Dáil debates

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Other Questions

National Educational Welfare Board Remit

3:10 pm

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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74. To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps she is taking to expand the role of the National Educational Welfare Board by liaising with other Departments; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [53713/13]

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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Last year, nearly 1,500 children left primary school and were not recorded as turning up in secondary school. Did their parents continue to receive child benefit? By linking the National Education Welfare Board with child benefit payments, not only would we encourage school attendance, we would also reduce fraud in the Department of Social Protection by approximately €100 million a year.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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The statutory role of the National Educational Welfare Board, NEWB, is prescribed in section 10 of the Education (Welfare) Act 2002. The core focus of that work is to ensure that each child attends a recognised school or otherwise receives a certain minimum education.

The Deputy's question is about the broad role of the NEWB and the work it does, but the Deputy spoke about child benefit and whether it should be linked to school attendance. This is an issue on which people have strong views and I am aware the Deputy has strong views on it himself. Whether child benefit should be linked to particular behaviour by parents, in terms of sending children to school or looking after their children a certain way, raises a lot of questions that have not been teased out yet. These questions would need to be teased out if one was to go down that route.

What is happening with the NEWB is that all of its functions and staff are coming together in the new Child and Family Agency. All of the functions of the NEWB are being transferred to the new agency and school attendance and the role of the school will be central to its work. For the first time, we will have under the one roof, child protection social workers, education welfare officers and family support workers and these will work together in the interest of families. The overall educational welfare responsibilities will have high visibility and I see this as important. The transfer of educational welfare services into the agency will broaden the focus of the agency and its resources and tackle educational welfare as a key outcome for children in their own right. Apart from the particular point being made about child benefit, having this kind of focus on school attendance is critical for the new agency, because we know from research that non-attendance at school is a good indicator of problems in families.

I have seen initiatives that work to address non-attendance at school that do not involve taking money from parents by reducing child benefit. I have seen very successful initiatives where an all-school approach is token and where people work with the community, the families and children. A high priority is given to the number of days children attend school and there is close follow up with the children who do not attend. That is a very successful way of getting children back into school. I recognise the Deputy's interest in this particular issue, but I do not know what the research says about it.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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Last year's NEWB report gives an example of the case of Jenny, who missed 65 days in school. In that case, the NEWB engaged with the family over a long period and eventually the parents came before the courts. The mother was fined €200 and the father was fined €100. The total cost of bringing the case to court was approximately €24,000. Since that process, the child has had an exemplary record in school. However, would it not have made more sense to have the threat of the suspension of child benefit as an incentive for the parents to get the child to attend school? Would that not be better than dragging the parents through the court system, having them fined, costing the Exchequer a huge sum and, most important, Jenny losing out on a year of school while the process dragged on?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I would have to ask what was in the best interest of the child. What would the impact be of taking child benefit away from those parents?

What would be the impact on the child's food and nourishment? I am making the point that while it may seem like a simple answer, I am not sure it would deal with the issue of non-school attendance which is very complex and often has to do with mental health issues for the parents or psychological issues for the child. It could be down to poor functioning of the family in general. I am not sure removing child benefit would resolve the issue of non-school attendance because it is complex and requires the type of approach about which I have spoken. I have never seen research which suggests removing child benefit would make children go to school. Perhaps the Deputy has access to research which states this is the case. In my experience one needs a complex reaction to ensure a child goes to school, including working directly with the parents, the child, the school and the teacher; examining the child's ability in school; and finding out the reasons he or she is not attending. These can be very complex. Sometimes it has to do with individual factors in the child and other times it has to do with the family.

3:20 pm

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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I am not speaking about taking away the payment; I am speaking about using the threat as the mechanism to ensure children attend school. Surely fining parents €500 would not solve the problem if the parents were to end up in prison because they could not pay the fine. This is not a solution to the problem either. Is the Minister aware that a condition of the child benefit rules is that the child must attend school. Rather than the Department of Social Protection sending out 600,000 letters a year to check whether children are attending school, which would be enough paper to wallpaper Croke Park two and half times, would it not make far more sense to link the agencies to ensure more effective monitoring of school attendance? As a knock-on consequence ,it would save €100 million by dealing with fraudulent claims, which is quite separate from the issue of school attendance.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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Fraudulent claims for child benefit must be dealt with; there is no question about this. I am merely responding to the Deputy's point on child benefit and school attendance. The issue must be dealt with and I have no doubt it is being pursued. I am sure there are links between the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Social Protection with regard to the numbers of children in school and other data they need to share, but if this is not already happening, it could and should happen.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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It is not.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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That is another question. It is not a question of using child benefit to ensure school attendance. The Deputy is talking about dealing with fraud, on whichI take his point with regard to school attendance and the number of children in a given area. We must do this in the early years programme. There is a roll call of the 68,000 children attending. The data are available. My point is that dealing with the issue of school attendance would be greatly facilitated by the agencies working together. I take the Deputy's point on agencies working together. Education welfare will now be under the aegis of an agency working with child protection and family support workers and I hope this will ensure we will have a more effective working arrangement with families where non-school attendance is a problem.