Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 6 November 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs
Discussion with CEO of Tusla on Future Developments and Update on Childcare Facilities
We are now in public session. The purpose of this morning's meeting is to meet with Mr. Bernard Gloster, the appointee to the role of CEO of Tusla, to discuss his future plans for the organisation and to get an update from Tusla arising from the recent "RTÉ Investigates" programme on childcare facilities and the meeting with the joint committee on 30 July 2019. There have been reports in the media and I advise members that it is important to note that the committee cannot discuss individual cases and members should avoid naming individuals regardless of whether their names are in the public domain and should not discuss anything that is likely to be the subject of court proceedings. I advise members that in respect of a reported number of investigations that are open or being opened into the matter that are subject to proceedings, this committee wishes to avoid direct discussion of these actions and naming individuals thereby prejudicing any investigation.
On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Bernard Gloster, the new CEO of Tusla; Mr. Pat Smyth, director of finance; Mr. Brian Lee, director of quality assurance; and Ms Kim Hayes, interim director of human resources and thank them for attending.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that 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. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a 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 they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or 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 House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I ask all members and our guests to switch off their mobile phones as they will interfere with the sound and recording systems. I advise witnesses that any submission or opening statement made to the committee will be published on the committee's website after this meeting. After Mr. Gloster's presentation, there will be questions from members of the committee. I call on Mr. Gloster to make his opening statement.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
I thank the committee for its invitation to attend today and to brief it early in my tenure as CEO of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. I am joined by my colleagues, Mr. Pat Smyth, director of finance; Ms Kim Hayes, interim director of human resources; and Mr. Brian Lee, director of quality assurance. I want to place on record today my thanks to Mr. Smyth for his work as interim CEO of Tusla over the past year and his extensive support to me during the transition. This has made for a very smooth handover of what is a complex and important public service. In its invitation, the committee indicated that there would be two sessions - the first dealing with my appointment as CEO of Tusla together with my plans for the organisation and the second to provide the committee with an update on issues arising from the "RTÉ Investigates" programme on early years services, which was addressed by Tusla officials before this committee on 30 July 2019. This opening statement covers both of today's sessions.
I was appointed CEO of Tusla following an open public competition conducted by the Public Appointments Service. Following the announcement by the board of my appointment on 28 June last, I took up my position on 16 September. It is an enormous responsibility but, equally, a privilege to lead a key public service provision to Ireland’s children and families, some of whom we encounter at their most vulnerable.
I come to the position of CEO of Tusla from a background of more than 31 years in the public service, all of it in Ireland’s health and social services as provided by the HSE and its predecessor health boards. My career spans a range of assignments but, was, broadly, in two disciplines. For the first half, I was a professionally trained social care worker working with children in care and at risk of coming into care. For the second half and since 2003, I have been a senior health service manager holding portfolios in primary care, mental health, disability, services for older people, social inclusion and acute hospitals. I am also professionally trained in management as a discipline. While having a background in social care is helpful in my current role, it, by no means, is a requirement for or the principal skill-set for the post. My established competence from long experience in senior public sector management is central to my role as CEO of Tusla and from that I bring to the agency a range of skills in service design, change, operational management, crisis management, communications and industrial relations.
I want at the earliest opportunity to say that I am grateful for the welcome afforded to me over the past seven weeks since taking up post, which has been from many quarters internal and external to Tusla. I have had the opportunity to meet many people on a one to one listening basis and this has helped to shape my thinking. These views have been from children, young people who have left care, foster carers, senior managers, front-line staff and regulators. I am continuing with this process and indeed am happy to confirm that I am available and open to meeting any individual member of this committee who might wish to share his or her views and perspectives with me. During the course of these engagements, I have been informed in my thinking regarding my three key priorities for the agency, which I set out on the day I took up my post. It is clear to me that Tusla requires a clear focus on three interconnected aspects of improvement. These are my high level priorities for the agency. In summary, they are improved quality of services for children and families in all aspects of the Tusla remit; an improved staff environment necessary to achieve the purpose of the organisation; and improved public confidence.
In dealing with the overall issues internal and external to Tusla, I want to be unequivocal with this committee, as I have been in all of my engagements in the past weeks. I believe there is a critical need for Tusla to be at the forefront of informing the public about its work, its successes and its shortcomings. This is a critical issue for the future of the agency. It is my firm belief that the agency, albeit somewhat understandably, had become overly defensive. This in turn has resulted in a public space where there appeared to be little or no appetite to hear of the extensive and very good work carried out by Tusla staff and partner organisations across the country in hundreds of thousands of interactions with children and their families each year.
Building public confidence in the agency will be a slow but steady process requiring Tusla to evidence and articulate clearly what is working and what is not and its plans to correct poor performance. The view and judgment of the agency can only be correctly informed by both the strengths and weaknesses at the same time and not one overriding the other in public discourse. There are many in the world of media and politics, where public opinions are often informed, who can assist us with this task. We have to start first ourselves, however, and give others confidence to justify their support for us.
It is a fair question of the committee to ask about my plans for the agency under my direction as CEO. I will set out briefly some of the key approaches I have taken to pursuing change even at this early juncture. I have publicly articulated already that I believe Tusla needs to become a more local organisation with local ownership, integration and the accountability that public services require to be effective. Tusla as a single national agency for child protection is unique in comparison with other jurisdictions, and this has added not only to individual cases being escalated disproportionately but also to a centralised and siloed approach at times. The current arrangements need attention combined with my earlier reference to addressing a defensive culture. Such focus is necessary if overall system improvement is to be achieved.
I am currently working with the board of Tusla and believe it is possible to demonstrate a new approach to the organisation at the year end. It is the case, however, that even the most efficient organisational changes can take time, and therefore parallel to designing any new arrangements, I have set out new management arrangements to take effect before year end and to continue during any more medium to long-term change. The intention of all new approaches is local ownership supported by national leadership in the interests of the children and families we serve.
In simple terms the new immediate changes to management activity will bring the centre of Tusla and its local entities together in a completely joined-up way such as will ensure effective performance management of the system and a more immediate response to system shortcomings. This is entirely focused on children and families. In these new system management arrangements, I as CEO will personally chair and ensure accountability in frequent engagements between all local and national leaders across the organisation. In short, it is my intention that all staff in Tusla will be clear on their responsibilities, will be supported to discharge them, and will be accountable for their performance.
Tusla has a complex and wide-ranging portfolio in its statutory remit. Indeed, this is not always understood in the public domain. In 2018, Tusla was responsible for 55,000 child protection and welfare referrals; holding open 26,000 social work cases of child protection, including some 6,000 children in care at any one time; supporting another 24,000 children through family support services; regulating 4,400 registered early years services, with inspection rates over a full year equating to 50% of that number, noting that some services are inspected more than once in a period; focusing on the educational welfare of 6,000 children; commissioning the main services to respond to domestic sexual gender-based violence, DSGBV; and providing aspects of the State service for adoption, including assessment, placement, information and tracing. I believe it is important to move to a position of constant public articulation of this complex portfolio and to give the public assurance as to the level of service provided, the challenges and problems in providing them and, more importantly, honest assessment of what level of expectation the agency believes it can meet and, correspondingly, that which it cannot.
Tusla, as members will be aware, has had workforce challenges in recent years. I want to emphasise the importance of my early focus on this and we are currently finalising details of a proposed major agency conversion that will not only enhance stability and continuity of care but also assist us in what is increasingly a challenging financial space for all public services. I want to record my thanks to the main representative organisation in Tusla, the Fórsa trade union, for its positive approach to this initiative. I want to be clear that agency conversion in the work we do not only reduces costs but, more importantly, increases stability and standardisation of approach, which challenges in our system have already been well-articulated in various HIQA reports. I look forward to early progression of this initiative.
The agency is working through the management of a current year deficit and the mitigation of the impact of the challenge for 2020, recognising that we have received additional allocation in excess of €30 million for the coming year. I am grateful to the Minister and her Department for the ongoing support and work with Tusla in respect of these issues, and our work continues. The 2020 position and plan will be finalised in the coming weeks. While all public services are challenged by increasing demands and costs, I believe we also have a clear responsibility to demonstrate consistently that the children and families we serve benefit to the maximum from the significant public funds we have. Prioritising and targeting expenditure within our wide statutory remit is clearly our focus.
In concluding this part of my statement, I want to be definitive with the members in one aspect of my assessment of the agency to date, which is the workforce. I am in no doubt as to the quality, commitment and potential that is in the Tusla workforce, and because of that, I believe an improved culture and efficient organisation is well within the reach of Tusla. This is what ultimately will keep public service for children and families well supported by the State. All support we can gain outside Tusla as we make changes is welcome and necessary.
When my colleagues last addressed the committee in July last, it was in response to the "RTÉ Investigates" programme. I am happy today to update the committee on progress on issues and challenges within our regulatory function, and through the committee's questions and comments, we hope we will assist in further alleviating public concern.
At the outset of this part of my statement, I would like to advise the members that I and colleagues are more than happy to discuss the issues, themes and challenges. I will not, however, be in a position to comment on the individual services featured in the programme. On the substantive issues resulting from the programme, I want, in addition to any questions the committee has, to address aspects of my focus since becoming CEO and which I believe are directly pertinent to the committee's July meeting and ongoing commentary.
While there is no doubt that stages of the regulatory process and fair procedures mean that information cannot be put into the public domain in a timely fashion for parents, I believe there are four ways in which the organisation can further support parents in their own assurance and confidence. I have asked the regulatory service to engage four actions aimed at giving additional assurances to parents relating to the quality of care provided by services.
The first of these is that we have changed and are changing further in the coming weeks the visibility, simplicity and clarity of our advice to parents on the questions to ask their provider. In response to concerns of this committee that a published report is not necessarily the most recent report, I believe our more visible advice to parents is of assistance. In simple terms we are advising parents when considering a service to examine the following: the last published report on the Tusla website; to ask the provider if that report is the last inspection; if it is not, to query if there were any areas of concern identified by the inspectors; and to ask providers to see their certificate of registration with Tusla.
The second is that when we are inspecting a service, our website will show that we are inspecting or have inspected the service on a particular date. If the published report does not correspond with that date, then the public will know another report is pending. In such circumstances, it is an indicator for parents to ask their provider the status of the unpublished report. This process will commence in quarter one of 2020.
The third is the inclusion of parents in the inspection process, similar to other jurisdictions, where Tusla will seek the views of parents based on their experience of the care provided to their children. Their participation and opportunity to contribute will enhance the inspection findings and judgments. I have set a target of quarter 1 of 2020 for the introduction of a new methodology of voluntary inclusion of parents in the inspection process, and subject to refinement, it is my intention that this will be common across our system by the end of 2020. I want to be clear that this may initially marginally affect the time available to conduct inspections and therefore our overall inspection rate may reduce, but I believe this is merited by the benefits of directly including parents.
Fourth, the committee is aware of previous references to a list of 37 and words such as "critical" and "high" being used. While we cannot name services in regulatory enforcement, I wish to ensure that we are able to describe more accurately what the higher end of enforcement action means. I have asked Tusla's regulatory function to examine a change to this categorisation to offer providers and the public increased transparency and understanding of the categorisation. The committee will be aware of previous references to legislative provision and increases in Tusla's powers to close services. Such measures are under consideration at Department level, but I wish to caution against overreliance on this possibility alone. Tusla believes that improved service provision has been and will be mainly a result of the current regulatory system.
I have been very clear that when Tusla's regulatory function identifies a child protection or significant welfare issue in a service, it immediately engages Tusla child protection, which on assessment can take a different course of action, including immediately informing parents of a concern. This has occurred in one recent case since Tusla's last appearance before this committee. However, I am also satisfied that this practice has been well established for some time.
Regulation is difficult and complex work for the regulator, the regulated and the public in whose interests the regulation exists in the first place. We remain ever focused on improvements in the regulatory approach for children and parents with a view to supporting and promoting service improvement through inspection. There is substantial evidence of a high level of compliance in this sector. However, there will always be a minority which seeks either to circumvent regulation for commercial profit or neglects children through failure to discharge basic responsibilities. At the extreme end this can result in abusive and harmful behaviour. Such behaviour has no place in a care setting and in a service from which parents rightly expect nothing less than positive stimulation, development, care and love for their children.
Creating a regulatory focus that encourages and supports the high level of compliance while having the greatest possibility of weeding out negligent services is a fine balance, particularly in such a sensitive sector. Our excellent early years inspectorate service and the immediate improvements I have listed will all help to achieve that balance further. I want to be clear with this committee and the public, however, on the three key parts of the partnership that makes early years services operate to the highest standards. These are strong, focused and evidence-based regulatory activity on Tusla's part; provider responsibility for the quality and safety of care to children whose parents have entrusted them to that care; and continued parental input at every level.
In concluding this statement, I assure the committee that Tusla's focus will continue to be the children and families we serve. Regardless of the fact that we are often not welcome in the lives of all families in which we intervene, our responsibilities are equal to all. That concludes my opening statement and I am happy to address any questions.
I thank Mr. Gloster. So far three speakers have indicated, starting with Deputy Sherlock. On my own behalf I wish very briefly to thank Mr. Gloster for his opening statement and for engaging with the committee. The members will be heartened by the fact that changes have been made with regard to communication and transparency for parents. That is of paramount importance to us and to parents throughout the country. Mr. Gloster has flagged areas where a report might be available or is in production since the previous inspection date. This is of critical importance because it highlights to parents that they can ask questions and providers must answer them. The communication between parents and the service providers is often excellent. There is simply no reason to think that sort of set-up will be abused. I wish to highlight my appreciation of Mr. Gloster's front-loading of that information in his very comprehensive opening statement. I commend him on doing so while under the weather.
I welcome Mr. Gloster and his colleagues to the committee. I congratulate him on his appointment as CEO. It is heartening to hear that he has some experience as a front-line professional in this space. That gives us some grounds for comfort. I am also encouraged by his attempt to ensure a transparent process in which we as public representatives are seen as key stakeholders in communications and the transparency of Tusla's functions.
I wish to ask about the culture of the organisation. Mr. Gloster has spoken about ensuring a process of local ownership. I do not fully understand what that means. Is he talking about flattening the structure and getting rid of silos? What does that mean for social care workers, social workers, childcare workers or anybody under the employ of Tusla? We have to move beyond words and take actions. Every person working in the organisation must feel he or she has a pathway right to the top. There must be no Chinese walls. I would like Mr. Gloster's perspective on that.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
There are two parts to that, namely, the structure and the culture. In my statement and in all my engagements within Tusla and in the public domain since my appointment, I have pointed out that public service organisations can become very defensive for a whole variety of reasons. They are then open to the accusation of not being transparent, with the associated mistrust. There is very little appetite then for what might be considered the good news. Several times since being appointed I have said publicly that apart from where the law prevents it, the best people to tell the people of Ireland about Tusla's problems are Tusla officials. We must be more forthright about that in a lot of different engagements. Those are my thoughts on culture. I would add that a lot of very good people in Tusla subscribe to that view. This has become a more systemic issue.
Regarding structure and Tusla becoming more local, I note that it is currently divided into 17 areas supervised by four regions, which are supervised in turn by a national centre. That structure was designed by and for the HSE. I remember it well. The HSE abandoned this structure in 2011. Public service organisations require the capacity to respond to a range of corporate and legislative issues, such as the general data protection regulation, GDPR, financial control, corporate governance, and so on. That infrastructure simply cannot be invested in 17 areas. Equally it cannot all be concentrated at the centre because then the 17 areas have no control or influence. It takes too long to complete a process, sign off on a job and so on. I have clearly stated that we have to examine critically the best geographic model to deliver Tusla's services. It must be big enough to justify investment in the corporate infrastructure but small enough to address local concerns quickly. My view is that it should have a flatter structure. The centre of Tusla should have a performance management and oversight role. The real operations, services and decisions should take place in whatever configuration of entities we finally come up with. That will take time. In the meantime it is imperative that we mitigate the gap between the local and the national.
Perhaps I have described this in a very wordy way, but in simple terms I have expanded the existing management team structure to a leadership team. This includes the regional service directors and some of the critical service directors in other parts of the organisation. That team meets fortnightly. In every fourth meeting from the start of the new year, 17 area managers will meet that group and a system performance management engagement will take place in one room. In simple terms, if an area manager in Cork says to me that he or she cannot achieve traction on allocated cases because he or she cannot recruit four people, the director of human resources will be in the same room. We will be able to deal with the challenge, bottom out the problem and knock a solution out quickly, whatever it might be. It is a very simple but quite effective measure.
That is where I am going first.
I welcome that. My second question is a programmatic one. The school completion programme, the guardian ad litemservice and the creative community alternatives pilot programme are under way. They are three key programmes. I ask Mr. Gloster for his perspective on ensuring proper standards in the school completion programme and standardisation across the country.
On the guardian ad litemlegislation before the House, what is the full year cost of the guardian ad litemservice? What transition planning is taking place to cede the service to the Department and what is Mr. Gloster's perspective of how the transition is proceeding?
As a public representative I already see the outworking of the creative community alternatives programme, even though it is a pilot. It is having a positive impact on the ground. I am familiar with Cloyne Diocesan Youth Services, CDYS, in north Cork, an organisation that is probably typical of the many organisations that act as agents for this programme. CDYS is concerned that there will be staff lay-offs if its funding is not continued into 2020. Is it envisaged that the programme will continue? What tyre kicking, so to speak, has taken place in respect of that programme? From the conversations that I, as a Deputy in the area, am having with the people working on the programme, it is clearly having a positive impact on families. I am hopeful that we will see the continuation of the programme into 2020 and that Tusla will find a funding pot for it to ensure there will not be any lay-offs. I ask Mr. Gloster for his perspective on those questions.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
In respect of the school completion programme, achieving standardisation is very difficult because of where the programme grew up from. They are voluntary bodies, voluntary boards and so on, with very different approaches. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that because sometimes local is good. Where the standardisation must be is in the quality of the service provided and the governance around the money.
My advice from the education welfare service, which since yesterday has been known as the Tusla education support service, is that we are much more satisfied with the level of compliance with the service arrangement and commissioning process in which we are engaged. When we are asking an organisation locally to change some of its practices there will always be a body of work. It is a programme to which we are very committed. In the rebrand of the education welfare service yesterday we named three strands to the approach of Tusla's education and welfare service. The school completion programme is at the heart of that.
The guardian ad litemservice operates at a cost of approximately €16 million per year. That is a little more than half our total legal spend. We have managed to reduce our general legal services cost base slightly but the guardian ad litemcosts have increased. I recall when the guardian ad litemservice started, which is perhaps a reflection of how long I have been around. For a long time, it has necessary to place the service on a statutory footing and I welcome the Minister's approach to that. As the Bill progresses through the various Stages in the Dáil, it will have its own process but I welcome the sincere attempt to place the service on a statutory footing. It is far too complex an environment for it to be ad hoc. I know there has been a good deal of commentary on the guardian ad litemservice and I have no doubt there will be commentary on it in the future. My view is that it is a good move to place it on a statutory footing.
In respect of preparatory work for that, if the statute is implemented, the guardian ad litemservice will leave Tusla as a system. It will become more independent of Tusla and the Department will have oversight of it. The Department is establishing a guardian ad litempreparation office to which Tusla is contributing and participating fully. I am also working with my colleague, the Secretary General, on that. Very good progress will be seen in that regard in 2020. This is being done against a backdrop where the service was not provided for in legislation for more than 20 years. The process will take time as it involves a range of complex matters.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
On the way it is currently constituted, a court makes a determination. Tusla will often say in court that it would be appropriate to appoint a guardian ad litembut as the matter is one for the court to determine, it is difficult to predict an outcome because the circumstances of cases that come to the attention of the courts are complex. As to whether the service is adequate, it is essentially a demand-led system. We have to provide for it where the court orders it. It is as simple as that; it is not a choice.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
Yes. We are dealing with that adequately. The overall downward trend in the number of children in care would be an indicator that there is some levelling off but one cannot tell given the complexity. On what the service will cost in future, it is difficult to speculate on that given the legislation.
I am glad the Deputy mentioned the creative community alternatives. I met two young people individually in Tralee last Thursday who told me their stories. They are both respondents under the CCA. I also met a group of young people in Galway and Roscommon who were respondents under the programme. It is a very exciting initiative. The difficulty for the agency is that we allocate approximately €5.5 million in the base for the programme. This is not being cut back and will continue but it becomes tied up in cases very quickly and we have to wait for normal attrition before money is freed up to be allocated.
I will revert to the Deputy on Cloyne Diocesan Youth Services in his constituency in a matter of days. I understand that service received a significant amount of money under the CCA. To be fair to the area and people in Cork, I will need to check how that has bottomed out for the young people to whom it was assigned.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
The feedback I have had on the programme is that it has been life-altering in a positive sense for some young people who are very disadvantaged and marginalised, even within our system. The Deputy is pushing an open door with me on it. This is what I mean when I talk about Tusla being local. Having local flexibility to be able to respond locally within the parameters set in policy and without going completely off page is what children require. Children do not live in policy boxes. I do not dispute the value of the programme.
I wish Mr. Gloster well in his post. I worked with him in a former post in CHO area 3, which is in the mid-west. I thank him for the service he gave there over a number of years.
Mr. Gloster mentioned the local approach, which I very much welcome. He will know from our time working in mental health that I pushed for measures in that area, particularly around recruitment. I ask him to elaborate on the recruitment aspect, particularly in respect of social workers. We have had social workers, trade union representatives and others before the committee in the past 12 or 18 months to discuss the problems being experienced as a result of staff shortages, pressure on social workers and how Tusla will address that pressure. Mr. Gloster elaborated to some extent on that when responding to Deputy Sherlock. He used the phrase "agency conversion". Where is Tusla coming from on that in respect of service level agreements? Is Tusla buying contractors from agencies to become permanent staff? What way will that work? I understand that will have industrial relations implications.
Some time ago, I raised the issue of communication between Tusla and the Garda.
What is the position concerning communication between those two bodies particularly electronic communication as opposed to what we have seen in the past with paper communication, files that have gone missing or that have not been followed up, a matter that has been the subject of much discussion here? I pushed Mr. Gloster's predecessor to have proper integration between systems to ensure nothing falls between the cracks in these specific sensitive cases.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
I thank Deputy Neville for his questions and good wishes. It is nice to have the opportunity to engage with him again. To deal with his questions in reverse order, on his question on the Garda exchange of information, there are two parts to that. First, I believe the Garda and ourselves would say there is very good local practice every day of engagement between the Garda and Tusla staff on a range of issues. There is a need to finalise a much more specific and detailed Garda-Tusla data-sharing and joint information sharing protocol. I recently met the assistant commissioner in charge of that dimension of Garda work. We have set a target of not later than the end of November to finalise that. It is a complex subject matter involving the views of the Data Protection Commissioner, the Attorney General, the Garda and so on.
On the process issue the Deputy raised, we now have the national childcare information system, NCCIS, which we did not have until recently. It is rolled out across the country. Every referral we have is up on that system. Our IT people who, to be fair to them, are exceptionally creative are working on an interface between the PULSE system and the NCCIS system so that the Garda can electronically make referrals. We already have electronic referrals for a number of professionals through our portal but for the Garda system it is somewhat more complicated because of the nature of the protection of the PULSE system and our own system. It is certainly being progressed. I am always hesitant to push targets on those because public service IT systems, by their nature, have proven to be problematic in some respects and ours would be no different.
On the question of agency staffing and recruitment, my colleague, Ms Kim Hayes, will give the Deputy the numbers. Regarding what is broadly proposed, Tusla will spend €32 million this year on agency staff. They are predominantly front-line staff. That equates currently to a running order of 677 agency workers. It is both within our affordable pay bill and within our reach to convert a substantial number of those. By converting them, I mean they would all be given Tusla contracts of employment, which, at least while temporary, would position them better for future permanent employment, it would reduce our costs and would increase the stability of our workforce. In terms of the numbers, I will ask Ms Kim Hayes to address what we are attempting to do.
Ms Kim Hayes:
The grade of staff we are considering in this conversion are front-line social work, social care, family support and administrative staff who are supporting social work and front-line teams. The majority of the administrative staff we have in an agency are supporting front-line staff. The aim would be to provide them with temporary contracts, as Mr. Gloster said, to create workforce stability in the existing services. We discussed this with Forsa and it was quite positive about it. It will not affect any permanent appointments. We will still continue to fill permanent appointments from our permanent panel. We have preparatory plans in place and we suspect, as soon as we get the go-ahead, we can realise this in eight to ten weeks.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
The only people who can move to become permanent are those who already have competed and are on the permanent panel. That is as provided for in the recruitment licence. In order to avoid a delay, if people are not on a panel, subject to local management being satisfied with their references and vetting, which they would be in any event as they are agency workers, they would convert to having a 12-month fixed term contract. They would be direct Tusla contracts. During that period they would have an opportunity to compete for a permanent panel.
Is there any way to jump from being an agency worker to being permanent? Let us say an agency worker has completed six, 12 or 18 months work with Tusla, which would be taken into account at interview or in the recruitment process, to move a person up the line because he or she has that experience, is there any way of jumping that ten-step process and converting directly to being permanent? I assume there are roles and positions to be filled.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
Yes. The challenge I have given the human resources department is that, as we go through the agency conversion, if the placing of any of the agency staff on a permanent panel is such that they are near to being offered a position, they can move to permanent employment. They would be taken on in any event even if they were not with the agency. However, the difficulty and what we must be careful of is that if an agency worker was working in Tusla and was placed tenth on the permanent panel, we could not convert that worker to the disadvantage of people placed one to nine on the panel because under the recruitment licence those people have been ranked on the panel higher than the agency worker. Furthermore, those people may be living abroad and thinking of taking up an offer of employment. The intention is to offer a conversion to approximately two thirds of the 677.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
It is hoped the majority of them will accept that offer. The result would be a much more stabilised workforce and a reduction in expenditure in a full year of about €4 million, which is quite a significant amount of money. As soon as we convert those staff we will be moving to a more simple panel system. We have many complex panels currently. We are engaged with the unions to move to a simple panel system and that will expedite the number of permanent staff.
I understand staff are being in-sourced. Hopefully, these people will convert to temporary status and then to permanent staff. What impact would have that have on filling open positions? I understand there are a number of open positions Tusla cannot fill, is that correct?
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
In very specific localised areas. Tusla would not have the same challenge in Limerick or Cork, for example, as it would have in Dublin north city. There are nuances to that. One of the Dublin areas currently has a registered vacancy in the region of 40, and it is backfilled by approximately 20 agencies. That is a serious deficit. The answer is “Yes”, there would still be those.
What I am trying to ascertain, and it is not a criticism – I am trying to work it out in my own head – is that when those agency staff move to being temporary, they will be in-sourced and Tusla will still have the same status quoof staff.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
There are two parts to the answer to the question. This year, in addition to the normal social work education and output from the universities, my intention is that we will move into the universities before the end of the academic year for next year’s graduates. We will offer them employment prior to their finishing, subject to their qualifying.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
If there are permanent vacancies there is no reason they cannot be considered for permanent positions. The issue with a permanent vacancy is because of the recruitment licence. It has to be advertised in terms of a public competition. There is no departing from that. We want to get in ahead to attract graduates because we are competing with other agencies for social workers. That is the first point. The second is that we have undertaken, with Maynooth university, a trial sponsorship programme this year where we are sponsoring a number of students. They will come and work for us at the end of their training. We will have to evaluate that and see how that goes. That is costing us approximately €150,000 or €160,000 as a sponsorship mechanism but it may be the route we have to go. It has been used in other health disciplines across the world.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
The rules of engagement for both the licence and the industrial relations space state that permanent positions in the public service must be advertised in a manner that is visible to everyone. People obviously have to check the job description to see whether they have the qualifications to apply. It is not about allowing everyone to apply. Say, for example, that I were filling a permanent job in Tusla in Dublin. Someone working as a social worker with the Brothers of Charity in Limerick might want to move to that position. If I do not advertise that job and I just give it someone else, that person will not be able to apply. It is about equality in the recruitment process.
I understand that. I am just trying to find ways to help Tusla target its recruitment. There is a shortage of social workers and Tusla is now moving from reactive recruitment to proactive headhunting, for want of a better phrase, in order to get people in.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
Yes. We are targeting every avenue we can. I am anxious that by the start of 2020, no local area should be in any doubt as to its funded workforce plan. They will have X amount of money and X number of staff. The authority to sign off on and fill positions will lie with the local manager. The process will be conducted by Tusla's recruitment unit but the authority will be much more in local control.
I will add one question along the lines of what Deputy Neville was asking about the licence. Is Mr. Gloster aware of any limit to Tusla's recruitment licence which might affect what he wishes to achieve within his business plan?
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
No. The purpose of the licence is not to control the number of staff. That is the agency's own business based on its resources and money. The purpose of the licence is the stewardship of the conduct of public service recruitment processes, which are conducted openly, transparently and fairly.
Before I address Mr. Gloster, I want to note that I had reason to contact Mr. Lee over the summer and I thank him for his assistance with the matter I raised with him. I have opened with that because I genuinely believe I am the type of person who acknowledges work when it is done.
Our guests may perceive some of my comments as negative, but I see them as constructive criticism. I do not have a huge amount of confidence in Tusla as it currently exists. I am just being 100% honest. It is a very toxic organisation. I am glad Mr. Gloster used the word "defensive" because that has been my experience and that of people who contact me. Part of our duty on this committee is to bring that message about negative experiences to people in key positions in Tusla when we have the opportunity to speak directly to them.
The witnesses will be aware of the recent HIQA report covering Carlow-Kilkenny, which I represent, as well as other places such as Tipperary. I was not surprised when I saw that report because that is the culture that exists in Tusla. It is defensive. It does not acknowledge that there could be an issue and it is difficult for people to get answers. Time and again, I come across people, particularly women, who voluntarily went to Tusla and said that they were struggling and needed some sort of assistance. Now that they have their lives back on track, they cannot seem to get increased access or move on from where they were, despite being years down the road. That is totally unacceptable. We try to get answers on their behalf, but I have never got an answer to any of those questions. Not once. I asked the Minister about this recently in the Dáil. On one occasion I received a response which stated that I had sent the correspondence to the incorrect address. There is only one Tusla headquarters in Kilkenny that I know of. To send someone a letter like that is unacceptable. Tusla obviously received the letter if it sent back that type of reply. It is petty. Someone could have picked up the phone and said that while I might have got the wrong person, we should have a discussion about the issue.
Mr. Gloster stated that people do not always hear the good stories. I disagree with that. People do not currently have confidence in Tusla. I genuinely hope that Mr. Gloster is going to bring about the change and reform that are needed. I would give him the benefit of the doubt in that regard but I have to be honest about this. I feel I must represent the view that people are currently not happy and feel very let down. Ultimately, it is the children who are being let down by Tusla. That is important to note, given our history in this country and how we consistently fail children.
I have a number of questions to which the witnesses might not have answers. I accept that, but ask them to forward on a response to them. I welcome what Mr. Gloster said about being open to individual meetings. That is good and positive.
Are we to ask both sets of questions now?
Is there any independent review or appeal process in place within Tusla if somebody is not happy with the outcome of a case? Take the example of a birth mother who has restricted supervised access to her child for maybe one hour a week. I will group the questions together if that is okay. Is there any independent process in place at the moment which would allow such a case to be reviewed or appealed? If not, is that something Tusla would be open to looking at?
I already referred to increased access. From my experience, there is a lack of reunification plans in place. When one questions that, the response is that it is way down the road. Could Tusla give us the its policy or criteria on reunification and explain how that works? I acknowledge that there are situations where reunification is not possible. We have to be realistic about that. However, where it is possible, it should be at the heart of a care plan.
Given that Mr. Gloster is new to the role, what are his opinions or plans regarding prevention and intervention? Is he looking at family support or other things which might prevent children going into full-time care?
Is there a policy or criteria in place for infants being taken into care? Is it purely based on the mother having other children in care, for example, or is there some set of criteria? I appreciate that the witnesses might not have that information right now, but I ask them to forward it on to the committee.
I wanted to ask about the school completion programme in general. Many of those programmes currently fall under education and training boards and are governed by them. Those ones actually run quite well. A proposal on this was sent to Tusla. Has Tusla looked at that or would it consider it? Issues of governance always arise with the school completion programme and this is one way around that. I was glad to hear Deputy Sherlock mention the school completion programme because it is a fantastic programme which is out on its own. It is invaluable and we should be putting much more resources into it.
On the other set of questions-----
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
I do not dispute Deputy Funchion's comments, though I might use different phrasing. I do not dispute the general thrust of her comments. I will make one comment regarding her observation about competence in Tusla. I can only hope that the genuine attempt we are making and the work we are doing will, over time, allow her to regain confidence in us, but I do not dispute her current view.
I am not happy about the Carlow-Kilkenny HIQA report. While there have been many improvements in that area, it is very hard to get people to see them. That said, the foster care report by HIQA was certainly not something that crowned us in glory. The one thing I am happy about is that changes have been made there since the report was published. HIQA has accepted a very detailed action plan, which is progressing.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
It is external to my view, but it is progressing. I refer to care processes, care issues and issues associated with access and so on.
There are probably three questions in there. The majority of children who are in the care system have processes beyond the individual worker who sees them in that case. Many of them are before the Children's Court or the family courts, they are under the oversight of a judge and they are subject to the in camerarule, about which a lot of people have a lot of views and a lot of complaints. That is the law and that is the provision that is there.
The ultimate appeal process is in the context of the courts. The courts spend a significant amount of time processing any application Tusla makes for a full care order. We go through an interim care order because the court rightly raises a bar for Tusla to reach in evidence. It is in that space that access is often determined.
I am interested in the observation about reunification planning. That is something we may be able to come back to address with the Deputy in more detail-----
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
-----because I would want to talk to the professional staff about it. Unfortunately, just as there are legitimate views and questions about that for many people, I would equally have to say I am concerned if there is a small prevalence on social media, which is quite inappropriate in some of its commentary on that. I want to be balanced about that but it is a fair question. I am interested in the matter of prevention and the family support service. Three weeks ago, I said to the organisation in clear terms we have a whole amount of change programmes ongoing, some of which we cannot stop as we have to attend to them and some of which we need to slow down. I have said we have four priority programmes I want achieved and two of them are, on the left-hand side, the child protection and welfare strategy, which is off the back of the HIQA report of 2018, and on the right-hand side, prevention and the family support service. I have said I no longer want those to be seen as two programmes in Tusla but for them to be fully integrated where the majority of children can step down from the child protection system once there is a safety plan and they can be supported in the family support service. Some good work is being done around that and I will make sure we send the committee details on that.
On the school completion programme coming under the jurisdiction or employment of education and training boards, ETBs, that would genuinely be entirely a matter of public service determination of employees. As the Deputy knows, that is the sole remit of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I have heard some of the arguments about it and I am interested in exploring them more to see what better level of stability can be achieved to give the certainty the Deputy is talking about. That is something I would need to come back to the Deputy about to give her more detail on the back story. I am not fully au faitwith the number of school completion programme staff who are in that space versus the number who are not. I have heard of it as an issue and I will certainly look into it and come back to the Deputy. It is not necessarily within the gift of Tusla to make a determination that a person-----
On the other issue, we had a discussion at the committee during the summer and there was a lot of talk about closing facilities and whether there was the power to do that. Is there ever a situation, and what might that situation be, whereby if a decision were taken to close a crèche, it would be the case that if somebody had a criminal conviction, he or she could then get to a situation where he or she is permitted to open and run a crèche?
If parents availing of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme year are unhappy with a facility, they take their children out of that facility, put them in a new one, and are told by the new facility they cannot get the ECCE there because the other facility is still claiming the money and is refusing to deregister the children weeks later, how does that happen? That leads to a situation where a place that is rightly under scrutiny is still receiving public money. What is more, the child in question should not be at the disadvantage of not having the ECCE year because the parents felt they had no choice but to take him or her out of the facility.
I refer to the matter of parents contacting Tusla with information on a facility. Let us say that this is serious information such as the alleged falsification of documents, such as staff qualifications, and yet there has been no follow-up on those allegations there has been no subsequent contact with those parents. I would be very concerned about such a situation. In general, what exactly is the current and ongoing process if there is a serious question mark over a facility? Would there be a weekly inspection or is there a process around that?
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
Mr. Lee will address the professional regulatory questions on convictions and so on. On the payment continuity issue, that scheme is operated by the Department. There is an equal challenge where if a child in provision is sick or unwell for a period, is not able to attend the crèche, and the continuity of the payment does not happen, the child is disadvantaged when he or she returns. Turning it on and turning it off is probably more of a non-instant process, but there is genuine bona fides in the Deputy's point about what happens if somebody leaves and he or she is unhappy. I am not familiar with what the mechanics might be but I do not see that there should be any particular objection to ensuring people are able to have continuity.
Mr. Lee might deal with the professional matters.
Mr. Brian Lee:
I will take those issues in reverse order. On the ongoing processes, if we have a particular concern with a service, as we have heightened regulatory oversight, that can take a number of different mechanisms. We could have conditions on the service and we would look for regular updates on what those conditions might be, but there would be an increased inspection rate. It is highly unlikely it would ever be weekly. There would not be any particular benefit in doing weekly inspections because the same things would potentially be seen repeatedly. There would be a period of time between inspections, but if new information came in during an intervening period, we would potentially inspect that service immediately. If it is in that heightened space where unsolicited information comes in today, we could be there tomorrow or even this afternoon if we could fit it into the schedule and if we were very concerned. During ongoing processes, if a child protection welfare concern that met that threshold came in, we would bring that to the attention of our social work colleagues in Tusla, and if it met that threshold, they would intervene immediately and contact the parents as required. We have an important balance in Tusla in that the regulatory response cannot necessarily operate as responsibly as the child protection side, for example. It has that power. There are a number of services on which we would have a higher level of scrutiny in how we would look at them. Each one is judged separately in that regard.
On the ECCE funding, that is more of a policy matter. That is the first I have ever heard of that particular issue and that would certainly be of concern if we had deregistered a service and the funding had not followed the child. That would be a matter for the Department and for Pobal, which is involved in the funding schemes behind that.
The Deputy made another point about the parents providing information to us. That is a really vital part of our work. We have an unsolicited information office. That is where parents, other members of the public and staff can bring concerns on a service or on children in a service to our attention. It is important to state it is not a complaints service because we have no statutory powers to process or mange complaints. It is the provider's responsibility to manage complaints itself. When unsolicited information comes in, it is assessed and risk rated.
Depending on the nature of the information, the response can be different. It could trigger an immediate inspection or it could wait until the next inspection that we could follow up with it.
In terms of communication with parents or whoever brings a concern to us, we always get back to them and advise what the process looks like. We also advise them that we would not necessarily give them a blow-by-blow update on what happens through the process because it is not a complaints procedure. It is a source of information that informs us regarding regulatory compliance.
In terms of criminal convictions and closing, certainly if we engage in a prosecution under the new regulations and there is a successful conviction, the operator can never operate a service again under the current regulations. Where people have convictions under the previous regulations, that cannot be used in the current set of regulations, which presents a challenge. If there were a successful prosecution in the current regime, the operator would not be able to operate in that space.
Parents feel very disconnected from this. They have said they used the numbers provided the last time but felt that they were not really getting anywhere. That is the big issue and that is why I have raised the matter.
I will be brief because I want to allow Deputies Rabbitte, Mitchell and Chambers to comment.
On communication, it is important that we have started the discussion on the other aspect of our meeting today. As touched on by Deputy Funchion and referenced by Mr. Gloster in his opening statement, one of the key questions is the two-way process of communication. It is of critical importance to parents so that they have the peace of mind to know that if there are ongoing investigations, and ones that they might be aware of for whatever reason and not specific to "Prime Time", there is a communication flow and there is confidence that the system is there to support them and their child.
Mr. Lee mentioned that the current regulations exclude individuals where there are prosecutions. In his professional opinion, is there wriggle room in that? Are the regulations sufficiently robust? Where are we with the legislative changes that have been alluded to? Is Tusla in discussions with the Department?
On the first day back from the summer recess I asked a question on promised legislation, specifically whether the suite of legislation that supports Tusla in its day-to-day duties is sufficient to cater for issues that have been highlighted either through "Prime Time" or indeed other issues that have arisen, and whether we are any closer to determining precisely whether legislative changes are required. I did receive a response from the Department quite promptly. I was quite impressed with how promptly that occurred, but we are now two months on and I have inquired and have not seen anything come back yet.
That is my only intervention. Apologies to Deputy Rabbitte, who is looking at me, but I would not wish to let this meeting go by without raising that important point that both witnesses have referenced. Perhaps Mr. Lee and Mr. Gloster will respond first and then Deputy Rabbitte can start her contribution.
Mr. Brian Lee:
In terms of any wriggle room in the context of a successful prosecution under the current regulations, as far as I am concerned, from a regulator's point of view, the answer is "No", but it has not been tested in the courts. Someone has not challenged it because it has not got to that space. I cannot predict that into the future.
In terms of the new legislation, we had a very productive meeting with the Department. The challenge is that there needs to be primary and secondary legislative changes, and that does take a bit more time. We need to make sure we have all the right adjustments because there are other things in the practicality of the regulations that need to be updated. As the Department has probably advised the committee, there are certainly aspects in terms of the immediate closure of unregistered services whereby, if there is a grave concern, we can immediately close a premises.
The other part that I am particularly interested in, because it is about the communication with parents, is that we can post enforcement notices as soon as we have information from, for example, the Health and Safety Authority or the Food Safety Authority. That is potentially the biggest thing we can do in the new legislative framework. We are using the existing legislative framework very effectively and we have deregistered six services since the new regulations have come in. In the learning of operating that for the past three years, there certainly are things that we could improve in that regard.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
Apart from the legislative changes, and I am sure the members are familiar with how that process can take time, I am relying more in the interim on creating every simple visible communication to parents to trigger them and assist them in asking questions as well as us asking questions. That is not to place a burden of responsibility on parents but to assist them and say we inspected the service on 5 November and the last published inspection report is April, so that means another report is pending. It is not an unreasonable question for parents at least to be aware of that. Whether they feel they have the freedom to ask, I fully understand all of the pieces that go around that and they may not feel they have that. We can only try to provide the information we can within the parameter of the laws within which we work and it is quite a difficult space. If somebody makes a complaint to us, we may well be pursuing that complaint through the regulatory enforcement process, but we are not at liberty to disclose that, and that is where the challenge arises. We certainly believe legislation has a part to play in changing the sector, but it is not the only part.
Although his tenure as chief executive has been limited, is Mr. Gloster satisfied with the length of time that an unregulated service was offered in this city or could be offered anywhere else without either being shut or correctly registered? Can he provide the committee with assurances that such instances, where possible, will not arise in the future? The period was very lengthy. All of us were quite taken aback with how long this service was in operation, and that is not an allegation but a fact.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
As opposed to an individual service, can I say categorically that my view is Tusla would have to, and does, continue to flex every possible avenue it has where it is aware that an unregistered service is operating. I draw the line at that. In terms of the legal power for us to go through the process with the person who is operating unregistered, that is a timeline beyond our control.
The sector is not obliged to display registration certificates. I am very happy to say that I believe a responsible sector would encourage its members, and there are umbrella organisations in the sector, to say that while it is not necessary to do so, it should be best practice to display a registration certificate on the front door, and if not, a copy should be given to every parent who places a child with the service. While it is unfair that members of the public must make their own minds up when they do not see that on the wall, I think we have to start challenging the sector to take a level of collective responsibility for driving standards that do not always require legislation. Within the powers we have, I have no tolerance for somebody who operates something that he or she is not registered to operate, when it is required that he or she be registered. The process that I am bound by is somewhat lengthy, but I believe there are other ways. I would hope that the majority of good providers in the sector would rise to the challenge, and let us see how that progresses.
Mr. Brian Lee:
For the most part, when services come to our attention, if they are operating outside of registration, most close pretty much immediately on us writing to them to cease and desist. That would happen 90% of the time. If they do not do that, then we do move to prosecute, and it is the court process that can take a considerable amount of time.
I thank the witnesses for being here this morning.
Last February, when Mr. Pat Rabbitte, the chair of Tusla, was before this committee, he stated: "Tusla needs to be more transparent and there is no reason the agency should fear greater openness, which is not to say that, on occasion, there are very particular reasons for restraint." Last September, the CEO of Tusla, Mr. Gloster, gave an interview to The Irish Times, in which he stated: "Part of the solution will be bringing Tusla back to its core business - child protection, child welfare and family support." He repeated that point this morning. According to the same newspaper article, Mr. Gloster "wants to achieve a consistency of approach across Tusla services and across the country - an absence of which is repeatedly highlighted by health watchdog Hiqa." He also repeated that point this morning. I welcome both statements because we need to return to that position. In Galway, where I come from, only 15% of the children in question get the support of guardians ad litem, which is an issue we discussed earlier.
Deputy Neville raised the issue of outsourcing. I want to discuss the outsourcing of legal contracts and social workers. The witnesses have already answered many of my questions but I would like to understand the position regarding the transfer of social workers into Tusla. Only 3% of staff were recruited in recent years and most of the work has been outsourced to agency staff at a huge cost. The reason people choose agency work as opposed to working for Tusla is the high caseload Tusla staff have to manage. As part of the arrangements being put in place, what is the maximum caseload that one would expect a social worker working for Tusla to manage? From my research, I understand caseload is the defining issue.
I have a copy of a document titled, Spending Review 2019 - Tusla: Assessment of Performance Measurement, which was prepared by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Under the heading "legal", the document notes that 9.25 staff work in the legal department. Deputy Sherlock asked how much it costs to provide guardians ad litemand Mr. Gloster indicated the cost was €16 million. At the same time, from 2014 to 2019, legal fees associated with guardians ad litemamounted to €83 million. Is that figure included in or additional to the €16 million cost per annum? From 2014 to 2019, other outsourcing of legal fees amounted to €93 million on top of the cost associated with guardians ad litem.
There is a major shortfall in legal expertise in Tusla. What plans does Tusla have to recruit legal experts and have its own legal department as opposed to continuously outsourcing?
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
Mr. Smyth will address the legal costs issue. I do not disagree with the Deputy, nor would I dispute that in-house provision is always a good thing. There are issues with legal representation in the courts, in-house counsel and so on. Having an in-house legal service separate from the guardian ad litemsystem, which we have no control over, has allowed us to reduce our legal services spend on outsourced services against an increased volume of activity. It has certainly proved beneficial to have those 9.25 staff and I would like to build on that. The contract tender is due again in 2021.
There are different caseloads for child protection and children in care. I will come back to the Deputy on the matter because I would like to speak to the relevant professional staff first to ensure I do not mislead her. I am not aware of a situation where agency workers engaged by Tusla would have a more favourable a workload than Tusla colleagues sitting next to them. I will check the position and if it is the case, I will revert to the Deputy. I would be very surprised if it was, however.
The committee discussed caseloads with the Tusla chairperson, Mr. Pat Rabbitte. Tusla social workers had a caseload of in excess of 50 cases per week, whereas social workers employed by private providers had a caseload of 30 per week. That is a huge difference.
Mr. Pat Smyth:
The Deputy made a couple of points about the total framework for guardians ad litem. The new legislation is about governing that effectively because what has happened since the agency was set up, previously it was the HSE, is that Tusla has become the paymaster in terms of those costs, whether it is the actual guardians ad litemthemselves or the legal people who are commissioned alongside that. What we have done is brought some structure. We were with the Committee of Public Accounts after a report was compiled by the Comptroller and Auditor General two years ago on the guardian ad litemcost piece. We had successfully introduced strong frameworks for the costs where there had been none before. The new legislation brings a completely different level of control over that.
The €16 million that Mr. Gloster referred to in this year's expected cost includes the cost of the legal providers as well as the cost of guardians ad litem. The split is probably €9 million for the guardians ad litemand €7 million for the legal cost to support them. Tusla could not provide that because the courts would not allow it to do so.
That is very welcome. I will finish by asking about the first section of the presentation. Deputy Funchion raised this issue but I will be far more direct and use the name of the group, which is the Alliance of Birth Mothers Campaigning for Justice or ABC group. Did Tusla meet the group?
Both opening statements referred to transparency. I take on board everything that was said in response to the questions asked by Deputy Funchion. However, there is huge frustration about this issue and it is right to refer to it. The issue has moved to a different level on social media because people are frustrated by the lack of transparency and communication. These issues must be addressed right across the Tusla organisation throughout the country. I ask Mr. Gloster to take that board and undertake a second review.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
I confirm that I met representatives of the ABC group. I believe they were reasonably satisfied with the positive disposition that I displayed towards some of the issues they raised with me. I also attempted to explain to the group some of the limitations with some of the issues. I should have mentioned another issue linked to a matter raised by Deputy Funchion. I am not one of these people who believes that if a parliamentary question or representation lands in one's lap, one writes back saying the person has written to the wrong place. As a public servant, if someone writes to me on an issue relevant to another part of Tusla, my job is to connect that communication to the right part of Tusla so that an answer is supplied.
That is welcome. I ask the Chairman to show a little latitude as I ask a second group of questions. I welcome what Mr. Gloster said about best practice. At our previous meeting, Mr. Lee heard me ask for best practice. I have repeatedly asked the sector to step up to the mark and provide best practice. Mr. Gloster is right that a legislative footing is required for that. What it does is protect the childcare sector and care settings. Best practice will enable crèches and their providers to step forward and it will immediately become easy to identify the providers that do not achieve the standard. I welcome and fully support the comments made about best practice.
That is the fluffy bit finished so I will now address the heavier stuff. I will ask direct questions and I would appreciate direct answers.
How many crèches known to Tusla currently operate without a registration?
The response to a parliamentary question I received from Tusla on 4 November referred to a figure of 595. It is important to read the breakdown of that into the record. Dublin south had 88 crèches with conditions attached, Dublin north had 113, Dublin and north east had 120, mid-Leinster had 67, mid-west had 32, north west had 35, south east had 57 and south west had 83. They are all services with conditions attached. How many of them are high, or what is the percentage if Mr. Lee does not wish to give me an exact answer?
Mr. Brian Lee:
The percentage that is high at any time is always less than 1% anyway. It is a very low number of the overall services that are in the higher zone. In terms of specific breakdown, I will have to look at the figures in that respect. The number 37 was mentioned on the last occasion and we wrote to the committee advising that 18 of those had been de-escalated. It is a fluid process. Some come in, some go off and some come back onto the process. We currently have 41 in that status.
Mr. Brian Lee:
It is more like the higher enforcement stage. The new CEO certainly challenges the language we use in that respect and I want to adjust that language from critical to high to more descriptive enforcement processes. It is not necessarily always giving the right impression regarding the risk level in the service; it is more a reflection of the service's enforcement level in the process.
Mr. Brian Lee:
If there was a child protection issue in any of those services, the parents would be notified if it met the threshold for social workers. The only process by which the regulatory side of Tusla can notify the parents is if a report is being published at the time. We do not have any statutory powers to contact parents in that regard. That is for our child protection teams.
Mr. Brian Lee:
I will have to check the current position with that. I would not have an update to hand regarding where every service is, but I can let the Deputy know when those reports are being published. It is important to point out that if a service is among that 41, it is very much in an enforcement process with us and caught in due process and fair procedures. That tends to take longer in terms of being able to publish those reports.
I am not saying that Tusla is keeping them in the dark but from the parents' point of view, the narrative here is that they are continuously being kept in the dark. Parents who are not working this morning and are tuned into this meeting can hear the conversation about how to check the registration and so forth, but providers will not go out of their way to tell them that, particularly the 41 providers we are discussing.
Mr. Brian Lee:
I take the Deputy's point. It is a concern that I and the CEO have. We are putting as many initiatives in place as we can in the context of our current legislative framework in that regard. The best thing we have at present, which we will put in place for the first quarter of next year, is that we will publish the dates of inspections on our website so parents at least know when we are there and they can ask questions. There is also more work to do to inform parents about our work and on how to engage with providers more effectively. However, I accept the Deputy's point. If we are engaged in high level enforcement, it could take a number of months before we can even publish the report. That is how the process works at present.
Under the regulation of 2016, it is supposed to be 21 days. We also understand that due to the legal framework around it the 21 days is not worth the paper it is written on because it does not exist. That is a comment more than anything else.
It is my understanding that Tusla's risk rating of high is broken down into the categories of H1, H2, H3, H4, H5, H6 and H7. How does Tusla break down the 595 crèches? Mr. Lee must have that figure. He did not come to this committee meeting this morning, knowing that we are discussing childcare, and not have those figures for me. I wish to get some comfort for the parents watching these proceedings who are involved with those 595 crèches. I now know that 41 are in the high category. Can he give the breakdown of the rest?
Mr. Brian Lee:
The comfort I can give the Deputy in terms of the 595 is that a service that has conditions is, as said earlier, subject to further scrutiny and monitoring by the inspectorate. The reason we use conditions is to support us in providing more effective monitoring of these services. If we identify a particular concern and we attach a condition, it allows us to limit that service in terms of its work and then ensure it addresses the non-compliance. We can assure parents that those services are subject to considerably more monitoring and oversight by Tusla.
Mr. Brian Lee:
It can be both. It depends on the matter at hand. Let us say, for example, that a condition is that an assessment is done and it is just a document. We would seek to have that document provided as a piece of evidence. Sometimes it requires verification on inspection, so we will go in to inspect and verify that it is done. Those would be the two main groups of verification. There would be no need to inspect if it is just a document that is required.
Mr. Brian Lee:
The risk rating system that we use is the critical, high, medium and low process that we use to rate services in terms of the enforcement process. There are other rating processes for unsolicited information that comes in, but those are the main risk rating systems that we operate. We do not do sub-risk registers within that.
Are the crèche owners, providers and managers aware of this? How does Tusla communicate to the childcare provider that Tusla has its risk rating? We have regulation. As was said at the last committee meeting, regulation is one thing, the regulator is another and enforcement of the regulations is something else. When Tusla does its inspection, how does the childcare provider know that its risk rating exists? That is what I am trying to understand.
Mr. Brian Lee:
The highest point of any risk register we have would be that the provider is on the national registration enforcement panel. It would have received correspondence that it is at that level with us in terms of enforcement by the head of registration and enforcement. With regard to conditions, the providers will be aware that they have conditions. We do not actively communicate the risk register to providers at this time. We will consider how that might be worked in the future. To date, it has been used as an internal register to support our processes in prioritising for inspection planning and focusing where our resources are best suited. However, services that are in the top end would know that they are there. They are told that they are at risk of losing their registration or of other enforcement processes that we might have.
Bear with me for a moment, Chairman. Clearly, it is low, medium and high. Do the services that are in the medium bracket know exactly what the tipping point is, bar fire safety and so forth, between medium and high? I would like to know for a parent.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
It might be of assistance to the Deputy to refer back to the statement and the changes I wish to bring about administratively. I have asked the regulatory service to look at this because of the wording in the narrative on it. With regard to the 595 crèches with conditions, to give a comparative example one can look at the HIQA website today and see there is a large number of nursing homes with conditions attached. That does not necessarily mean they are in some type of high risk zone. I have asked the regulatory service to simplify the categorisation issue regarding the ones we are very concerned about, the ones we are happy enough are making progress and the ones we are not troubled about based on the evidence. Then every provider is unequivocally clear about where each stands in that.
If a parent sees there was an inspection on 5 November and the last report was in April, he or she can see that a report is pending. The parent can ask if there are issues in the current inspection report that has not yet been published and if the provider is in one of the categories identified by Tusla. That is the space we are trying to get to in order to assist the public. We might not be able to tell the public somebody is on the high end if it is not a matter of child protection because we must go through the regulatory process. We can start to put a simplicity around the definitions in the process and, if one likes, challenge the sector to rise to the level and protect its interests by saying it recommends that all its members tell parents exactly where they are in the regulatory process.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
I can go back to my opening statement and some things I have both said and done since I started in the role. Restoring public confidence is a very slow process but I have been unequivocal in my efforts in that regard. For example, in my first radio interview in my second week in the job with Mr. Sean O'Rourke, I was very clear that if anybody wants to talk to me about the disclosures tribunal, I am very happy to talk about it. The reality is the findings of Mr. Justice Charleton were that when Tusla identified that it had made a mistake, if it dealt with the mistake differently and more openly, the need for that module of the tribunal would have been slim to nil. We must start simply saying to the public that we accept that. That defines for us where our behaviour goes in future and how we deal with complaints, issues or people's information. Showing that to the public is particularly important.
The one thing we cannot relay to the public in advance about our problems is a HIQA report as it is illegal to publish a HIQA report before the authority does so. Other than that, it is my intention to give regular information through the public representative system, the media and as many channels as we can find for people to listen to. There should be information about the number of cases that are unallocated to a social worker, for example, and equally there should be information indicating that many of those on allocated cases are receiving very good services from people other than social workers like social care workers in Dublin. We must put balanced information into the public domain as distinct from just trying to put out good information and hide from examples that may not be so good. That is one way of building public confidence but the ultimate test of public confidence is the quality of service provided.
Is it too big for the size of the agency? Is the agency adequately equipped to provide support on State adoptions, for example, and tracing information in that regard? Does Mr. Gloster feel the agency is adequately equipped or is the remit too big?
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
To avoid any doubt, if somebody checks what I said a number of years ago on Google, I was the person who told the "Six One" news programme that I was not necessarily convinced that taking children and family services out of the health system would make it any better. Many good things have been done since Tusla was established and I have no doubt there have been benefits. Unfortunately, the expectation created when the agency was established in the public domain was essentially that it would be a panacea and it would solve all the State's challenges in the range of services, including child protection, children in care, adoption, fostering and so on. Establishing public organisations and entities rarely amounts to a panacea. When a separate organisation is established, as I referenced earlier, one must rebuild a centre with GDPR, information and communications development, legal services, finance, functions of human resources and so on. It becomes a very costly exercise but in the public domain it can have the perception of being a very top-heavy administrative centre. The expectation when Tusla was set up was probably overstated.
Is Tusla adequately equipped to meet its statutory remit today? It has much going for it but for a long time to come it will experience pressure both from complexity and volume of demand. There are people waiting for an information and tracing service in adoption but there are also people waiting for other services we provide. When people are waiting, the question must be asked if the required capacity is there. Tusla has a much better capacity today than it did and since 2016 there has been substantial investment in it. It is better but it is not perfect, no more than it is with a hospital waiting list, for example.
What is the witnesses' opinion of the study? It indicates that voluntary arrangements have fewer safeguards and protections for the rights of children and parents. What is the opinion of the witnesses on voluntary care arrangements? Do parents get legal advice? There were parts of the report that were pretty damning of Tusla, indicating a "soft coercion" of parents that if they did not sign agreements, there would be a court order. Will the witnesses take this opportunity to talk about that?
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
Honestly speaking, my level of familiarity with the report comes from what was in the media. I have not been briefed on the detail of the report. Voluntary care arrangements with parents and our entire child protection practice are driving towards "signs of safety". We are not caught up as much in trying to prove or disprove something but rather we focus on a current assessment of the risk of harm. We try to work with the network of the family around the child to reduce that risk of harm and, I hope, increase the likelihood of the child remaining at home or within the extended family network.
Where children come into care, there are two provisions under the relevant Act, with one being a voluntary agreement and the other being a court order. I am not in a position to dispute people's assertions on this but I would genuinely find it almost the antithesis of social workers in the profession to knowingly engage in a sort of coercive process. Certainly, social workers would explain to parents that a voluntary care option is available and it avoids the need for courts. In many cases there is the possibility of reunification.
The question was asked as to whether parents get legal advice. I will restate my advice across the agency that even where a parent is consenting to a voluntary care arrangement, it is our responsibility to drive the parent in the direction of appropriate independent advice apart from us, whether it is legal or in another profession. It is a significant step in the life of a child or parent so it is not a decision one would take lightly. Do parents feel they are under pressure to go into a voluntary arrangement? I have no doubt that could well be the case. Thinking about attachment issues and trauma arising for a family when a child leaves its front door, there must be an immense range of emotions, views and feelings about that. If a parent said to me today that he or she felt there was no choice, I would be very slow to argue with them if that was the feeling. Is it our staff's intention to create that type of "coercion"? I sincerely hope that would not be the case.
I also hope it would not. Is there a reliance on voluntary care orders within Tusla? It emerged from the report that serious consideration should be given to a time limit on voluntary care arrangements but that does not seem to be the case.
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
I understand the Deputy's question now. This relates to the principal statute and purpose of voluntary consent.
It is the consent of the parent, and the parent remains the legal guardian of the child at all times. There was a case in the High Court two weeks ago where the judge quite correctly articulated to the parent in a voluntary care construct that they could end that at any time, as in, within days. On the duration of that voluntary care, I have seen situations where parents have consented to voluntary care and it has been essentially a long-term plan. It depends on what the plan is around the child's needs, the parents' challenges and how they can meet them. The fundamental principle in law is that voluntary consent can be withdrawn at any time.
Mr. Gloster says he has seen it for a long term. I am very concerned if parents are not being given legal advice. That would be a serious issue. That would ring alarm bells for me. Parents might have been suffering from substance abuse who are now on the right track or there could be mental health issues. As an agency, Tusla should give all the supports so that the parents know what is involved. On the other hand, I am concerned that there may be children who find themselves in a voluntary situation for eight to ten years. Life does not stop for those children. It is about trying to get the balance right. I am concerned about there being a reliance on these. Are they being used more frequently than the alternative?
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
I do not have the breakdown but I will get it for the Deputy. However, I reiterate that it is such a fundamental decision that if they are not doing it already, I would support a reminder in the system that parents should be encouraged to take legal advice. If the legal advice is that it is an area that parents would not want to go to, perhaps they would rather be in a court supervised system. The care system has to be completely overseen and transparent. Arguably, despite significant discussion around guardians ad litemin the court, perhaps the children in the voluntary consent situations are the ones who have a different requirement.
I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee and apologise for my absence earlier. Committees are often scheduled at the same time, so I was at another committee this morning.
I do not have a great deal to add on the "RTÉ Investigates" programme and the report. I appreciate that Mr. Gloster is limited in what he can say on that. We can say that it was a black mark and a dark day to watch that programme. It made every parent with a child in a crèche question the care they have been given. Clearly, parents were being told one thing and a very different thing was happening within the facilities.
Mr. Gloster's opening statement has recommendations for things that parents should look out for or check. There is parental responsibility to check the facility, but then there is a difficulty if the information that is provided in response is false and misleading. That is where Tusla comes in. It will take a long process to restore public confidence in childcare facilities, which is unfortunate for the vast majority of facilities that are doing an excellent job and provide the best of care, and in the staff who work in those facilities who feel as though there is a question mark over their work. That is the result of a small number of bad eggs who have effected everybody.
I congratulate Mr. Gloster on his appointment and wish him well in his tenure. He has a difficult task ahead, which he has acknowledged, but he gives the impression of being very much open to acknowledging the failures of the organisation, addressing them, and moving Tusla to a new phase or chapter, which is what is needed.
I agree that Tusla needs to do some more work on highlighting the good work it does. I have had cause to interact with its social workers, the children and young people's services committee, CYPSC, co-ordinator and the agency. There is a lot of fantastic stuff happening on the ground. There is a breastfeeding policy on the cards in County Mayo, and there is greater work around mental health with children and young people and on the impact of domestic violence in the home on children. Great work is happening but it is often not adequately publicised. It would be fantastic to see Mr. Gloster as CEO and the umbrella organisation assisting the local organisations to get the word out about the work they do and the supports that are available to families. I am sure he will endeavour to do so.
On social work, there is clearly not enough people coming through the system. As the new CEO, what are Mr. Gloster's plans to increase the numbers coming through and what are his plans regarding increased retention? If the organisation is losing people at one end, taking in new recruits means it is only treading water rather than increasing staffing numbers. In the past, when Tusla was before the committee, I suggested that more administrative staff should be provided to social workers. We have trained, qualified social workers who are sitting at their desks for long periods typing up documents and minutes and doing administrative work that could be done by somebody else. Social workers in various teams have asked for this. but it has not happened. It seems like low-hanging fruit and an easy thing to do in the interim, while numbers in social care and social work are low, to give them administrative staff to free up their time to do social work. What does Mr. Gloster think about that?
Is it the case that a children and young persons services committee is operating in every district or region with someone assigned to every region? What are the plans for those committees and how might they work? CYPSC seems like a good solution to toward engaging the different agencies, including An Garda Síochána and the HSE, linking them together and getting them working better together in the area of children, as they all have a role to play. What are Mr. Gloster's plans for that?
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
On retention, this year Tusla saw a slight reversal in the trend, with the numbers coming in slightly exceeding those leaving. I cannot claim any credit for that. It was happening before I came, to be fair to everybody. It is not something I would be complacent about. One bad swing and we could be in reverse again. On increasing numbers, I think I responded to Deputy Neville that we have just commenced a sponsorship programme with Maynooth University to try to increase the numbers but also to offer sponsorship to some social work students so that we would sponsor them in their training and then take them into our employment. It is a slow burner because the availability of social workers, no more than nurses or indeed other health and social care professionals across the globe, is less than what is needed because of demographic trends. Therefore, there are two parts to the issue.
The first is that we must try to maximise supply. The opportunity for social care workers who have a four-year honours degree to do a conversion is something that Sligo Institute of Technology has tried. I have met a representative of the Irish Association of Social Care Educators and am very anxious to explore with it the possibilities while at the same time protecting the fact that we also need social care workers.
There will come a point in childcare services in Ireland where we will have to examine the standard and regulation around assigning social workers to each case and looking at the possibility of social work-led multidisciplinary teams, where a social worker has a team available to him or her that might comprise youth and community workers, social care workers or others whom the social worker can deploy to different cases. The cases would be under the supervision of the social worker, not unlike a consultant doctor with a medical team. We will have to explore different ways. If we do not, we will live by the failed standard for an allocated social worker and I will have to come before the committee, as will my successors, and there will continue to be unallocated cases.
I am glad that the Deputy mentioned administrative staff. Administrative staff often become the subject of public opprobrium. For instance, they are seen as pen pushers and it is thought that there are too many of them. Part of the agency conversion that we are pursuing involves up to 130 grade 3 clerical staff who are supporting front-line teams. They are agency staff.
The agency staff were brought in to make assessments because of the very issues the Deputy articulated, and these are being pursued in the agency conversion programme. We have the full support of the Fórsa trade union in that respect. While it is not enough, it is probably as much as is currently possible within our affordable pay bill, although it will always consider children and young people's services committees, CYPSCs.
I am glad the Deputy mentioned that the day before yesterday, the Minister launched the revised, updated plan for CYPSC for the period 2019 to 2024, inclusive. I believe that CYPSC's footprint is everywhere now, although I will check that for the committee in case I am offside in that regard. It covers virtually all the geographic space at this stage. Not unlike the creative community alternative issue we discussed with Deputy Sherlock earlier, the fantastic aspect of CYPSC is that it is multi-agency. While it is not casework based, it is solutions-based for communities. It has come a long way from the original childcare committees that arose from Sustaining Progress many years ago.
As an example, I met one of the north County Dublin CYPSCs during the week that had an issue with the prevalence of homelessness, including that of infants. Due to the limited space for people in emergency accommodation, it designed a mat kit with high-stimulus toys and so on for children, and it was distributed to 250 children. That was an initiative taken entirely by CYPSC. It is an example of where its local adaptability can have a practical effect and build inter-agency relationships, which become important in child protection cases. On the basis of the plan launched for 2019 to 2024, inclusive, CYPSCs are very much a feature of the mix for the future.
HSE engagement can be a challenge and I am not sure whether Tusla is aware of that. Given that the HSE is a mammoth organisation in its own right, it can be difficult to get representation and consistency. Another challenge is that, very often, CYPSCs are built on relationships, namely, between the co-ordinator, the sub-committees established and the people on them. If those people move on, the relationships can fall away, and one must start from scratch and build from the ground up, which is inefficient.
I am aware of the plan being launched. There have been some conversations about the potential to put CYPSC on a statutory footing and give it a stronger base. What are Tusla's plans to strengthen that concept and to allow it to grow and do better?
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
Lest I be accused of being a poacher turned gamekeeper, I note I have just moved from the HSE and I am sure some of my former colleagues will have a view of whatever response I give to the Deputy's question. I was the chief officer of the mid-west area and had good engagement with CYPSCs. Part of the difficulty for any such committees when they emerge, especially as new constructs, is that with the greater number of local authority committees and other committees, everyone wants the chief to be on their committee. That leads to a circular of committees, where if the chief is not there, it is seen as less valuable. CYPSCs have moved into a much better place whereby senior people, though not necessarily the chief executive officer of various agencies, including the HSE, now participate much more actively.
Relationships are always a part of the strength of a community. They dissipate when people leave and I am not sure how that can be legislated for. If a culture of inter-agency working is built up in an area, it will have a better chance.
The issue of CYPSC coming onto a statutory footing is one for the Minister, the Department and the Government. My plan is to ensure that CYPSC will continue to be invested in, supported and driven. Equally, however, my plan is to find as many other agencies as possible that are champions of CYPSC in order that it will not become, by default, identified as being within the exclusive remit of Tusla. The way to create real inter-agency ownership is not through one agency owning everything but rather it should be variable. I have no doubt that in some parts of the country, a district superintendent in An Garda Síochána could be the most effective chair of a CYPSC. That is the approach I favour because it is the respect in which inter-agency working is effective. If it is led by one agency, it will be difficult for another agency, which will have its own statutory pressures, to invest in it. It is a challenge.
I have talked to Deputy Rabbitte about the notion of work experience, that is, linking with colleges to try to develop a work experience element. Would that be of value to explore? Much like if someone is training to be a nurse, he or she will do some work experience at a hospital. Could Tusla explore a better link with colleges to try to provide some practical experience during students' courses?
Mr. Bernard Gloster:
We provide professional supervised placements to college students. In both social work courses and social care courses, there is a requirement to undertake a number of supervised placements. One of the challenges of that over the years is that when I trained as a social care worker, it was probably much more fluid and maybe even a little flexible, whereas now it is highly regulated everywhere. It is more restrictive, given that what a student can be allowed to do or not do is limited. We take social workers and social care workers all the time on placements. It is a way we sell ourselves as an employer when students leave college. I believe in trying to maximise that, but it can be challenging in some parts of the country depending on how busy they are and how much supervision they can provide.
On behalf of the committee, I thank our guests for their presentation and for dealing with members' questions in such a comprehensive manner, especially despite Mr. Gloster's ill health.
The joint committee will now adjourn until 11.15 a.m. on Wednesday, 20 November 2019, when it is intended the committee will representatives of UNICEF, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Ombudsman for Children in respect of the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and concluding observations.