get a diagnosis with a multidisciplinary team. They are often two and a half or three years of age before such a diagnosis is made. I believe there is an eight-month waiting list for diagnosis. Parents find it extremely difficult to access a preschool place for their children, who are often four or five years of age before they can access such a place. I wonder if that is something the Minister could look at.

My next question deals with the drastic lack of provision of social workers to children in need. An RTE report on 9 February last stated:

Social workers are resigning from their jobs at a rate of one a week. New figures on staff turnover obtained by RTÉ's Morning Ireland indicate that social workers are almost twice as likely to resign their positions when compared to management and administrative staff in the Health Service Executive. ... The figures indicate that while the State is continuing to recruit social workers, particularly in the area of child and family support, a large number of staff are simultaneously walking away from the profession.

Why does the Minister think this is the case? According to the RTE report, campaigners say social workers are leaving their positions "because of stress levels" and because they are over-burdened with caseloads. Does the Minister think this is the reason? The RTE report mentions that "in 2009, the Ryan report identified the retention of social workers in Irish child care as problematic, with higher turnover rates than other areas". That was 2009; this is 2015 and it is still problematic. How can a problem go on for seven years without being dealt with? We seem to have the same problem, which is that we cannot keep up with the demand for social workers. They keep leaving the service. The Minister has said in response to a parliamentary question on the subject of social workers that "where necessary, temporary staff are brought in immediately to cover vacancies until such vacancies are filled on a permanent basis". Why are so many social workers able to take up temporary employment when so many permanent social workers are needed? They seem to be there, but why are we not hiring them? He said in the same reply that "a pilot Maternity Leave Cover scheme has been introduced whereby maternity related vacancies in each region can be filled by way of temporary contracts". How does this pilot scheme work? How is it working out?

Regarding the establishment of a commission of investigation into mother and baby homes, the Minister said in his opening statement that a premises has been identified and "work is ongoing to provide the necessary facilities, equipment and staff required to support an effective commission". When does he believe the staff will be in place? When does he believe the commission will be ready to start the hearings?

I would like to join others in welcoming the appointment of the new Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon. I am delighted he is going to be before the committee shortly. Another speaker made the point that the role of the Ombudsman for Children should be enhanced to include taking complaints from children in direct provision. I was very disappointed to hear the Minister say he has no immediate plans to amend the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 for those purposes. I believe the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs should be the Minister for all children, including those in direct provision. These children need to be heard. Many issues arise in this regard. Regardless of whether these children were born in this State, as many of them were, I believe they have the same rights as any other child in the nation. Many of them are living in close proximity to people who are not related to them. They are encountering many difficulties. This should be revisited and reviewed.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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The Minister is very welcome. I also welcome his officials. I particularly welcome Dr. Fergal Lynch in his new position as Secretary General.

I wholeheartedly endorse what Deputy McLellan said on the issue of direct provision. There is a need for independent oversight and a complaints mechanism. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs should have a role in ensuring the Ombudsman for Children, or somebody more suitable, has such a remit in this area. I agree with Deputy McLellan that this would be an appropriate role for the Ombudsman for Children. I think the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has a role too.

I totally agree with what the Minister said about Comhairle na nÓg and about the Teenagers and Children Talking in Care event. I am sure many others who were in the room at that event will agree that it was most moving to hear young people talking about normal things and the security they were looking for. That resonated with all of us who were there. It is good to see that this work is ongoing.

I endorse and support the Public Health (Standardised Packaging of Tobacco) Bill 2014, which was discussed at the Select Sub-Committee on Health on Tuesday. It is a children's rights issue as well. We have rehearsed all the discussion on it. I want to express absolute solidarity with the work the Minister is doing on this issue.

I thank the Minister for not opposing the Adoption (Identity and Information) Bill in the Seanad. Clearly we have differences of opinion on some of the areas covered by the Bill. I will not rehearse them now. I thank the Minister for allowing it to go through. It has given some people hope. All of us need to work to find a conclusion that ensures people can have their right to identity.

I welcome the Minister's announcement that there will be no cuts in youth work funding. As an active volunteer with the Irish Girl Guides and as a former president of the Youth Council, this issue is very close to my heart.

National lottery funding provided last year amounted to €1 million but will not be available this year. What impact will that have on youth work? I welcome what the Minister is saying but there will still be issues. I would welcome any clarity from the Minister. I welcome the work the Minister is doing in the area of child care; it needs investment. I am concerned about the after-school programme that the Minister will make moves without putting in place any regulations, guidelines or systems. In after-school we do not want to have a catch-up situation as we have in child care. Let us start with the State. If it is providing money it should state the guidelines for same because I am fearful on that area.

Turning specifically to the questions I asked, question No. 30 was in regard to the Children First Bill, which I welcome. I hope that by the time we get to our next hearing it will be enacted and we do not have to return to this issue.

Question No. 29 is on social workers and the Child and Family Agency. I could go into much detail but I am conscious of the time element. We all know the pressures on social workers and the Child and Family Agency. One of the driving factors for the establishment of the agency was that we would be able to meet the needs. In the past 12 months the number of whole-time equivalents of social workers has increased by 30 whereas the number of referrals has grown by almost 20% in that period. I thank the Minister for outlining the number of unallocated cases. Some 34% of high priority cases are unallocated, the vast majority over three months. In his answer the Minister assured me that emergency cases are dealt with immediately - for example, in situations where the child has been abandoned or in immediate physical danger but we are still talking about high priority cases. I wonder about the 2,844 children or families who are on the high priority list. Is the Minister asking where is the high risk? I have no doubt he is working to address the issue. However, when I look at the increased funding, part of me says that will only cover the legacy legal costs - it should not have had to cover those costs. I am concerned that we are not giving the agency a chance to succeed. We know that children are at risk and I do not think we can stand over this.

I am very disappointed with the answer to question No. 28, which concerns the report of the special rapporteur on child protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon. We had an excellent session here on 29 January with the special rapporteur and looked at some of his recommendations in respect of the Child Care Act 1991. Some of the answers, while they are interesting, were basically saying various proposals were not going to be addressed. I read over the transcripts of the hearing we had with the special rapporteur. He said that the Child Care Act 1991 is over two decades old and it is time to review it. He also indicated that during the year he met with all key stakeholders, including members of the Judiciary and the President of the District Court. He also said he makes recommendations following extensive consultations on his report. Again, he said he consulted with members of the Judiciary on the cases coming before the courts not only in Dublin but also outside Dublin when he was told certain courses of action were not being taken. Did the Minister or his officials consult with the special rapporteur before he gave us this reply? Did the Minister ask him what were his concerns? Why do we have a special rapporteur on child protection who has gone to the trouble of consulting all these people and put forward recommendations only for the response to be negative?. The President of the District Court, the Judiciary, the practitioners tell us there are concerns. I would ask that the answer be withdrawn and reviewed.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I invite the Minister to respond.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Chairman. I will begin with Deputy Troy's questions. He mentioned the Association of Childhood Professionals and the recent rally, to which I alluded in my opening remarks. He specifically mentioned a reduction in the early childhood care education, ECCE, programme of €2 million. This is directly due to the reduction in the numbers who are availing of it because of the reduction in the population; it is no more than that. This programme is very well supported by parents as is evident by the fact that 95% of the children eligible to avail of it have done so.

Deputy Troy referred to the capitation grant. That is something I am keen to see happen and I will be lobbying for it in terms of funding. The Deputy said I indicated that the pay and conditions were solely the remit of employers. I do not recall using the word "solely" but I did definitely say they are the remit of employers, and they are. Again, that issue will be looked at through the interdepartmental group. On two occasions the Deputy said that I have dismissed tax credits. I have never done so. I have never ruled out tax credits. What I said in the House was that the OECD has pointed out that it does not deliver in a way that people might expect. Clearly that would inform any view. The final decision on that would be for Government in terms of deliberating on the recommendations of the interdepartmental group. The Deputy further asked that we should refer the issue to the low pay commission in regard to child care workers, for whom I have the height of admiration and regard as they do a very professional job. Money spent on this area is money that yields the greatest return, not just for children in terms of improved outcomes but also for society generally. An integral part of being sustainable in this area is to make sure we have a sustainable workforce. That is something we will be looking at.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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Sorry, Minister.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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Sorry, if I may, nobody interrupted the Deputy.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister. I will chair the meeting.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I will defend myself too.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I will protect the Minister and all members here.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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Well done. The low pay commission is looking at the minimum wage, not sectoral pay, so that is not appropriate.

Deputy Troy mentioned the Children First legislation and the sanctions therein. That is currently being progressed and will come back very shortly. In regard to the adoption and information tracing Bill, I reiterate what I said in the Seanad yesterday which, I am sure, Senator Jillian van Turnhout will corroborate. I made it very clear that the Bill we are formulating and advancing will deal with both prospective and retrospective adoptions.

The issue of the social workers on maternity cover has been raised by a number of Members. Deputy Troy mentioned that he had been told that people give notice at around 12 weeks of pregnancy and can anticipate going on maternity leave but that the group which looks at this issue deal with the situation when the person has taken leave. I have no evidence to support that contention and it would make very little sense in terms of planning. The Deputy will be aware there is a new pilot to offer people 12 month contracts to those covering maternity leave to make it a more attractive job offer.

Deputy Troy also raised the equal opportunity in the early childhood care education, ECCE, for those with special needs. As he pointed out the HSE does provide supports. I would be very concerned that we have support for and open access to this scheme for children with disability. Those with an intellectual disability often gain the most. Deputy Sandra McLellan mentioned that children with autism are a particular case in that regard. I will return to that issue.

The guardian ad litem, GAL, has been a situation that we have inherited. It is totally in the hands of the courts in many respects but, nonetheless, we are co-operating with Tusla in developing a new methodology for the whole area of the guardian ad litemservices, looking at what they do in the North of Ireland which is very different. At the moment there is no minimum criteria. A judge can appoint anyone a guardian ad litem. The bills they submit vary from what appears on the surface to be very reasonable to multiples of that, which seem very unreasonable.

Ultimately, it is a matter for the courts, but there are measures we can take, in conjunction with Tusla, which we intend to take, because this is an area where we believe greater efficiency and value for money can be achieved. We want the money we put into the Child and Family Agency to be spent on looking after children, not on legal fees.

Deputy McLellan asked about the interdepartmental group's report. Its first meeting will take place next week and it will make its report by the summer.She also mentioned children with autism. Autism is more the remit of the Department of Health and the HSE and the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, in particular. However, I am aware from discussions when in that Department that it is focused on trying to move away from services delivered on the basis of diagnosis to services delivered on the basis of need and that arising from that need and service, a diagnosis would arise that might allow a more honed and focused service to be made available. In other words, we want to get away from the situation where parents have to pay large sums of money to private people to get a diagnosis in order to get a service. That is not in anybody's interest, particularly not the interest of the child.

We dealt with the social work issue quite comprehensively previously but because it is so important, I am happy to deal with it again. It is true that social workers are resigning at the rate of one a week, which is a cause of great concern to those involved in this area. However, with approximately 1,400 social workers, the rate of resignations is just between 6% and 10%. This compares favourably with international statistics. In America, the rate varies from 20% to 40% from state to state. In New South Wales, the rate is over 20% and in Wales, it is 15%. The Deputy asked a reasonable question, as to why the rate of resignation is twice what it might be in management. Clearly, this has to do with the stressful nature of the job. This is the case regardless of where the job is carried out, whether here, the United States, the United Kingdom or Australia.

It is a great tribute to our social workers that the rate here is so low and that their commitment is so great and that they enjoy their work. I met their representative body, which made clear what the issues are. I am clear on the issues and I wish to support social workers in every way I can, particularly in regard to the lack of IT resources and doing work that others could and should be doing. Social workers are highly trained and specialised and they alone can do certain types of work. That is the work they should be doing, not work others, such as liaison officers, could be doing. Social workers are happy to do this work, because there is nobody else to do it, but somebody else should be available. We are looking at this in the context of the new approach we are developing.

The Deputy asked when would staff be in place for the low pay commission and when it would commence. The staff are in place and I visited them in Baggott Street . We look forward to them making progress. The commission is,de facto,up and running, because the Taoiseach has signed the order.

Both the Deputy and Senator van Turnhout asked about the ombudsman and direct provision. There is no plan currently to give the ombudsman a remit in this area. This will be an across-government decision. Responsibility currently rests with the Department of Justice and Equality and the Reception Integration Agency, RIA. I have listened to what has been said and will discuss the issue at Cabinet.

I welcome the support offered in regard to the plain packaging initiative for tobacco products. I reassure the committee there will be no resiling by the Government on this initiative and that we will not be dictated to by external forces. The Deputy welcomed the fact there will be no cuts to youth work. I welcome that also. There is phenomenal volunteerism in this area and as a nation we can be proud so many people are prepared to give freely of their time to help young people develop. The involvement of youth in these programmes is among the highest internationally, which reflects the excellence of the service.

On the question as to why the national lottery funding is gone, in the cut and thrust of negotiations with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform we let it go. It would not be absolutely true to say that by letting it go, we got €26 million extra, but letting it go made it easier to negotiate a better deal in a spirit of good will. Clearly, with all the choices we have to make within a budget, we must look at the areas in greatest danger and greatest need. Children without a social worker are a priority and we must focus on them.

I understand what Senator van Turnhout said about the special rapporteur, but I am not in a position to withdraw the response given. She asked what the point was of the rapporteur making these recommendations if they are not taken on board and implemented. The counter argument to that would be what is the point of having a government if it can be dictated to by a rapporteur? We take on board the advice and recommendations of the rapporteur, but I understand the Senator's disappointment that some of the issues have not been fully taken up with all the Departments. These are issues we can continue to look at.

Perhaps Mr. Ryan or Dr. Lynch would like to comment on the issue of the rapporteur.

Dr. Fergal Lynch:

I can say something, if that would be of assistance. As the Minister said, we looked carefully at each of the reports produced by the special rapporteur and take them very seriously. We examine each report and then reach a conclusion. As the Minister has said, there are instances where we agree and others where we do not. I will try to be helpful on one area. Senator van Turnhout raised the question of a review of the Child Care Act. I confirm that we have done significant work on scoping a review of that Act. We have no argument that the Act needs significant review and amendment and we have put together a piece of work that I am examining currently. I expect to discuss this with the Minister shortly.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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I have raised the matter of children dropping out of the education system with the Minister previously and understand that this falls under the remit of the Department of Education and Skills. However, I had a consultation yesterday with the people providing a centre in Cork which now has 45 children who have dropped out of education attending it. Schools are getting the capitation grant for these children, but the children are not attending those schools. The total funding from the Department of Education and Skills for this centre is €47,500 and the centre has 60 people working in it on a voluntary basis. As recently as yesterday, they advised me they have had meetings with all of the major players, including the local education board, the school attendance officers and the Department of Health.

We need to set up some structure to deal with young people who are dropping out of the education system. Will the Department of Children and Youth Affairs come on board to look at this issue? This situation arises not just in Cork, but in other parts of the country also. School attendance officers refer young children who have little or no parental support to this centre in Cork. The schools the children were attending are not supportive, because they have enough demands from the children who attend them. The centre in Cork is providing one-on-one education through the 55 to 60 people who work on a voluntary basis. This cannot continue without funding. The centre has funding up until June 2015, but what will happen after that? Must the centre close down then?

I have been speaking to private enterprise to try to get some backing for the centre and we are getting some support. Up to now, the Christian Brothers were providing €100,000 per annum, but they can no longer provide that.

I am just asking that the Department come on board in dealing with the scenario in which young people, some as young as ten, are dropping out of the education system and schools are not able to accommodate them. I know the Department of Education and Skills has a very fixed view that they must stay in the education system, but it is not happening. We need to examine this. It is interesting to talk to the Garda chief superintendent. His attitude is that if we do not look after them they will end up on his doorstep within a very short period. Would the Department look at this project and other similar projects?

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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With regard to some of the responses I have received, particularly to Question No. 14, I pose the question on amalgamating the current inspection services into a single and standardised inspection service. The current situation in relation to preschool and early years services is that there is a multiplicity of inspections and inspection regimes in operation - Tusla, the Department of Education and Skills and Better Start. The Minister indicated in his reply that they feed in to a future review of our regulatory system, as he described it. However, he went on to say that it was far too early to decide whether to move to a single model of inspection. I am fairly certain that providers across the country would very much favour the introduction of a streamlined single inspection approach that would meet all needs in the various areas - Tusla, the Department of Education and Skills, etc. It is not the case that all of these agencies need to have independent inspection controls; it is that we could have a single inspection process that feeds back to all the respective Departments and agencies, as the case may be. I do not believe it is too early to decide on that. I would take the view that there is ample evidence and long-established information to support the development of the single inspection process across the board. I ask the Minister to comment on that.

Regarding the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures policy, I noted that in the Minister's reply he said the development of an implementation plan was nearing completion. I do not know if this is an error in the text or otherwise, but it goes on to say it will outline a three-year schedule of actions associated with 163 commitments for the period 2014-2016. I notice that Mr. Lynch is indicating something. I thought it was an error. Heaven forbid they might get it finished before the end of 2016. It would be very helpful. I would like the accurate information in the response I have received, please. Maybe that could be clarified in reply to my question.

I am running out of time. I am down at the bottom of the heap now, but I know the Chairman is very, very accommodating.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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The Chair is very accommodating.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I will park the rest of my questions except for one.

The Minister indicated that he had recently had a meeting with the Association of Childhood Professionals. He stated: "We are in agreement about the importance of future investment" - this was reflected by a colleague earlier - and said he had established an interdepartmental group. That is very important, because it is an interdepartmental group that must address this matter. Can the Minister confirm to the committee that the group will be working on the same premise - that there is agreement on the importance of future investment?

With regard to the Early Childhood Care and Education, ECCE, scheme, it is critical that the education aspect of it is paramount. That is my certain view. It needs to be seen and needs to be continued in the context of early education. I would hope the Minister will share the detail of that report by the summer.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I commend Deputy Ó Caoláin on his new role.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I concur with Deputy Ó Caoláin. The committee is hugely important and I am excited about the fact that it is actually going to report in a couple of months, because usually when committees are set up they go off into a black hole and we do not hear from them for two years. It is great that we are going to get results from that committee by the summer, and I look forward to it. We will do whatever we can to assist the Minister.

The ECCE is magic and it is really working, but the take-up is only 95%. I think we can agree that the 5%, apart from maybe one or two instances, consists of children who have disabilities, particularly intellectual disabilities. I know the Department cannot provide the supports - it has to come from the HSE - and I know there is no consistency in the provision of support through the HSE for children to access the ECCE scheme. I wrote to the Minister for Health last week asking him if he would consider supporting children with intellectual disabilities in accessing the ECCE year if they currently do not, and to instruct individual county HSE boards that have disability budgets. We do that in Meath and have done so for eight years. No one took a stick to our legs to make us do it. They did it in Meath because it is the right thing to do, and I would guarantee that, if one looked at the statistics, one would see that we do not have the same gap in services that other counties have. I ask the Minister specifically if he would support the request that the Minister for Health do that. If he does so, could he write to him and add his Department's weight to that proposition? Thank you.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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Just to clarify something for Senator Burke, the Senator has made these points on numerous occasions about the particular facility he mentioned. Where people who have fallen out of school are being encouraged back into an educational setting using volunteers, he asks why the schools are getting the capitation fees when these children are not attending school, and why that money cannot be transferred over to support organisations such as this in providing services. He has mentioned the fact that the funding from the Christian Brothers cannot be guaranteed for the future and they have more or less told him they cannot do it again next year. The Senator asked specifically whether my Department would come on board to support the position. We certainly would do so. We would be very happy to approach the Department of Education and Skills in the context of the school completion programmes that we run and see how we can maximise funding for that, particularly where the school is being funded for work it does not have to do because these children are not attending.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I want to reinforce Senator Burke's point, because I have been in the same place. The work they are doing there is tremendous. If you talk to the local community gardaí, or the local superintendent, they will tell you that it will cost the State tenfold, in the context of preventative measures, if we do not support the facility. I understand it is not orthodox in the sense that we would not all be familiar with it, but without putting the Minister on the spot, I ask him whether he or some of his officials could visit the facility, because it is absolutely fantastic. I speak as a teacher who has taught leaving certificate applied course and lower-stream classes where kids struggle. Their reason for coming to school is perhaps not as strong as those in the A stream. In my experience, these kids have taken the initiative and made the most of a second opportunity. I join with Senator Burke in appealing to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Education and Skills to think outside the box with regard to this facility. I know we are not flush in terms of finances, but I think this is one thing we should really look at. It is not even in my constituency, so I am not being parochial about it.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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Nine of the children this year have sat the junior certificate and two sat the leaving certificate applied. That was because of one-to-one education being provided on a voluntary basis by people up there, people who are either studying for their higher diploma or are retired teachers. They are doing the work.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I have given my response. I am perfectly happy to approach the Department of Education and Skills in the context of the school completion programme.

It may be that we should join with the Irish Youth Justice Service too in terms of Garda diversion and so forth and gather its views on it. We will pursue it.

Deputy Ó Caoláin spoke about having a single inspection service for the ECCE scheme. Having dual inspections is not unique to this country. They do it in the North of Ireland and many other countries as well. This is an initiative of the Department of Education and Skills, and I have spoken with the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. We are both of the view that we want to minimise red tape for operators. We do not want to be making life miserable for them with inspections every second day of the week. While we are not at a point to be able to say there will be single inspections, that is what I would like to see. We will work closely with the Department of Education and Skills to ensure this happens. At this point in time, however, I cannot guarantee that this will be the initial situation. It is what I would strive for, though, and I would welcome the Deputy's support in achieving it.

I will let the Secretary General address the details on the wording of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, or BOBF as it is called, and the reference to the 2014 to 2016 period. I agree that an interdepartmental group is important. We now have a wonderful opportunity to look at this area and to get more coherence and cohesion in respect of the money we spent on it. It is not just about education. Child care issues have to be examined as well. We have to support parents to support their children in order to get the best outcomes for children. We cannot just look at zero to six year olds alone. We need to look at the problems parents have in the areas of primary school and older schoolgoing children as well. The idea behind this is to have a proper analysis. Everyone puts their cards on the table and arising from this we will get a menu of options. The Government can then decide, if extra money is available, how and where it should be spent. It is equally important to look at the money we are spending at the moment to ensure we are getting the best outcomes for children from it. Sometimes we get involved in things because of the ad hocnature of the way certain services have evolved. People are giving up their time and feel they are doing the right thing. However, when one analyses the outcomes, sometimes the results are disappointing. A better result might be achieved if the focus was shifted slightly. Everyone working in this area is doing so in the best interests of children. There is no doubt about that. This, of course, is in our own interest because the children are our future. I think we all acknowledge that.

I thank Deputy Doherty for her welcome for the interdepartmental group. We do not have information to validate her contention that the 5% is made up mainly of children with a disability. Some of these children have disabilities. In the case of other children, their parents have decided that they will be schooled at home. There are children in DEIS schools and there are other children who are technically in other schemes. It would not be true, therefore, to give that impression. However, having said that, we need to get the figures so that we can speak with absolute authority rather than with supposition, as I have just done and of which I am always nervous.

I am a huge supporter of making more support available for children with disabilities in the ECCE scheme and have no problem writing to the Minister about it. However, this is a Government decision. There are 10,000 special needs assistants in the education system. We do not have a comparative level of support in the early years programmes. Not alone should we have it, we must have it. I will fight very hard for funding to achieve it. This is where it all begins. The earlier the intervention, the better the outcome. Many of these children have huge potential to be tapped into.

Dr. Fergal Quinn:

To clarify the issue raised by Deputy Ó Caoláin and the reference to the 2014 to 2016 period, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures was published in April 2014. We immediately set about putting in place a three-year schedule of actions. The reference to 2014 to 2016 is a reference to that three-year schedule of actions that is part of the implementation plan. The 2014 component has already passed. However, the schedule represents a series of actions which are partly from the 2014 and early 2015 period. These are already in place. We then move onto 2016, and by 2017 we will have a period for a mid-point review. I sent the implementation plan we are looking at, which deals with that three-year period. It looks partly backwards but mostly forwards. I apologise if it caused confusion.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I wish to clarify one thing and ensure there is no misunderstanding on what I said with regard to the special rapporteur on child protection. I do not expect the Department to accept a report and take on board all the recommendations. I have a specific question. When the Minister came to his decision not to act, had he or his officials consulted with the special rapporteur on child protection, given the extensive consultations he had undertaken? I do not expect an answer now. However, given that the Minister is undertaking a review, I would have thought it would make sense to consult with the special rapporteur.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Given his role and the quality of the presentations Geoffrey Shannon gives - not just to us - is there a regular level of consultation, and how interactive is it? My experience, and I am sure it is the committee's experience also, is that he is very independent but also a thought-provoking and sincere person. He presents great reports to this committee.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I have met with Geoffrey Shannon on a number of occasions and I think the Secretary General has too. We will be meeting him again in respect of this specific issue.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank most sincerely the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Reilly, Dr. Lynch and all of the staff from the Department for their co-operation, assistance and courtesy and for the very important work they do.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 12.15 p.m.