Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Committee on Health and Children: Select Sub-Committee on Children and Youth Affairs

Estimates for Public Services
Vote 40 - Department of Children and Youth Affairs (Supplementary)

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 from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Dr. Fergal Lynch, Secretary General, Mr. Dermot Ryan and Ms Bernie McNally. I thank them for being here today. I also thank Deputies McLellan and Troy for their co-operation. Apologies have been received from Deputies Regina Doherty and Dan Neville.

This meeting has been convened to consider the following Supplementary Estimate for Public Services: Vote 40 - the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The Dáil, by virtue of an order made on 19 November 2015, referred this Estimate to the Select Sub-Committee on Children and Youth Affairs pursuant to Standing Orders 82A(3)(c) and (6)(a) and 159(3) and paragraph (8) of the Orders of Reference of Select Committees and asked the select sub-committee to report back to the Dáil not later than 9 December 2015.

I invite the Minister, Deputy James Reilly, to make his opening statement.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I apologise for delaying the start of this committee but the heavy traffic is a sign of a recovering economy.

I welcome the opportunity to appear before the select sub-committee to outline particulars relating to the Supplementary Estimate, Vote 40, in respect of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The committee will be aware that the Supplementary Estimate is for €15 million and relates, in the main, to meeting increased costs arising under the operational remit of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, in the areas of sleepover payments and private residential care.

An industrial relations settlement relating to twilight hours, or sleepover payments, was not provided for in 2015 as no agreement had been reached at the time of making 2015 allocations. The cost pressures experienced in the areas of private residential care and private foster care payments are driven by factors in demographics such as an increase in the numbers of children in care due to the fact that children are staying in care longer overall and the complexity of the challenges facing the children coming into these care placements. Savings targeted for 2015 will not be achieved owing to the need to protect, in so far as possible, front line service delivery. There are also legal cost pressures which continue to arise. In the main, these pressures relate to increasing GAL costs and third party costs over which Tusla has no control but which are paid through it.

It will be possible this year to offset some of the required additionality in these areas from savings in other areas of the Tusla subhead, including payroll and capital. The remaining portion of the required Supplementary Estimate is of a technical nature in which the reduced intake of receipts into the Department's Vote is to be offset against a corresponding reduction in expenditure on subhead B8 relating to the intervention programme for children.

The request for a Supplementary Estimate for Tusla for 2015 must be seen in the context of the favourable budget outcome for 2016. As a result of this budgetary outcome, I have been able to allocate significant additional resources to Tusla next year. I thank my Government colleagues for that too. The case I made to Government colleagues around this funding was predicated on the management of risk. This became most apparent in the area of unallocated cases with which members will be very familiar. What followed was the preparation by Tusla of a business case for investment in children and family services. This document, Survival to Sustainability, set out the many challenges being faced. It detailed and quantified the additional resources which will be required over the coming years to address these matters. It was also clear from both the business case and discussions between Tusla and officials from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs that some of these pressures are being felt in the current year. This is a contributory factor to the need for this Supplementary Estimate.

My appearance today also provides me with a valuable opportunity to briefly reflect on the progress made to date by Tusla since its establishment at the start of 2014. The agency was established to provide a one-stop-shop for children, by bringing together key services for children from the HSE children and family services, the National Education and Welfare Board, the Family Support Agency and a number of other services, including psychological services and domestic and sexual violence support services. The establishment of Tusla was a key priority for the Government.

The intervening two years has seen Tusla make good progress in the reform and delivery of services to vulnerable children and families at a time of particular budgetary restraint. In this regard, the committee will be particularly conscious of the issues highlighted by the agency itself and by HIQA that arose in some parts of the country, including counties Laois, Offaly, Louth and Meath. Tusla has worked intensively to address these matters, both in dealing with the areas of immediate concern and by putting in place special measures to support good practice in the future.

The committee will also be aware that for some time, I have been very concerned about the number of cases awaiting a dedicated social work service. I know this has been a serious concern for the committee also. At my request, Tusla carried out an audit of these cases which formed an important part of my Estimates bid for 2016. Action on this area, grounded in a significant and challenging recruitment programme, together with work on developing caseload management, standard business practices and a quality assurance strategy will help Tusla address the demands on the service to enable it to meet the needs of all vulnerable children in the right way, at the right time.

In accordance with legislative requirements, Tusla has developed its first three year corporate plan for 2015-17 in response to my Department’s performance framework. The plan includes the agency’s key objectives, outputs and related strategies and sets out the agency’s medium-term strategy for service delivery and reform. This corporate plan underpins the agency’s annual business plan, which is prepared in response to my annual performance statement. I issued the performance statement for 2016 to the agency last month and the 2016 business plan is currently being prepared by Tusla in response.

The next step for the Child and Family Agency in its start-up phase, having gained a clear understanding of where gaps and solutions lie, is to commence implementing new structures to better resource and to drive service delivery and reform. Every child who is the subject of a child protection or welfare concern is entitled to expect a timely response.

Through 2014 and 2015 Tusla has continued to develop its services and to address a number of key concerns regarding child welfare and protection services. As Minister, I am fully supportive of the agency’s implementation of a wide-ranging programme in this area. The increased funding available to Tusla in 2016 will allow it to build on these initiatives and the further necessary reform of services will continue to be a high priority. There is more work to do and Tusla would be the first to say so. However, it is important to say that in its annual overview earlier in 2015, HIQA noted evidence of improving services and good practice in children’s social care in many regions. It is now important that we all build on the progress to date to further improve service delivery to children and families.

I seek the select sub-committee’s approval for the Supplementary Estimate, Vote 40, and in doing so, I will be happy to hear any comments and to take questions from members.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister. I remind members we will have the quarterly meeting next week, so I would appreciate it if they did not stray into quarterly meeting territory during their contributions.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister and his officials for appearing before the committee. No one would dare to argue with an increase in funding to Tusla as it is very much-needed. Members across the political divide would acknowledge that the agency has struggled to keep up with everything we would like to see it address. Last year alone, Mr. Gordon Jeyes, the CEO of Tusla, called for €18 million extra just to keep up with the shortfall in social workers. We have seen a 17% cut to domestic violence services since 2012 while counselling services were cut by 47%. There has been a 5% cut year on year to the school completion programme and the family resource centres.

Many of the good schemes dealing with prevention and early intervention have not been able to fulfil their obligations and are becoming reactionary and are only getting involved when a problem manifests itself and it becomes abundantly clear State intervention is needed. That is not what any of us want to see the agency dealing with. We want to see the agency intervening at an early stage to prevent many problems from manifesting themselves. While I welcome the extra €15 million, I have grave reservations that it is not enough.

The Minister referred to the recovering economy, which is true and needs to be acknowledged. However, when one heard of huge increases in revenue returns announced this week, one wonders whether the Minister is selling the agency short by only looking for a €15 million increase. Mr. Gordon Jeyes is on record as saying that €18 million is needed just to keep pace with the shortfall in social workers alone. We are not even keeping pace with what Mr. Jeyes said he requires.

A bugbear of mine, which I have repeatedly highlighted, is the amount of money being spent, from limited resources, on legal fees. Previously, the Minister criticised my party and the fact the GAL system was introduced. It is legacy issue. However, this Government has been in office for five years. At a time of such limited resources, we are spending large amounts of money on an unregulated service. I am aware the Minister published a draft document in the past four to five weeks on regulating the service. Will the Minister indicate how much his Department has spent on legal fees, in terms of the administration of the GAL system, over the past four years? The huge amount of money being spent on legal fees is questionable at a time when people are waiting months to have a social worker assigned to them and when thousands of cases are not being treated with the urgency they warrant. Will the Minister outline exactly how much has been spent on legal fees in the past four years?

I turn to the other cost pressures. The Minister spoke about private residential care and private foster care payments and the demographic factors driving these increases. The Minister said more children are in care for longer periods of time. Last year, Dr. Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children, identified the huge delay in assessing children who are vulnerable. Does the Minister believe this increase in funding is sufficient given the backlog of cases that have yet to be assessed and the potential for a further increase in the number of children who may need to go into foster care or residential care?

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister and his officials for being here and thank the Minister for his presentation. I have a small criticism. I would like to get the notes and documentation a little bit earlier so that I would have more time to prepare. Sometimes the supporting documentation comes in late and it could be late in the evening before we get a chance to look over it.

The €15 million is a minimal amount in the overall spend but it does not come as a surprise because it has been well highlighted that Tusla is underfunded. I acknowledge the Minister has allocated extra funds next year but when one takes into consideration all the different agencies under the umbrella of Tusla, when the money is divvied out, it means very tight budgets for many of these agencies and it is hard to stay within these budgets. A Supplementary Estimate has been brought forward this year but we cannot bring one forward next year. If there is an overspend next year, it will be a cause for concern.

The Minister said savings targets for 2015 would not be achieved owing to the need to protect, in so far as possible, front line service delivery. That is a bit strange because the State would have had to provide resources to protect the children anyway, so it is just stating the obvious. No provision was made for the industrial relations settlement on twilight hours. Should the Minister not have made a provision, such as a contingency fund, to cover this? Is this something that came out of the blue for which his Department was not prepared?

Tusla's main focus should always be to provide the best care possible in an efficient manner, something on which everybody agrees. Will the Minister indicate, in the context of spending breakdown, how much funding is allocated to each measure he has put forward? My other queries were covered by Deputy Troy, so I will leave it at that for now.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Does Deputy Byrne have a question?

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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No. I want to hear the Minister's reply.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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We all agree this is a new agency and it is only a couple of years since its establishment. Clearly, finding the level of funding it requires, and predicting the funding it requires, is more an art than a science for the first couple of years. I believe we have a handle on it now. I am pleased the agency was able to conduct the audit of unallocated places I requested of it and to produce and price a business plan. It is a realistic business plan as it is based on a three-year approach. People will complain that three years is a long time but this is an issue which has bedevilled successive Governments over many decades. To finally get a handle on it, to have a plan to deal with it and to be in a position to provide the agency with the money it requested for the first year of that plan, because of our recovering economy, is to be welcomed. I acknowledge Tusla's efforts in this regard; it has done a very good job. We have given the money and I met with the board in recent days. I have made it very clear that it is now up to the agency. I have every confidence in the agency to deliver. It has done a very good job to date.

The agency faces serious challenges. It must recruit many staff but due to the recovering economy, there is competition for talent, for social workers and others. The Department has supported the agency as far as it can with resources but now it is over to it.

We are here to debate the Supplementary Estimate and we will have an opportunity next week to debate the broader business plan and services, etc., more fully. The funding announced for 2016 is very close to what was sought by Tusla, the spending of which represents a major challenge for it. We have given it sufficient money and today is about the Supplementary Estimate. Tusla, not unlike the HSE, is a demand-led service. We cannot predict how many children will need to go into care. We cannot predict what issues will arise and many of the events which occur in our society are beyond the control of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

We seek to protect our children and I think we are all committed to that. I thank the members of the committee for their commitment to that. We all want to support the Department and Tusla in achieving the best outcomes for our children. I thank members for their comments. I do not know that it is particularly useful to over analyse what has happened but let us be clear I concur with Deputy Troy's concern about legal fees. My Department is developing policy around this issue. We are looking at best practice in the North of Ireland and elsewhere and it is an issue that does consume us because nobody wants to see money that has been allocated by the taxpayer for the care of children going into the hands of the legal profession, no disrespect to them.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I concur with what the Minister has said and I am conscious that next week we have another opportunity at the quarterly meeting to go into the general scheme of things for next year. I acknowledge it is a new agency but many of the schemes run by the agency are not new. For example, the school completion programme, family resource centres, domestic services and the counselling services have been in operation for many years and have proven their worth but have had their funding drastically cut in recent years. There is nothing in the Supplementary Estimate to restore any of those cuts. The Minister said nobody can predict what will happen or how many children will come into care at any particular time and there is an element of truth in that but one also has the benefit of previous years of knowing the number of children on average who have come into care in the past ten decades. He will be aware there has been an increase in the number of referrals because people are much more vigilant than in the past, as a consequence of the awful inquiries we had to conduct into our shameful past on how we treated children. As a result there are more children who need more intervention and a greater level of support. We should be able to budget for that but, unfortunately, we have not been doing so.

It is not good enough for the Minister in his position as head of the Department to brush over and say that he concurs with my sentiments in respect of the legal costs because he is in a position to do something about it. I produced legislation 12 months ago in terms of how we might look at regulating this industry based on looking at best practice in other jurisdictions. I am sure it is easy for the Minister or any of his officials to put a finger on this - how much did we spend on legal fees in the past four and half years at a time when we were cutting family resource centres, counselling services and domestic services? It is not good enough, after four and half years, to say we are working on the issue and will address it. In my opinion, the savage downturn in the economy actually gave an opportunity to look at look at where there was waste. Nobody wanted to see it but there was an opportunity to look at the waste and reprioritise the areas to which funding was being allocated. In a Department which is so critical in terms of the protection and welfare of our children and so many services in the community that it supports, legal fees would not have been high on the agenda. One of my first priorities would have been to rein them in and ensure the money was best spent on front line services.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I call Deputy Byrne.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I am sorry I did not come in earlier, I was waiting to hear what the Minister had to say. Fist, can I say to Deputy Troy-----

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Sorry, Deputy, we cannot have any back and forth banter.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I can address some of the issues he raised because I think it is important to do so.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Sure.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the increase in the provision for Tusla. Tusla has made a huge impact in communities in guiding groups as to how they should and should not function. If one was to take everything into account, we are in a different space than five or six years ago. When the previous Government was in office there was a huge duplication of services and money was being poured out to beat the band in communities. In my own community, I am aware of the amount of money that was paid to different groups and agencies, family resources centres and so on. It is not all about money, it is about the quality of the service who run it. Money is important but it is not the be all and end all of everything. It does not make running a family resource centre or any other agency better. What makes it better is that it is run properly and that the people in charge are capable of running it. I can only speak about my community. In the past money was poured into every agency, every community group and every family resource centre. Some of it did not make a damn difference because there was a duplication of services. In fairness to the Department and Tusla, things are starting to show a better picture of how things should be managed. This is what this is about, it is not about pouring money into services. It is about managing what one has and being able to distribute it properly and use it with better standards than have been used previously. I welcome the funding that is being allocated - whether it is will become known in time. I am very happy that Tusla has a plan for the next three years and maybe in that time it will have the opportunity to establish what services really work. There are services out there that are not working, they are a shambles and we need to look at them, parish by parish, at this stage. There are groups who say they are doing X, Y and Z when I know in my heart and soul they are not doing X, Y and Z. I welcome the increase in the funding but it is rich of anybody who was a member of the then Government to criticise it given that when there was huge money in this country it continued to pour it in and took no responsibility for the way that money was used in communities. That is the sad reflection of where we are today.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I call Deputy McLellan.

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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While I agree with Deputy Bryne that quality is extremely important, money is also important. The family resource centres have provided a fantastic service and have made representations to all of us, showing how the funding cuts they have had to deal with are impacting the service. It is important that they have enough money to provide the service they have provided in recent years.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I remind all members that we will have the opportunity next week for the quarterly meeting with the Minister.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Chairman.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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If the Minister does not have the information to hand for Deputy Troy re legal costs perhaps he might forward it.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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That, to be quite frank, is not the issue.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I understand that.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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It is December, Christmas is coming and I am reminded of the fact that this is a particularly important time for children and, therefore, I do not really want to respond in many respects to the highly political charges that Deputy Troy has levelled. I am reminded of Bill Clinton and his comment - what is really annoying you is that it is taking us so long to clean up your mess. The bottom line here is that for many years my good colleague, Deputy Alan Shatter, fought with the Government, of which Deputy Troy was a member, to determine how many children were dying in care. He could not get that information for over two years. We now have a situation where not alone do we have clarity on all of these things, we have a committee that looks at those situations-----

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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Most people advertising-----

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I will chair the meeting. I will have one speaker at a time, please.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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The reality here is that we have much greater clarity; we have a Department devoted to children; we have had a children's referendum; and we have enshrined in the Constitution the rights of children and, into the future, we will honour our children who are our citizens. They are entitled to a present as well as a future, which is our future, a shared future.

I find it extraordinary that the Deputy talks about the issue of legal services when it was his party in government that presided over all this. We are endeavouring to ensure this is addressed but these matters take time, as we all know. When it comes to law, there will always be challenges. There is always difficulty in changing the status quobut we are determined to do that. My Department and Tusla are actively engaged and energised about this issue.

I agree with Deputy Byrne and I thank her for her comments. It is not just about money. It is also about ethos and attitude. From my experience as a GP who visited St. Ita's Hospital for over 20 years, while the building was nothing to be particularly proud of, with the paint peeling, large rooms and Victorian conditions, the care and ethos were without question. When some of these patients moved to the palatial surroundings of Leas Cross, it was the care that let them down.

I thank the people who work in our services, in particular in Tusla and the social workers who do such sterling work. We will continue to support them as best we can. Today's discussion is on the Supplementary Estimate to help support them and help protect our children in order that as we grow older, these young, up and coming citizens will have the values and opportunities we want them to have so we can all share a better future. That is what today is about.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I understand that the Minister will revert to me on the specific question I asked about how much has been expended on legal fees in the past four and a half years.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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This is not on an adversarial note but it is important the committee receives the information on the Estimate in a timely manner. There is an issue not only with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs but other Departments in terms of the process through which we receive information. Deputy McLellan made the point that it often comes to us very late, so I ask officials to work with us to make sure we get it earlier. It is important and we appreciate the co-operation from the Department. It is difficult for members when some of the information comes to us late.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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Can I make a point?

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Yes.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I mean this genuinely. I want to support this committee because its work supports me, the work I do and the children of our country. The more clarity and transparency we have, the better. The more timely the manner we deliver information to the committee, the better. I and my Department will do everything we can to make sure we deliver on that.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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As the select sub-committee has completed its consideration of the Supplementary Estimate, Vote 40 - Children and Youth Affairs, the clerk will send a message to that effect to the Clerk of the Dáil in accordance with Standing Order 87. Under Standing Order 86(2), that message is deemed to be the report of the committee. I thank everyone for attending.