Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Child and Family Agency (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)


5:55 pm

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour) | Oireachtas source

I will continue the debate on the Child and Family Agency (Amendment) Bill 2021, which we commenced yesterday. I believe I had just moved the adjournment of the debate and so had not yet had the chance to say that the Labour Party is happy to support this Bill. This Bill provides for amendments that might be described as somewhat technical but which are nonetheless important. They give effect to the Taoiseach's announcement of 27 June that certain education welfare functions performed by Tusla are to return to the Department of Education. This Bill will amend the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 to provide the Minister for Education with appropriate governance and oversight of the education welfare functions performed by Tusla following the previous transfer of responsibility for those functions from the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to the Minister for Education.

We believe that, as has been acknowledged by all of those who spoke in the debate thus far, including the Minister himself, it is sensible for the Minister for Education to be provided with a direct line for policy direction and oversight of Tusla in respect of these specific functions related to education welfare. These functions cover issues such as the home-school community liaison scheme, the school completion programme and the educational welfare service. Tusla has stated that all three of these strands share the same national outcomes, these being improved attendance, participation and retention. These programmes might be described as not letting children fall through the cracks in education. That is very important.

It was welcome to hear the Minister's words on the Bill and the purpose behind it yesterday. It would also be helpful to hear from the Minister, Deputy Foley, in the near future as to how she intends to take on these new functions, although it is clear these roles will still be performed by Tusla.

I will address a number of themes that emerge from the Bill and its purpose. The first of these is the importance of smooth transitions in the transfer of functions and roles between Departments, including oversight of bodies such as Tusla by Departments. Upon the formation of this Government and the establishment of new Departments, departmental responsibilities were rejigged. That always happens after the formation of a government. Responsibilities move between different Departments. However, there is always a period of transition and this can cause serious difficulties. I have certainly been made very aware of this in the last few months by a number of constituents who have contacted my office because their children have effectively fallen through the cracks. There has been a difficulty in identifying which Department is responsible for the welfare, education or care of a given child. There can be interdepartmental issues in the case of, for example, a child with particular needs who requires support not only from HSE services, but also from Department of Education services. This can cause difficulties. The division of functions related to special education, children, disability and other responsibilities between different Departments and the transitional period arising from the transfer of significant functions between Departments has, on more than one occasion, resulted in no Department taking ownership of certain issues that arose. I have spoken with the Minister and other Ministers about particular cases in which this has happened.

I acknowledge that there is a particularly big transition under way with the disability function being transferred, to a great degree, from the Department of Health to the Minister's Department. We are also seeing certain functions of the Department of Justice that relate to children and equality transferring to his Department. It is just something we all need to be conscious of. There is potential for gaps to emerge where such big transitions are taking place within the Civil Service. Everyone would acknowledge the importance of a smooth transition and of ensuring that there are arrangements in place that make lines of responsibility clear.

Tusla is accountable to the Department of Children, Disability, Equality, Integration and Youth and to the committee that works with it, a committee on which I now sit. With this new transition under the Bill, there must be assurances that duties transferred to the Department of Education will not go without scrutiny and that there will be a smooth transition. Perhaps the Minister might address how that transition will be managed? How are these new responsibilities to be transferred to the Department of Education? How quickly can it be done? The timing of transitional arrangements is also important.

It is particularly important that we see arrangements put in place to ensure a smooth transition in this year of all years, when we have seen such an enormous impact upon children as a result of the devastating Covid pandemic. We know that, in September 2020, Tusla data showed that more than 12% of primary school children had missed more than the permissible 20 days per year. Given the prolonged closure of schools due to Covid-19 and the necessary restrictions associated with it, it is more important than ever to ensure that children do not fall behind or get lost in the system. Will the Minister speak further about the school completion programme? Does he anticipate it being affected by this change in designated responsibilities? How can we ensure that there will be a smooth transition?

I will address the issue of the impact of school closures on children in some more detail. Recent reports have shown that some 4,500 students and young people did not return to school when they reopened following Covid-19 closures last year. There is no doubt but that contained within that alarming number are vulnerable students or students facing particular disadvantage who may have become really disengaged as a result of the closures and the great difficulties so many children and students experienced in having to work from home or having to be home-schooled. The term "home-schooling" was very much a euphemism. In many households, that was very difficult to achieve. We have seen research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Economic and Social Research Institute and Trinity College Dublin, among others, which has examined the effect of school closures in Ireland and found evidence of a widening of inequality and of significant learning loss.

We have all heard from individual families and constituents about the impact of school closures on their children, in particular children with additional needs. There have been some heartbreaking stories from parents about children regressing with slowdowns and delays in reaching developmental milestones, in particular children with additional needs. That is of real concern.

Research has also identified stresses on children arising from parental unemployment due to a loss of livelihood because of the Covid pandemic. As we now have a cautious return to workplaces, we will see more difficulties with parents and households trying to manage this transition.

While the Covid learning and support scheme is most welcome, we are concerned that it does not go far enough to ensure that those young people who are most at risk of becoming and staying disengaged from school and education are supported. Temporary increases in hours are not adequate unless backed up by ongoing investment. Budget 2022 could have taken the opportunity to expand the DEIS scheme, in particular, to include more schools which could benefit from the school completion programme.

In the debates on budget 2022 we said that instead of the €500 million in tax cuts offered by the budget, the Government could have made a radical change in our education system to make it truly free, tackle literacy issues and take more sustained and targeted action to tackle educational disadvantage. In particular, I and the Labour Party education spokesperson, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, spoke about our disappointment and frustration that we did not see more done on the catch up children scheme, which we have been calling for as long ago as February. We called for investment of about €100 million, which would be necessary to ensure we truly make up to children what they have lost out on through prolonged school closures, including the loss of educational and extracurricular opportunities, such as sport and other engagement in activities that would foster their development. We do not think the Government's funding is sufficient to ensure that there is adequate catch up, in particular for children who have been most severely disadvantaged.

The funding allocated by the Government falls short by about €50 million. The funding allocated equates to just €50 per child to make up for over 18 months of disrupted learning. In the Netherlands, by comparison, €2,500 has been allocated per child. Even in Britain, despite all of the critiques most of us make of its current Government, there is an allocation of £1 billion for a catch up for children fund, equating to £85 per child.

There has been research in Ireland on the effect of school closures and the need to ensure that we make up to children what they have lost out on. We have seen similar research in other countries. In Britain, the Education Policy Institute calculated that significant investment is needed to ensure that children do not fall any further behind.

We know in Ireland the enormous role education has played in the economic progress the State has made in the past 100 years. We know that educational disadvantage and inequality lasts a lifetime and is correlated with quality of life determinants such as health outcomes. We all know it to be true that investing in the education of children cannot start early enough. I have been to the fore in calling for a Donogh O'Malley moment. The Minister might recall that 55 years ago this year, the then Minister for Education, Donogh O'Malley, made the enormous and fantastic announcement that children would be entitled to a free secondary school place and that secondary school education would become free. At the time, this was seen as a very radical and unprecedented move because until then it was thought that children only had a right to a primary school place.

Just as that radical intervention was made, which became so significant in Ireland's economic and social progress since then and in our development as a nation, we now need to see free preschool education in the same light. We need to have the same radical intervention to ensure free early years places for every child are made available and that it is just a matter of course that all our children have access to the same educational and developmental opportunities in the vital early years.

I heard from constituents across Dublin Bay South during the by-election campaign during the summer about huge issues with the provision of childcare places and the scarcity of places. As we know, crèches and childcare providers have had to close during the pandemic. Many have found it unsustainable to remain open. Even where crèches and childcare providers have stayed open, the cost to parents of those childcare places has significantly increased.

I spoke on the debate on the citizens' assembly recommendations on gender equality yesterday and referenced an email I received from a constituent who told me a crèche in my area raised its fees on the day of the budget, the very day the Government announced a very welcome new funding scheme for childcare to be put in place from next September which would tie new funding mechanisms to a commitment that crèches would not raise their fees. That announcement, while welcome, does not do anything for parents who are now facing significant hikes in fees. It does not do anything for providers who have told us it is not sustainable to keep crèches open.

I spoke to the owner of a crèche in my area who would have liked to have stayed open, and desperately wanted to stay open. They knew they were letting down parents and children who rely on the service, yet they could not see a way to remain open. We have heard from professionals and staff working in childcare how unsustainable their position is. SIPTU's Big Start campaign identified serious problems with low pay in the sector and concerns about pay driving professionals out of the sector, which contributes to the difficulty in childcare services staying open. These are real concerns.

We are failing parents and professionals and staff in the sector. We are failing providers with our current ad hocsystem which has far too high a reliance on private providers. The State effectively takes no role in guaranteeing the availability or affordability of childcare places for children. This means we are failing children. We need to move very swiftly to a new model of childcare provision in Ireland.

The Labour Party, in particular Labour Party women, have been to the fore in promoting an equal early years campaign to ensure that we have a public universal childcare system in this country. That would have a game changing effect on our society. It would have the sort of effect the Donogh O'Malley moment had 55 years ago in guaranteeing children a place in secondary school. It would have an impact not only for our children, who would be guaranteed equality of access in early years to education and preschool, but would also have a transformative effect for women, men and gender equality in Irish society.

That takes up the theme we addressed yesterday in the debate on the citizens' assembly recommendations on gender equality. We know that in Ireland we have very low participation rates of women, in particular mothers, in the workforce. All of us know in our constituencies, and family and friend groups, that many women tend to give up work, or move to part-time work, because of difficulties with accessing and affording childcare. This, coupled with our gender pay gap of 14%, is driving women out of the workforce who may wish to remain in it if they were given the necessary supports to do so. This, of course, has an impact on gender equality.

I will conclude by saying that we welcome the Bill and will support it. It is largely technical in nature. We welcome the sensible moves it makes, but there is a bigger picture around the provision of supports for children, in particular those facing the sort of disadvantages Tusla and other State agencies are seeking to address and tackle.


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