Thursday, 21 October 2021
Child and Family Agency (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
As an aside, perhaps we should take all Bills on Thursday evenings because they would progress very quickly. I was supposed to speak when the Bill reappears on the agenda the week after next or whenever and then I informed that I was to contribute at 8.15 p.m. Five minutes ago, I was told I was due to speak now. We would get through Bills very quickly if they were all taken on Thursday evenings. I cannot say why that might be.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on the Child and Family Agency (Amendment) Bill 2021. Largely, the proposed Bill is to be welcomed. I understand that the need to transfer the powers relating to the educational welfare function of Tusla to the Minister and Department of Education seems like a reasonable and logical step. It makes complete sense that educational welfare issues would come under the Department of Education. However, I would like to express my concern of certain functions being covered by two Departments. While the technical aspect of the proposal may appear to be an effective distribution of regulation and oversight, I would be interested in seeing how this will carry through in practice.
The reality is that while the amendment will transfer particular powers to the Department of Education, Tusla will still come under the umbrella of both the Department for Education and the Department for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. The amendment makes it so that the funding and budget for educational welfare will be exclusively within the remit of the Department of Education. However, the reality of many situations involving Tusla is that there is often crossover between sections and areas. In instances which attract the need for Tusla intervention, including, but not only involving, educational welfare, how do the Ministers propose to ensure efficient and effective inter- and cross-departmental strategies? We have seen how cross-departmental responsibility has not worked well in the past, and I would be doubtful about how it may work better in this case.
We have seen instances where it has been difficult to identify which issues come under which Minister and which Department, with the unfortunate result of neither taking the responsibility in some cases. It seems common for Departments to just pass the buck, and I have a real and justified fear in thinking this is what is going on, or will go on, in this case too, without any impact on the Ministers in question. With interdepartmental issues, there is a real potential for gaps to appear and for important issues to fall through those gaps. We need to make sure we are taking all the steps necessary to ensure that this does not happen here.
While the amendment makes sense on paper, I would like clarification on how it will work in reality, particularly as it is unlikely that all cases will fall solely within the remit of educational welfare and thus the Department of Education alone. I would also like to stress the importance of a cohesive and smooth transition and an efficient and effective transition period. It is essential in ensuring that this actually works well.
Tusla's education support service, comprising its three service strands of the home-school community liaison scheme, the educational welfare service and the school completion programme, is incredibly important, but I would like to see a further effort to see these services extended, especially in my constituency of Donegal. I note a lack of schools involved in the school completion programme in south Donegal. It is important to work with pupils, students, parents, schools and community support services to encourage and improve attendance, participation and retention across the country. I would hate to see Donegal children being left behind in the context of this issue.
The Minister, Deputy Foley, has stated the transfer of educational welfare functions provides a renewed opportunity for these services. I hope that she is right on this and that the transfer of powers will allow for more supports to be accessed by children and families who are referred to educational welfare services in Donegal. Access to education is a child's right and this right should be extended to all children in this country, including those in the north west.
Overall, I support this Bill. However, I would like to see my concerns taken on board and addressed as there have been real flaws in how interdepartmental issues have been addressed in the past. This needs to change in order to properly facilitate the future transitioning of powers from one Minister to another. It could possibly be addressed through amendments to the Bill. The Government has constantly rebelled against having to report back on how Bills operate in practice but this is a case where such an amendment could be very important to see how the Bill works in practice. It is necessary to make sure there is oversight from the Dáil or somewhere that it is working and delivering the intended results. This is the reality of all of these Bills. It is vital when we are speaking about children's education that it works smoothly and well and in everybody's interest. I am grateful for the opportunity to add these few words on the Bill.