Thursday, 13 October 2005
Child Care Services.
I acknowledge sincerely the co-operation of the Ceann Comhairle's office in allowing Deputy Crowe and I to raise an issue of serious concern to our community in Tallaght, where we live in the same estate. My son Robert made the point to me today that it is interesting to listen to Dáil proceedings when, as was the case this afternoon, we speak about issues such as the children of Pakistan, about whom much concern was expressed. The issue I want to raise is important for my constituency, and I acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power. It is also nice to see one of the Fianna Fáil vice-presidents, Michael Stokes, in the Visitors Gallery.
Tallaght west is an amazingly positive place which has been the subject of occasional bad publicity and a bad reputation over the years. Those of us who are honoured to represent the Tallaght west estates are anxious to paint a positive picture of the great communities of Jobstown, Fettercairn, Brookfield and Killinarden. My party leader, the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, made the point when he visited Jobstown on Monday last that he has visited Tallaght west on a number of occasions.
There is no doubt that much progress has been made recently in the community, which is only right. We now have in place a number of projects that we were waiting on for a long time. They include the building of the swimming pool in Jobstown, which is exciting everybody in the community, a new community centre in Brookfield and the need for a youth centre in Jobstown. Also, during the summer the Taoiseach opened the Citywise education project in Jobstown.
There is no question that the progress made on resources, facilities and infrastructure for the Tallaght west estates is only what the people deserve. I have always supported and been committed to a strong social inclusion policy for those Tallaght estates, which clearly need that assistance. In doing so I am following the example of my colleague, the former Minister of State, Chris Flood, who is also a long time colleague of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and who strongly represented the Tallaght west area.
The initiative Deputy Crowe and I raise concerns a report, A Place for Children: Tallaght West, a living document, which is the result of a ten-year approach by the Childhood Development Initiative whose consortium includes An Cosán, Barnardos, Brookfield Headstart pre-school and crèche, the Health Service Executive, Integration of African Children in Ireland, the Jobstown child care centre, Killinarden school completion programme, Little Scholar's pre-school in Jobstown, the Rainbow House early education and child care centre, Scoil Chaitlín Maude and Naíonra Chaitlín Maude, Scoil Cnoc Mhuire in Knockmore, South Dublin County Council, the south Dublin child care committee, St. Aidan's and St. Bridget's national schools in Brookfield, St. Aidan's Traveller centre in Brookfield, St. Anne's primary school in Fettercairn, St. Louise's playgroup in Knockmore, St. Thomas's senior school in Jobstown, Tallaght Partnership, West Tallaght RAPID, the YMCA and Youth Horizons. That list is an indication of the importance of this child care initiative. We were all delighted to join the Taoiseach on Monday in a tent in the grounds of Kiltalown House near Jobstown. The event was attended by more than 900 children and some 400 adults. It was an amazing experience.
I said in an earlier debate that when I visited a local school last week, a youngster told me that road safety is not just for one day or one week but forever. It is important that we get the message across that it is not just about a launch or making a point on a day but asking Government to examine this serious report, which not only would be good for the Tallaght west estates but could be used as a model for the rest of the country.
I appeal to the Minister of State to get the message across to the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children and her colleagues, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, the Minister for Education and Science and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs that it would be worth their while examining this report and taking action on it. As a Tallaght-based Fianna Fáil Deputy, I make a special appeal to the Minister of State to do what he can to help us ensure this report is resourced, which would give a tremendous boost to the Tallaght west estates. It would give the children of Tallaght west a great future. I make a special appeal to the Minister of State to help us in that regard.
Like my colleague I welcome the opportunity to speak on the question I have put to the Minister for Health and Children. It is clear from the statistics for Tallaght west that it is a unique area with special needs. The area was officially designated decades ago as a County Dublin Areas of Need, CODAN, area in recognition of the difficulties there, and is now a RAPID area. It has not received the investment and support mechanisms the people in this area deserve and to which they are entitled.
Unemployment in the area is two to three times the national average. The population aged under 15 is 39%, whereas the national average is 24%. Almost one third of all families in the area are headed by a lone parent, twice the national average. A total of 54% of the adult population in Tallaght west left education at or before the age of 15.
Only 6.8% of the population is in full-time education after the age of 20, which is less than half the national average. The area has suffered unacceptable levels of anti-social behaviour, criminality and its negative spin-offs. Over 600 people from the area are in treatment for substance abuse — this is only the tip of the iceberg because studies suggest the real level of substance abuse is three times higher.
This Government and previous Governments should have pursued a strategy for the area in light of the statistics I have outlined. The childhood development initiative has done that with the strategy it launched earlier this week, A Place for Children: Tallaght West, a living document This is described as a living document and hopefully will get the response it deserves. It proposes intervention at the earliest possible stage with a view to preventing a child falling by the wayside.
The initiative has six targets, namely, to improve early childhood care and education radically; to co-ordinate the integration of services in schools and child and family centres with a view to increasing efficiency; to develop new services where needed; to liaise with current services; to reduce stresses on parents and children; and to evaluate and apply what is learned on a national level.
This is designed to have a major impact on this Government's targets for reducing child poverty, increasing child care places, reducing educational disadvantage and drop-out rates, and reducing anti-social behaviour. It also includes the aspiration to build an inclusive and more equal society where no child goes to bed cold, hungry or frightened and children in this area receive the same opportunities as the well-off children from middle Ireland.
What practical steps do the Minister of State and his Government intend to take in support of this initiative? Will he and his Department invest the extra €634 per child for three years as called for by this strategy? The strategy involves expenditure of €15 million over a ten year period. That is small change in the context of the amount of money taken into the economy this year, including the unexpected extra €1 billion.
If the Minister of State takes into account the problems I outlined at the start of this debate and the difficulties facing people in the area, he will see there is need for a proper response from Government. Not only this Government but successive Governments have failed the people in this area. We are trying to create a new place for children that will offer them new opportunities to break out of the cycle of poverty and structured inequality. This requires investment and joined-up Government.
I applaud the people who came together in this initiative which should have come from the Government but instead came from the community. I appeal to the Minister of State to support this positive initiative from the people of Tallaght west.
On behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, I wish to respond to the issue raised by Deputies O'Connor and Crowe. It is nice to see constituency colleagues working together. This provides me with an opportunity to outline to this House our response to the launch of this ten year child care strategy for Tallaght west. The objective of the strategy, as the Deputies have outlined, is to improve children's health, safety, learning and achieving, and to increase their sense of community belonging. I welcome its goals and its aims.
At the research stage of this project, my colleague, Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, made some funding available to ensure that the valuable research continued. Given the research, planning and consultation, including consultation with children, that has gone into this project, it is clear that the strategy is based on a realistic picture of life for children in Tallaght west. It emphasises the need for co-operation across Departments and agencies, together with similar assistance and understanding from the local community and the local authority, South Dublin County Council.
The Taoiseach, in launching the ten year strategy, entitled A Place for Children: Tallaght West, a living document, on Monday last indicated that it points in the right directions. Despite the real progress that has been made in Ireland in recent years with increased investment, spending and planning, many children continue to experience poverty and disadvantage in their daily lives. The problems which lie behind this poverty and disadvantage are often complex and do not lend themselves to simple solutions. To address these problems, social policy must be based on a strategic approach and must target those in need. The Government has put a number of initiatives in place with the aim of improving children's lives, some of which I will outline.
As a Government designated geographic area of disadvantage, or RAPID area, it has been estimated that approximately €27 million was spent in 2004-05 by statutory bodies on children's services in the part of Tallaght covered by the strategy. The project recognises this, which is a substantial sum in the area concerned. The National Children's Office is in place to co-ordinate the implementation of the children's strategy, including consultation with children, and hearing their voices. The Ombudsman for Children provides an independent voice on their behalf.
Ireland is one of the first countries in the world to have a national policy on play, Ready, Steady, Play, which was launched by my colleague, Deputy Brian Lenihan. The Government wants to build more playgrounds and parks with spaces to play and to make playgrounds and play areas safer for children. Part of this can be done through direct provision from the Exchequer and part by good forward planning on the part of local authorities. The Government has put funding in place. In Tallaght west, grants of €72,000 each have been provided to Jobstown, Fettercairn and Killinarden for playgrounds under the RAPID scheme.
The provision of early childhood care and education services is identified as central to positive outcomes for children. The Government is reviewing options for future child care policy, taking account of the work of the high level working group on early childhood care and education and other reports on the issue. The National Children's Office was asked to prepare the high level working group report which was presented to the Cabinet Committee on Children last week.
Funding of over €10.6 million under the equal opportunities child care programme has been allocated to the Tallaght-Jobstown area since the beginning of the programme. School age child care is being addressed under the equal opportunities child care programme as well, under an initiative announced by my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, earlier this summer. The Health Service Executive is also involved in developing and supporting a number of child care and family support services in the Tallaght area and is represented on this project's consortium group.
Education is the key to young people reaching their full potential. It can provide them with the confidence to participate actively in society. Tackling educational disadvantage continues to be a key priority for the Government as reflected in the new action plan on educational disadvantage, delivering equality of opportunity in schools, launched by my colleague the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, last May. The new action plan aims to ensure that the educational needs of children and young people from disadvantaged communities are prioritised and effectively addressed in a more targeted, coherent and integrated way.
Another priority for the Government is reform of the youth justice system. Young people are subject to many pressures. Drugs, alcohol and social disadvantage can lead to a cycle of poverty, anti-social behaviour and getting into trouble. The Government is working to identify those at risk as early as possible and build their capacity to become responsible citizens.
The Children Act 2001 provides us with unique and specific opportunities. Major principles enshrined in the Act include the need for early intervention, the provision of community alternatives to detention and the principle that custody must remain a measure of last resort. A review of the structures of our youth justice system is being finalised and the results will be brought to the Government shortly.
Those developments at national level are mirrored in the approach outlined in the childhood development initiative's ten-year strategy. The strategy will support steps already being taken to improve outcomes for children in this area and play an active role in seeking new solutions to emerging issues. As the Taoiseach stated at the launch, the strategy and its proposals will be considered by relevant officials from the Departments drawing on the involvement of many local agencies in its preparation.