Dáil debates

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions

Early Child Care Education Issues

2:00 pm

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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69. To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the public procurement exemption clause applied when allocating €900,000 to two independently managed child-care organisations in terms of what specific Department of Children and Youth Affairs guidelines feature this specific exemption; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [54102/13]

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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Will the Minister indicate, in relation to the €900,000 allocated to two independently managed child care organisations, the public procurement exemption clause used and where I can find the documentation.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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As the Deputy will be aware, I went into detail on the approach taken in this matter in a Topical Issue debate on 26 November. Earlier this year I announced an eight point preschool quality agenda to address issues of quality in the preschool sector. As part of this agenda, I announced that from September 2015 all existing staff working in preschool services would be required to hold a qualification in early childhood care and education at FETAC level 5. Preschool leaders delivering the preschool year will be required to hold a qualification at FETAC level 6. The Child and Family Agency Bill 2013 which has passed all Stages in the Oireachtas provides a legal basis for the setting of minimum qualification requirements for all staff in the sector.

In budget 2014 I secured a total provision for next year of €4.5 million to support implementation of the preschool quality agenda. This includes an additional funding allocation of €1.5 million to support the training of existing staff to meet the new qualification requirements. It is intended that this training provision will be repeated in 2015, bringing the total provision to €3 million in the period 2014 to 2015.

The total number of existing child care staff who will need to have completed training by September 2015 is estimated at 3,000. My Department is currently putting arrangements in place for a new training programme over the period 2014 to 2015. Planning is under way for my Department, in association with Pobal, to publicly seek expressions of interest from accredited training providers who wish to provide FETAC level 5 or level 6 training under this initiative. It is likely that the city and county child care committees will play an important role in identifying qualifying staff and supporting them in accessing suitable training from the panel put in place through the expressions of interest process. I expect the full details, including detailed specifications, selection criteria and operational arrangements for the new initiative, to be finalised and announced in January 2014.

In addition to these plans, it was agreed with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that €0.9 million in once-off savings available within my Department’s Vote in 2013 could be directed towards support for the training of preschool staff.

My Department agreed to increase the grant funding being provided in 2013 to Early Childhood Ireland and the Border Counties Childhood Network in return for the provision of additional accredited training to existing staff. The provision of training and high-quality supports has been a particular feature of the grant-aided work carried out by these bodies and both are accredited to deliver FETAC Level 5 training in early childhood care and education. The additional provision is included in their revised annual work plan agreed with the Department each year as a condition of their annual grant aid.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I believe the approach taken has facilitated early progress in the important and ambitious objective of training more than 3,000 staff who must meet prescribed minimum qualification requirements by September 2015 if they are to continue to work in the sector. This early progress and the lessons from the pilot undertaken with two voluntary organisations that have existing grant agreements in place with my Department will be built upon in the new year when a range of providers will be invited to participate in the scheme in order to achieve the coverage necessary to train the full cohort of staff who require training over the next two years.

The level of grant aid made available to these voluntary organisations, which varies from year to year, is a matter for my Department to determine, having regard to key priorities and the availability of resources. These are traditional grant arrangements which are commonplace between the public sector and various national and local voluntary organisations across many sectors, including social services, education and vocational training.

2:05 pm

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I am not questioning the validity of these two organisations, but I want to know whether there is a public procurement exemption for dealing with an allocation of funds of almost €1 million from the Minister's Department. A "Yes" or "No" answer will suffice. If there is not, are there guidelines in place in the Department for allocating resources to service providers? Again, a "Yes" or "No" answer will suffice, and if the answer is "No", would the Minister not agree that there should be guidelines for the allocation of resources of this magnitude? Also, what other service providers were considered in terms of their ability to deliver this much-needed training fund? I acknowledge that it is welcome and much needed, but what other service providers were examined to determine whether they could deliver what the Minister wishes to deliver in this respect?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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As the Deputy will be aware, grants were made available across the Government to a range of organisations, and in my Department we grant money on a yearly basis, all well documented, to a range of organisations, whether it be Barnardos, Early Childhood Ireland or Forbairt. For example, Childminding Ireland gets €340,000 and NYCI gets several million euro. The Deputy knows the list of grant organisations. We believe that the provision of training and high-quality supports has been a particular feature of the grant-aided work carried out by these bodies previously under the Fianna Fáil-led Government, and both are accredited to deliver FETAC level 5 training. The additional provision was included in their revised annual work plan and is agreed with the Department each year as a condition of their annual grant aid. As I explained to the Deputy previously when I addressed a Topical Issue on this matter, this particular organisation is unique. Early Childhood Ireland is a limited company with charitable status. The money was given - it is not simply a matter of handing over a grant and not expecting anything in return - purely to provide training at a lower cost to a group of workers who were very poorly paid to reduce the cost of such training and so that it could be accessible to them at a subsidised cost. It was given to them by way of a grant as part of their annual grant. Therefore, the questions that the Deputy has asked do not arise.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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Will the Minister confirm that there is no public procurement process in her Department for allocating funds? I would like a "Yes" or "No" answer to that question. Are there guidelines in place? The Minister must remember that this is the first time her Department has allocated funds in respect of a training fund and, therefore, guidelines should be in place. What other service providers did the Minister consider to ensure she was receiving value for money in this respect?

The Minister talks about opening the process further for the next tranche, in 2014, which I welcome. The Minister refers to doing this through the county child care committees. What level of consultation has the Minister had with county child care committees? Have they submitted this as part of their service plan?

I serve on the board of a local community child care crèche. If we are painting it, looking for new furniture or taking on a new service, we must find a minimum of three quotations. Organisations at the bottom of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs must ensure they are getting value for money. What did the Minister do to ensure her Department was getting value for money in respect of this? Are guidelines in place for administering funding of this magnitude? Was there, or is there, a public procurement process for this?

2:15 pm

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I have explained to the Deputy that this was a grant to an organisation to deliver a programme which it had been previously funded to do. It involves training the early years sector. The organisation had been delivering it and had conducted a number of pilot projects on it. The delivery of quality training and support has been a feature of the work these organisations did all along. This was a grant given to the organisation in order to do this.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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To provide a service.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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It provided a training service to people who needed it. The early progress and the learning from the work undertaken by these two voluntary organisations, which have existing grant arrangements in place-----

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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Not for this.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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Of course they have existing grant arrangements in place with the Department. My Department follows all appropriate processes, as do all Departments. They were invited to participate in the scheme in order to achieve the coverage necessary to train the full cohort of staff. I remember Deputy Robert Troy asking, after a briefing in Buswells Hotel, to set up a training fund. I seem to remember the Deputy saying that a training fund should be set up and that Early Childhood Ireland should be supported in having a training fund in order to-----

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I did call for a training fund.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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Yes, in order to achieve the necessary coverage to train the full cohort of staff.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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Many organisations were precluded from participating in the training fund.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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What I was asked to do on many occasions was to have a quality agenda for the early years and part and parcel of it was what I have done and delivered within a couple of months. I have introduced legislation for registration. I have introduced legislation-----

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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Which we supported.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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-----for supervision-----

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister should answer the question.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I have answered the question.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister did not compare it with another service provider to ensure value for money.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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The training is being delivered by a highly credible organisation which has done this training previously and it was asked to deliver more of the training last year in order to ensure we would have people trained, which we have now asked for in the legislation.