Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 October 2021

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


7:05 pm

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party) | Oireachtas source

I thank all Deputies for their contributions today and yesterday and for the detail in which they have looked at the Bill. Some of the contributions have focused very much on the legislation. Some of them have been on broader issues that are relevant to the work of the Department, other Departments and the work of State agencies.

I acknowledge the case that Deputy Boyd Barrett brought to my attention. It has not crossed my desk directly yet. I have been in touch with some officials in the context of this debate. I understand the individual in question has a placement at present. I will look into this and I will communicate with Deputy Boyd Barrett early next week, as I said to him earlier.

At the beginning of Deputy Boyd Barrett's speech, he made a point on the importance of Government and State agencies acting in a coherent way. This is what we are trying to achieve in the Bill. There was an incoherence in the issue of the educational welfare service and the various facilities that flow from it being overseen by Tusla and subsequently by the Department rather than the Department of Education. We are looking to rectify this. Many Deputies spoke about silos. They exist but it is also important to recognise that when the Government recognises them and looks to solve them it is a good thing. I appreciate the support across the House for what we are doing.

Before moving away from Tusla, there was discussion of resources by Deputies Devlin and Boyd Barrett. Undoubtedly, Tusla deals with some of the most vulnerable children and families in society. This is why an additional €40 million has been allocated to it in this year's budget. An additional €66 million was allocated to Tusla in last year's budget. This was the biggest single increase the agency had ever received. This was because I recognised the complexity of the cases the organisation deals with.

A significant number of Deputies discussed the key elements that will be transferred, including the educational welfare service and the school completion programme. Deputies Clarke and Funchion discussed it, as did Deputies Paul Donnelly and Ó Laoghaire. It is about trying to get better alignment with the wider policy measures being taken in the Department of Education. This is why it is important that policy control over the educational welfare service and the school completion programme will now be set by the Department of Education rather than my Department.

While they will still operate under the remit of Tusla, the policy direction will be set by the Department of Education. We all agreed that that is correct. As the Acting Chairman said, essentially, this is all about the individual child and that has to be our focus.

There is no question of any cuts or impacts on the budget and I want to make that quite clear. We are not doing this work of transfer to try to undermine these services but are doing it because we see the value of these particular services.

Speaking to what Deputy Pringle said, in ensuring that we are joined-up in the delivery of the service, Tusla’s aim is to integrate the service delivery and it will continue to do that because Tusla will still produce the one corporate plan and annual business plan and in that it will have to demonstrate how it is delivering the objectives that we are seeking, which will come from the Department of Education in respect of the educational welfare service and the school completion programme and how these align with the wider objectives that the organisation pursues across the rest of its functions, where the policy is primarily set by my Department. Again, that link and oversight, which Tusla will continue to have, is tied in by such functions as Meitheal and Tusla have in that integrated role in service delivery. I am confident that we can do that but in the final instance oversight remains in this House and in the ability of Members to raise questions with myself and the Minister for Education on the success of what we are seeking to achieve.

It is important to recognise that responsibility for these services has already transferred to the Department of Education and we are making the legislative provision now, but, under a statutory instrument that kicked in from the start of this year, responsibility for the educational welfare service has been with the Department of Education. We are putting the strict long-term legal framework around a process that has taken place and that I believe it is working, while noting that all education services have been impacted by Covid-19 this year.

A number of Members, including Deputies Patricia Ryan and Cronin, spoke about the additional supports we give to those who are most vulnerable and DEIS is probably one of the best examples of this. It is important to note that an additional €18 million was provided for the DEIS programme in 2022. In a full year that will equate to an additional €30 million. That is a 20% increase in funding of DEIS, which is one of the largest increases that it has had in one budget. That emphasises the commitment of this Government to rolling out and growing the use of DEIS as a real means of tackling educational disadvantage. I know, having been the chair of the board of management of a DEIS band 2 school, the great importance of the home school community liaison officer in visiting families, engaging with them and making them feel comfortable in discussing issues they may have been having in their child’s engagement with school and in building up that very important relationship of trust. Other Members also spoke about the important role of the home school community liaison officer. I am proud that we have been able to grow the allocation in this regard in this budget and I look forward to being able increasing that in future budgets.

In the context of the treatment of children, a number of Deputies mentioned the other supports we provide, particularly in the area of childcare. This is something that was spoken about by Deputy Bacik and I am again pleased that we are able to announce significant additional investment in the early years care of €69 million next year, which will grow to more than €200 million in 2023. That will enable us to ensure that and an employment regulation order, ERO, coming from a joint labour committee works to ensure proper rates of pay for childcare professionals who have been working with inadequate rates of pay for so long. I know the welcome that SIPTU and the Big Start campaign have given to this long-term commitment to fund the sector. I do not deny that a great deal more has to be done in that area and I will be the first to say that. We need to continue to grow that level of public investment in our childcare services.

We have put a significant amount into childcare services during the Covid-19 period and all childcare services are entitled to draw down the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, without having to prove the 30% turnover rule. That was an important exception I was able to negotiate. It deeply frustrated me, therefore, not as much I am sure as I am sure it frustrates parents, when I hear Deputy Bacik speaking of childcare providers increasing their fees at this time because the EWSS pays for 80% of their staff costs and 50% of their overall costs right now. I do not understand any way in which childcare providers would need to raise fees right now considering the level of State support that had been put in. That is why when we introduce the new core funding model next year, we are saying that there will be a quid pro quo, or an exchange in this regard. That exchange is the commitment not to raise fees. That is the first time that this State will ever be able to provide some element of regulation of the fees that are paid. We are stepping up in providing significant amounts for services so they can improve quality. A key way of doing this is to pay childcare professionals properly but there is an exchange for that, which is the commitment not to increase fees. I look forward to engaging with the sector. I spoke to representatives following the budget and I will continue to engage with the sector in how we operationalise that. That means that in future we have put some money into the national childcare scheme this year, but in future, when additional money is put in to the NCS, it will be put in to immediately reduce the cost of childcare for parents, and that investment of State resources will not be eaten up immediately by a fee increase but will make a difference for parents.

I welcome the support across the House for this legislation. It is small but important and I look forward to engaging with Deputies further on Committee and Report Stages. I thank the Acting Chairman.


No comments

Log in or join to post a public comment.