Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 19 February 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs
General Scheme of the Miscellaneous Provisions (Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on 29 March 2019) Bill 2019: Minister for Children and Youth Affairs
On behalf of the joint committee I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, who is accompanied by her departmental officials Ms Éimear Fisher, assistant secretary, Mr. Denis O'Sullivan and Mr. Albert O'Donoghue, principal officers, and Mr. Michael Keenan, assistant principal officer. They are joined by the interim CEO of Tusla, Mr. Pat Smith, and Mr. Cormac Quinlan, director of transformation and policy at Tusla.
I welcome members and viewers who may be watching proceedings on Oireachtas television to the public session of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs.
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. May I remind members to switch off their mobile phones as they will interfere with the recording systems? I wish to advise the Minister that any submissions or opening statements made to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting. The presentation will be followed by questions from members of the committee, as is normal.
I call on the Minister, Deputy Zappone, to make her opening statement.
I thank the Chairman for the invitation to discuss Brexit and how it will impact on the workings of my Department and Tusla. It is great to be here.
The number of Brexit-related matters that lie in the areas of responsibility of my Department or Tusla to address in their entirety are small. Of course, there is a multitude of issues raised by the Brexit process which may impact across all of Government, on its services and on the citizens and businesses of this State. I would like to use our time today to focus on issues of specific interest to the committee. In particular, there are a small number of areas in respect of which, in conjunction with other departmental colleagues, my officials are seeking to mitigate our potential exposure post the UK leaving the European Union.
Before getting to those issues, may I highlight some of the issues that have been consistently raised by young people as matters of concern to them? I thought it was really important the Department would go to them and hear from them. Those issues have remained remarkably consistent since the intention of the UK to leave the European Union was confirmed.
From my own Brexit-related consultations with young people in Croke Park and Dáil na nÓg and the Ombudsman for Children's consultations with young people on Brexit and other events, the themes that are coming from them are pretty much the same. They may be summarised as follows. Brexit will impact profoundly on the island of Ireland and the current generation of young people will be those who will have to live with the decisions made during the negotiations. A hard border and regression to the violence of the past is to be avoided at all costs. The Good Friday Agreement is to be protected. Brexit must not be utilised to drive deeper societal division. Brexit must not limit opportunity for those on the island of Ireland. Work, travel and study opportunity for all must be maintained. The North-South co-operation in healthcare, education, policing, safety and child protection must remain. Access to services must be guaranteed.
While all of these issues are of concern to young people on this island, most of them fall to other Departments and agencies to address. For example, access to education is a matter for colleagues in the Department of Education and Skills and the Good Friday Agreement falls within the remit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which, as the committee will be aware, is leading on much of our Brexit response, including in respect of areas such as the common travel area. This matter is really important for young people in particular and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade works closely with the Department of Justice and Equality and a number of other Departments in this area. Responding to Brexit is a whole-of-Government exercise.
Moving to my Department, we work with the structures established by the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs and Trade to deal with Brexit related matters. In this regard, my officials have consistently contributed to the interdepartmental group on EU and Brexit, the Brexit co-ordinators group and the interdepartmental North-South co-ordinators group. This is in addition to representation on the groups dealing with a no-deal Brexit planning at Secretary General and assistant secretary general level which meet on a weekly basis. In light of this significant and ongoing analysis, three key issues have been identified as having the potential to impact to a greater or lesser degree on my Department and its work with Tusla.
The first issue is Council Regulation EC No. 2201/2003, Brussels IIa, which governs jurisdiction and recognition of judgments in matrimonial matters and matters of parental responsibility. While the majority of this regulation is applicable to private law matters and, therefore, related domestic issues would fall to the Department of Justice and Equality for consideration, the regulation does provide the framework by which children in the care of a member state may be transferred to the jurisdiction of another member state. The regulation also sets out the issues for consideration in any proposed transfer of childcare proceedings from one member state to another, as well as providing a mechanism by which reports on children and families may be sought by relevant courts from member states. Where this regulation would have most resonance is in the transfer of young people to the UK for secure care or advanced therapeutic mental health services. At any point, there are roughly ten young Irish citizens being cared for in out-of-State provision. In a similar fashion, children from Northern Ireland placed in settings predominantly in the Border counties avail of the regulation to govern such placements. Legislation is not required in the event of Brussels IIa not being carried forward by the UK post-Brexit. While it would be prudent to draw up an agreement or a bilateral to restate the agreed procedures for out-of-State placements, there would be no legal impediment to such placements even without Brussels II. Moreover, the Protection of Children (Hague Convention) Act 2000 would facilitate placements similar to that operating under Brussels IIa. Consideration is being given to the need to put in place new protocols for consistency of practice and effective communications.
The second issue is recognition of qualifications. In tandem with other sectors, such as health, the recognition of professional qualifications into the future poses a particular challenge. Recognition of qualifications is a matter that is being led by colleagues in the Department of Education and Skills. The greatest source of potential impact for areas covered by my Department would be qualifications relevant to social work given the ongoing drive for the recruitment of social workers by Tusla. However, the risk associated with any divergence in qualifications is currently considered to be low. A process already exists within my Department for recognition of early years qualifications from third countries. This has been discussed with UK representatives at the British-Irish Council early years working group. This group will continue to provide an opportunity to exchange views on these issues. My Department has been liaising with the Department of Education and Skills on this matter. The latter has not raised any concerns regarding recognition of qualifications post-Brexit and is well equipped to deal with future recognition.
The third area is PEACE funding. This issue was also raised by young people in some of the earlier sessions. Youth services are included under the current PEACE IV programme, which means Brexit will impact in the context of PEACE funding. We welcome the commitments of the UK to the current PEACE programme and to a future PEACE PLUS programme, as well as the European Commission's proposals to ensure continuity of these vital funds. My Department and I will continue to advocate for the inclusion of the youth streams in a future programme. Any loss in this area would be a lost opportunity regarding funding for future youth services on both sides of the Border.
While confident the current PEACE programme will be maintained, any funding impacts on youth services as a result of Brexit will be kept under review throughout 2019. Depending on the exit mechanism chosen by the UK Government, I am conscious of the potential for Brexit to have varying degrees of impact on the young people of this State. My officials and I, however, are committed to working closely with colleagues at all levels of Government to ensure everything possible is done to mitigate any potential negative consequences of the decision of the UK to leave the EU in light of Brexit.
That concludes my opening remarks. I would be delighted to hear the views of the committee on this important topic and I have a group of great officials here to assist us.
I thank the Minister for her opening statement. I have two questions before calling Deputy Rabbitte. I appreciate this matter is not entirely within the remit of the Minister's Department, but given the presumed imminent departure of the UK from the European Union, with or without a deal and perhaps after an extension period, what steps can the State take to ensure mutual recognition of educational qualifications? Has the UK indicated to the Irish Government any proposed divergence from the standards regarding educational qualifications? Does the Minister envisage that there will be an impact upon our ability to recruit, in particular, social workers and social care workers? I am aware the committee discussed this issue last week and those two issues will be very important. Second, could the Minister go into some more detail about PEACE funding and how it affects her Department? Those are my two questions. I will call Deputy Rabbitte after the Minister responds.
I thank the Chair and his first question is a good one. In the context of a no-deal Brexit, the Department of Education and Skills is leading work, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and other Departments, to ensure, as far as possible, the provision of arrangements with the UK for the mutual recognition of qualifications. Aspects of that work will be referenced in the Bill we will be publishing on Brexit. Regarding anything not required to have a legislative basis, my understanding is that, as with other issues, we wish to ensure as much of an opportunity as possible for our young people by ensuring there are appropriate bilateral agreements between the jurisdictions.
The second part of the question posed concerned the recognition of qualifications and the recruitment of social workers. I referred to that as well. I am aware this committee discussed this issue last week or the week before. We are dealing with a global shortage of social workers. Tusla is well aware of that difficulty. It has to accept that situation and still move forward in finding new solutions to those recruitment challenges. It is also important to state that the issue of mutual recognition of qualifications also arises in the case of newly qualified workers. My colleague, Mr. Quinlan, might like to comment on that last aspect.
Mr. Cormac Quinlan:
There is a recognition process already in place, through CORU, for any institution in Europe or, indeed, beyond. That process already looks at individual applications for recognition and generally approves those.
As I said, there are already mechanisms in place to ensure that should not be a problem, particularly for social workers.
The reality is that any divergence from existing arrangements by the UK will result in the withdrawal of arrangements between the European Union and the UK, and this will result in a significant reduction in the availability of individuals who might have British qualifications. Has there been any discussion on this issue with the UK and, if so, are there any indications that it is planning to depart from existing arrangements? In regard to qualification recognition, is there something the UK could or may do that will result in that arrangement being broken or does it fall with Brexit? To the best of my knowledge, it does not.
Ms Éimear Fisher:
It goes to the nub of how a social worker is recognised here. My understanding is that it is on the basis of course content rather than qualification. If course content is recognised, then that will continue. Currently qualified people will continue to be recognised, but recognition of newly qualified people will be dependent on course content, which is considered by CORU. As long as there is a course content that is suitable and acceptable to CORU, that will happen. This goes to the broader question of how the Department of Education and Skills is considering the broader issue of qualifications. I hope that answers the Chairman's question.
It does, but it raises another question. There have been issues in terms of the Department recognising qualifications from other jurisdictions. In my experience, getting the Department to recognise or make a decision on recognition takes a long time. My concern is that if the UK failed to address this matter adequately in its negotiations with the EU, or the EU did not adequately address it with the UK, and there were to be a divergence in the future, the delay that might occur when the European Union looked to those criteria in respect of which the curriculum for qualifying social workers or any other profession had changed could mean that Ireland might suffer as a result. We do not have a large enough population to meet our requirement for social workers. Rather, we do not have enough of them and recruitment is insufficient to cater for the demand that exists. I want to flag this as an issue which the Minister might raise in her next conversation on this matter with the Minister for Education and Skills.
Mr. Cormac Quinlan:
Under the Health and Social Care Professionals Act 2005 there are a number of approved courses set out for social work. Anyone outside of that can apply through CORU for a recognition process. There is no automatic approval of courses from the UK as such. People have to apply for recognition based on course content and relevant work experience. The recognition process considers such applications and approves the applicant as meeting the standards of proficiency as set out in the Act. There should not be any blockage to anybody, even in a no-deal Brexit, being able to apply for a recognition process through CORU and have his or her qualification recognised here for social work in particular.
I will bring the matter to the attention of my colleague. On the second question regarding PEACE funding, my Department's Vote for 2019 includes €2.1 million for PEACE funding. The PEACE programme is 85% funded by the European Union, 7.5% by Ireland and 7.5% by Northern Ireland. It is important to point out that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has informed us that the Commission has guaranteed to continue funding under the PEACE IV programme, including the UK Government element should the UK Government renege on its previous commitment to fund its portion of the current programme, which is in place until 2021.
That is not to say the UK is anywhere near considering that option. Should that be the case, however, this is the contingency plan. The draft withdrawal agreement and the European Commission’s proposal for regulation in the event of a disorderly Brexit both provide the legal basis for the PEACE and INTERREG programmes to continue once the UK leaves the EU.
Many of the issues of which the Minister spoke were also articulated incredibly well by the children. I felt they were ahead of the curve, whereas adults might not have been taking the matter as seriously. Those children were taking it very seriously and their voices were well heard. My question to the Minister concerns what she said in her opening statement about her Department having a small role to play. That may be the case but what happens in her Department feeds into the other Departments that have a larger role. I am referring to the Department of Justice and Equality, in particular, regarding issues of child protection. We have a good working relationship at the moment with the PSNI and the British police forces and there is good sharing of information across borders.
In the context of a no-deal Brexit, which is the vacuum we are talking about, what is the Minister's understanding of how we will share information? How are we also going to ensure we deal effectively with the issue of child protection? That is a major concern for me. A unit of An Garda Síochána in the Phoenix Park specialises in working on child protection issues, including child trafficking. How will those issues be approached if the United Kingdom becomes a third country? What I have referred to relates to the Department of Justice and Equality.
How many meetings have the Minister and her officials had with the Minister for Health, the Minister of State with special responsibility for mental health issues and older people, the Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister for Justice and Equality in the past 12 months? I am sure those Departments are liaising with the Minister’s Department on issues such as care orders which might involve having to send children to the UK for various forms of support or treatment. How will that continue? In her statement, the Minister referred to "consideration" being given to the need for putting in place new protocols for consistency of practice and effective communications. What does "consideration" mean? Why has it not been put into practice and where are we at with that process of consideration? Those are my questions and I thank the Minister.
Those are excellent questions. Deputy Rabbitte was right when she stated that the concerns I referenced were expressed already by the young people themselves. Issues concerning child protection and the sharing of information, especially between the PSNI and An Garda Síochána, are critical. We discussed some of those issues today at Cabinet as a number are covered in the legislative change required in the context of Brexit. At the same time, we fully intend that type of information sharing to continue, both in the context of the practices and protocols that have developed as well as in any legislative changes required. Those issues, therefore, are being dealt with very explicitly.
In the context of the legislative framework, sharing of information continues as well from the perspective of the child’s best interest, the public interest and on the legal basis of the Children First Act 2015 and the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012. That is just to begin to answer Deputy Rabbitte’s first question. Turning to the Deputy's second question, there have been regular conversations, to which I have contributed, at Cabinet with the other Ministers concerned with these issues.
Complementing that, and perhaps more in terms of the detail to which the Deputy is referring, all of the Secretaries General have been meeting on a regular basis during the past six months in order to tease out some of the detail of some of these other issues. Ms Fisher will add to my remarks.
Ms Éimear Fisher:
We certainly have had contact on a bilateral basis but also all of this is co-ordinated by the Department of the Taoiseach through our weekly meetings of Secretaries General, the weekly meetings of the assistant secretaries and the meetings of the co-ordinators, where these issues are raised. Apart from that we have raised issues that we have identified and which all Departments were required to do some time ago. The Deputy has raised a question on the key issues for our Department.
In respect of child protection and sharing of information, the legal advice we received was that it was quite strong in that the child's best interest would always trump any other situation, for example if it is in the child's best interest to share the information, one shares the information. Falling back from that is the public interest, which would be a safety net also but finally there would be the legal basis for the sharing of information, which is set out in the Children First Act 2015, and the Criminal Justice (Withholding of information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012. If all of that still does not provide the certainty, which we would say it does, if there is still something behind that, then there would be a need for a protocol, but there is no legislation required as of this time.
Secure care information can be shared on those three bases also, but in the light of the uncertainty as to how Britain will leave, it is impossible to put those agreements in place at present. The understanding from the Department of Justice and Equality is that the Protection of Children (Hague Convention) Act 2000 steps in regarding the placing of children in other jurisdictions, from one member state to another member state. That would facilitate the placing of children in another member state. If Britain moves, the Hague Convention steps in. Behind that we are also considering a protocol for a belt and braces requirement. It will not be required, but at the same time, ar eagla na heagla we will look at that as well.
This question is directed to Ms Fisher. We have spoken about the belt and braces and we have spoken about secure care, but if we could step it back a little further again, what about a child protection issue where a child would be abducted in Ireland and brought to the United Kingdom or Northern Ireland, or vice versa, a child abducted in the UK and brought into Northern Ireland? What measures and protocols would be in place there?
Ms Éimear Fisher:
There would be two answers to that question. First the Hague Convention would apply. On the protection of children in the context of criminal offences, sharing of information would always be done. In the case of the prevention of crime, if there was even a suggestion that a child might be abducted, even before the child was actually abducted, where it was in the interest of the prevention of crime, there would be a sharing of information. If the child is actually abducted, the police would share information but the Protection of Children (Hague Convention) Act 2000 would also be a safety net.
I thank the Minister for coming before the committee. I have a question on foster care placements. Is there any expected impact on these services because I note in the general scheme of the Bill, there is a mention of an amendment to ensure that payments coming from the British authorities will not be taxed in Ireland? I am guessing from that this relates to cross-Border fostering. How many cross-Border fostering placements do we have? Regardless of the deal, will this have an impact on the children who are in foster care?
Mr. Cormac Quinlan:
There are nine children currently placed in the United Kingdom in a foster care arrangement but we would still hold responsibility for those placements. We still govern those placements in terms of our statutory responsibility. These happen sometimes where foster parents might relocate to the United Kingdom, so the children are still under our care and we still meet our regulatory requirements in respect of them and we continue to pay for those placements in that context.
What will be the impact of Brexit in this regard? We are hearing about insurance issues. Will the insurance cover for foster care still be in place? What will happen regarding travel back and forth across the Border? What will happen with sibling access and so forth?
Mr. Cormac Quinlan:
As in any placement, we would still meet all of the regulatory requirements.
On contracts, if it is with a private provider, that would be covered under any of our contracts individually regarding any of those individual placements.
On matters concerning insurance or payments, we would cover those through the normal procedures regarding any contract. The contract could include provisions for information sharing in that context if it needed to do so. We would still govern and support all of those placements and meet our requirements for the child’s placement.
I welcome the Minister and I thank her and her officials for the opportunity to voice any concerns we have. My question was pre-empted by Deputy Rabbitte. My main concern is about out-of-state placements for our children. We all know how difficult it is to make these placements. Sometimes, it can take months and even years. In her opening statement, the Minister said there would be no legal impediment to such placements. What impediments could there be?
Why does she not know how Britain will respond if it is going to leave the European Union? Will it still honour any out-of-state placements? The Hague Convention will kick in if there are issues. However, has she had conversations with her British counterpart about out-of-state placements?
The Hague Convention would facilitate placements similar to those currently operating under Brussels II. Consideration is being given to the need for putting in new protocols for consistency of practice and effective communications. Those discussions are ongoing with the convention operating in the background.
Ms Éimear Fisher:
I have no idea what will happen because I cannot predict what the UK will do in this regard. Our understanding is clear that the Hague Convention Act will apply. There is no impediment of any sort to the placing of children in other jurisdictions or the UK jurisdiction should it leave with a no-deal Brexit. We are quite confident that the Act will continue to apply. I have no way of knowing, however, how Britain will behave.
I thank the Minister, Tusla and the officials for attending the committee. I do not believe it should be lost in the discussion that they brought the voices of young people here, which is to be welcomed. That is a shift from the past and from my experience in these buildings. Modernity beckons and change is all around. In terms of the all-island civil dialogue, young people in the North are increasingly looking to the progress we have made here, be it through marriage equality or repeal of the eighth amendment.
Change is all around and the challenge we face is managing it. In the event of a crash-out, the Department must be ready and willing to again go back to listen to the voices of young people and their aspirations. My sense is that the call for Irish unity is building and we should not be afraid of that conversation. That conversation should be inclusive.
I have a Bill which concerns one of the actions in the LGBTI youth strategy regarding conversion therapy. The deadline for this action is 2019. Does the Minister have a concern that the ongoing work of her Department across the strategies will be impacted? Can we expect delays in the delivery of any of the actions in the LGBTI youth strategy?
The Senator is correct about going back to the young people. It is in my memory of those larger events. In the ongoing conversations about the reality of Brexit, young people have voiced concerns and effectively stated there are things that cannot change on our island. They do not have any memory of ways other than what they have experienced. They are not willing to go back and want the adults to sort it out. They have given us much time to sort it out and we are still working on that. Whatever the resolutions are, it would be important to have young people assist us in finding better solutions than we were able to do ourselves. Young people should be able to insist that they should have similar opportunities and the access that they have now.
On the Senator’s second question, it ultimately depends on how the change will happen. It will depend on whether there is an acceptance of the withdrawal agreement as it is, or a long extension is granted to the withdrawal or there is a no-deal crash-out. Each will have a different economic impact. I have just come from an extended conversation about these issues at the Cabinet. The Government is aware that the economic impact of whatever will happen will be massive. We have to figure out a way to ensure that not only are we able to find ways to build on the positive economic changes we have had for some time, but also to build on the social changes, as well as finding the resources to continue to do so.
Can we absolutely guarantee this? I do not know if we can guarantee anything at the moment, certainly in terms of the resources which would be available for such work. Our EU membership is our greatest protection from the challenges that Brexit will bring. Whatever way the exit happens, we will depend on our membership of the EU and look for new ways as to how this membership will assist us economically, as well as socially.
This question is directed to Ms Fisher; the Minister is off the hook. Ms Fisher stated that, in the past couple of months, she and the various principal officers met representatives from other Departments and identified key issues, one of which is child protection. Were other key issues also identified that were not covered in the Minister's statement or that she would like to share?
Ms Éimear Fisher:
Three key issues were identified. We looked at the issue of child protection and that was discounted as one that would be escalated to the level of a key issue because of the safety nets that are there.
The three issues remain the Brussels II regulation, qualifications and PEACE funding. There are no others. We trawled the entire Department and the units within it twice in order to be absolutely sure that no Brexit impact was lurking for the Department or for children's services. There was absolutely nothing apart from the three which were escalated to this level.
We are confident about child protection. We have had discussions with our legal advisers on that. I do not think there is anything else that we could have done, to be perfectly honest. We attend the weekly Secretaries General meeting and assistant secretaries meeting, so we listen to what is happening in other Departments. We get all those papers and that informs our thinking. We are fairly confident that all corners have been covered.
I thank the Minister and her officials. Regardless of which path the UK takes, it is the citizens of this State to whom this committee and the Department are answerable. They will feel the effects for many years to come and it is important to say that. I also re-state something the Minister said a few moments ago which is critical and supported by all Members of the Dáil and Seanad. It speaks to the direction this State has taken the negotiations and its approach to Brexit and it should speak volumes when the children of today look back on what the Government and the Oireachtas were doing when Brexit occurred. We have found strength in one another in the context of our approach to the problem which has presented itself but which is not of our making. The Minister correctly pointed out that our strength is in our membership of the European Union and the fact that we are going to deal with this collectively.
Does the Minister wish to make any concluding remarks?
I acknowledge the Chairman's eloquence. It has been helpful to be with the committee and I appreciate the questions the members have asked. My officials have listened carefully and we will take those forward. There are not as many significant issues for my Department as there are for many others but, at the same time, we are here to assure the committee that, to the best of our ability, we are dealing with the issues that are there as we await the decisions of the negotiations between the UK and ourselves as part of Europe.
On behalf of the joint committee, I thank the Minister and her officials for their presentation.
We will adjourn until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday next, 27 February, when we will meet the chair designate of Tusla, Mr. Pat Rabbitte, to discuss his appointment and the strategic priorities for his term in office.