Wednesday, 6 February 2019
Children's Rights: Motion [Private Members]
"That Dáil Éireann, in this the Centenary Year of its first meeting, re-committing itself to the imperative of the Democratic Programme and the principles of justice and equality, to support the development of all children, and in order to ensure a fair start for every child, declares that:— it is the first duty of Government to provide for the wellbeing, education and development of children, regardless of their origins, and to provide them all with an equal opportunity to contribute, to the extent of their abilities, to the economic, social and cultural life of the nation;
— the accommodation of homeless families with children must be the immediate and urgent priority of housing policy;
— all children born and raised in Ireland should be entitled to Irish citizenship, regardless of the nationality or migration status of their parents;
— all children who are adopted should have access to information about their birth parents;
— same-sex couples who are parents should have equal parenting rights to those afforded to opposite-sex couples;
— the Government should ensure that quality childcare is genuinely available to all and is affordable;
— all children should be entitled to a prompt assessment of any special needs and the provision of whatever support services they may need; and
— the Government should ensure that primary education is genuinely free-of-charge, including through public funding of the cost of school books and uniforms and by outlawing mandatory contributions by parents to national schools; andcalls on the Government to:— immediately implement actions to ensure no children remain in homelessness;
— immediately implement the Affordable Childcare Scheme announced in Budget 2019;
— immediately implement its commitment to providing free-of-charge general practitioner care to all children under the age of 18;
— prepare and implement a comprehensive strategy to eliminate consistent child poverty and material deprivation, with clear timeframes for its implementation; and
— report to the Dáil no less than quarterly upon the implementation of this strategy and in particular to report on current numbers of children in consistent poverty or deprivation."
I propose to share time with my colleague, Deputy Sherlock. Decency, justice and equality are the Labour Party’s core values. Today we are talking about those values insofar as they apply to children and young people. When the Labour Party’s leader, Tom Johnson, wrote the 1919 Democratic Programme for the First Dáil 100 years ago, he stressed that the first duty of Government was towards the education, development and welfare of children. They are important words for us to listen to today. In the Labour Party’s new democratic programme for 2019, we restated this pledge as follows: "The first duty of Government is to provide for the wellbeing, education and development of the children, regardless of origins, and to give them all an equal chance to fulfil their potential."
Statements of principle are important. They give people a clear signal of what we as a people, a Parliament and a party stand for. In fairness, if this motion just asked the Dáil to support giving all children an equal chance to fulfil their potential, I am sure everyone in the Chamber from all political persuasions would vote to support it. However, our motion is not merely about fine words or statements of exhortation. We have set out in real terms the measures that are needed for the Government to fulfil its duty towards all children in this country.
The Government must end homelessness for families with children. Legal changes are needed to grant citizenship to all children born and raised in Ireland. These are real issues affecting children in this nation today. Legislation is needed to give information about birth parents to adopted children. They have been denied such information for decades. Legislation is needed to ensure complete equal parenting rights for same-sex couples. I know all of these matters will be close to the heart of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. However, we need to act upon them.
Public spending is needed to make affordable, quality childcare available to all who need it. Public spending is needed to ensure prompt assessment of any special needs that a child might have, such as autism, and the provision of support services to address those needs once identified. Public spending is needed to provide genuinely free-of-charge primary education. We have all talked for years about free primary education but there are real unmet costs that are barriers for full participation to some of our children.
I could point out the inequalities and injustices that continue to occur in each of these areas. My colleagues will address some of these areas in more detail. I just want to concentrate on two points. First, there is a reason we talk about childhood as a person’s formative years. It is that experience that is a person's best teacher. However, experience can also be the worst teacher. If a child’s experience of family life is cramped bed and breakfast accommodation, a hotel room or emergency homeless accommodation, if that is the early childhood experience, the outcomes will not be good. If a child’s experience of family life is stressed parents, it will be no surprise if that child does not thrive in school afterwards or if he or she develops other problems in later life.
If we fail in our duty towards a child, we do not just leave the person worse off: as a society we are all the poorer. We lose the contribution that individual could have made to the development of the nation and our society if we had given him or her the capacity to reach his or her full potential. Of course, some children come through the most harrowing and difficult of backgrounds and go on to achieve great things, despite, not because of, the adversity. We know that many other children are held back by their early formative years and it can be so hard, if not impossible, for schools and support services to undo or reverse the harm done in the early years of a child's formation. It is, therefore, incumbent on us, as a parliament, to redouble our efforts, refocus and commit to provide the best possible chance we can for our youngest citizens.
My second point is on the issue of citizenship. If a child is born and reared in Ireland, he or she has never lived elsewhere and no deep connection to another country, he or she should, by right, be entitled to Irish citizenship. The issue is about the residency status of parents. In the United States the children of illegal migrants are known as "dreamers", a phrase of which I am sure the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, is well aware. There is a generation of "dreamers" in Ireland, too. They are children and young adults whose parents perhaps overstayed their work visa or came here as tourists and subsequently took up work, just as countless numbers of Irish people have done in the United States. We have to enforce our migration laws, but we do not have to blame innocent children for the mistakes or decisions made by their parents. That is why it is so important that we do not leave any of Ireland’s children in this legal limbo. It is not good enough that some children get a special deal because they happen to live in a constituency that is represented by a member of the Government, while at the same time unknown others are deported or living restricted lives because they do not have access to citizenship.
The Labour Party’s motion is about providing a fair start for every child in Ireland. The Labour Party has participated in eight Governments since the foundation of the State, in every one of which we have delivered better quality public services. This Fine Gael-led Government which includes the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, has not delivered on the promises it made to children in the programme for Government. The motion specifically calls on the Government to deliver on its commitments to ensure no children will remain homeless; implement the affordable childcare scheme announced in budget 2019; implement the commitment to provide free GP care for all those under 18 years; and implement the commitment to lift at least 70,000 children out of consistent poverty by next year. These are important objectives which were freely entered into by the parties who entered government and should be delivered on. The Minister said in the programme for Government that she would achieve these things. We have survived the economic crash and money is now available. The Government has the money and the opportunity to make the necessary investments to deliver on its promises to the children of the nation. Instead, the Taoiseach has repeatedly offered tax cuts to higher earners, rather than investing to address these fundamental issues. That is at the heart of the question. The Labour Party wants the State to invest public funds for the benefit of children. It is not about cash payments but about investment in a national system of affordable childcare, special needs services for all children and comprehensive free primary education. It is about legislation to address the injustices that I have outlined and preparing and implementing a comprehensive strategy to eliminate consistent child poverty and material deprivation.
The Government’s amendment to the motion does show some progress. I do not deny that there has been some, but the Government is not delivering on its commitments. I regret that it has tabled such an amendment because it distracts from the core failings of its own policies. If it continues with its current policies, we will not eliminate child homelessness, the affordable childcare scheme will not be implemented, parents will still pay for GP visits for children aged seven and 18 years and far too many children will remain in poverty. This is Labour Party’s wake up call for the Government. If the Government is sincere in its commitments to Ireland’s children, in this the centenary year of the inaugural sitting of the First Dáil, it needs to address these real matters. Let us, as the national parliament, across all benches, give that commitment, without reservation or a vote, to the children of the nation.
As a signatory to the motion, I support it. I will speak specifically about the early years sector and quote from the most recent Pobal report, The Early Years Sector Profile Report 2017-2018, because it paints a particular picture of the state of the sector. I will also speak specifically for the workers within the sector, in the first instance, because there are clear issues with wages and the high level of qualifications required, combined with the lack of commensurate pay structures to reflect them. There is also an issue in retaining staff.
I will quote from the early years sector profile report, with which the the Minister, Deputy Zappone, will be very familiar, as she wrote the foreword. The report shows that the average wage of an early years assistant is €11.20 per hour across 48% of all staff within the sector. That figure is 70 cent lower than the so-called living wage. The average rate of pay for all staff working directly with children is approximately €12.17 per hour. The report is very interesting. It also addresses those who have high qualifications but earn low wages. For instance, 60% of those working directly with children earn less than the living wage. The report also shows that job title has the biggest influence on wages, followed by length of time in the sector and length of time in a particular service. Qualifications was the fourth most important factor, accounting for a figure of 10% when it comes to exerting influence on how wages are calculated. This shows that there is a certain degree of informality in the sector which is not, as we know, recognised as a sector in its own right. There are disparate wage rates across it.
The issue of qualifications is important. Staff in the sector are becoming more qualified, with 94% having level 5 qualifications or higher. The figure was 92% in 2016-17 and 88% in 2015-16. For level 6 qualifications, the figure is 65%. It was 63% last year and 56% in 2015-16. We are seeing a gradual rise in the level of educational attainment. Despite this, 57%, or 2,256 services, report having problems in finding suitably qualified staff to fill vacancies. That figure has increased by 10% since last year. Some of the figures I am quoting are taken directly from the report. The Minister has acknowledged that skilled and highly qualified staff are a vital component of childcare provision.
She said that the report also highlighted the ongoing issue of staff wages and that she was fully aware that retaining qualified staff remained a concern for many services.
What we need to see is a commitment from Government, or at least a greater degree of energy from Government, to address the issue of the retention rates within the sector. What we are clearly seeing from the evidence of campaigns like the Big Start campaign by SIPTU, for example, is that the rate of attrition from the sector is too high. There is no formal sectoral employment order. It is increasingly difficult to organise workers within the sector. It is quite challenging because of the disparate nature of the sector.
I trust I am not misquoting the Minister on the matter but she has acknowledged the potential impact of a sectoral employment order, something to which she has given words of support in the past. If it was put in a formal setting, then we could at least address the retention rates, recognise the qualifications of workers and prevent the high rate of attrition. People are going off to other sectors to become special needs assistants or teachers or even emigrating and working in the same sector abroad.
Those of us in the House need to recognise the issues around that. The Government should come to the table or at least be more proactive in recognising the need. The Minister is talking about expanding services. The Minister has referred to increasing her budget line year-on-year on a cumulative basis for this sector. She will tell us how her budget line is increasing, I imagine, when she is on her feet presently. There is no point in increasing the budget line, although it is necessary, if the rate of attrition of staff is increasing year on year. The early years sector profile report is showing us clear evidence of that. We cannot ask services to take on more additionality or children if the capability or capacity is not there because of a lack of staffing and that is a major issue.
I wish to acknowledge the work of the Big Start campaign. Those of us across the political divide have given our support to the campaign. Politically, everyone in the House has acknowledged the validity of the campaign and the need to organise workers across the sector. We can start that process with the sectoral employment order. That would address issues like pay, pensions and sick pay. It would build a strong coherent voice for the sector. Individual Deputies should not be coming into the House, at this late stage in 2019, when we do not even have a formal structured affordable childcare scheme up and running. There should be no need for the workers to have to continue to organise themselves in order that they can get a sectoral employment order. This should have been achieved a long time ago. Perhaps now is the time for Government to address this. Given the Minister's commitment or support for the idea of the workers being organised, perhaps she could intervene to try to influence matters by being as proactive as she possibly can.
I put down a question for the Minister on the affordable childcare scheme last year. I wanted to know when the affordable childcare scheme would be formally up and running. An announcement was made in budget 2019. Yet, if I am interpreting the Minister correctly we will not see the roll-out of the affordable childcare scheme until the end of this year. By any rational analysis, it is fair to assume that it may not actually take place until 2020. I asked the Minister when the affordable childcare scheme would be up and running or put in place. She replied that work was currently ongoing on the secondary legislation and the formal policy guidelines. She said work was currently ongoing on the development of the regulations and that the regulations would be introduced in advance of the affordable childcare scheme to allow school-age childcare services to register and thereby participate in the scheme from its inception. The Minister went on to say that the scheme's information and communications technology system had concluded the full public procurement process and that the contract was awarded. She said work was under way on the governance, administrative and communication elements of the scheme. She continued:
Consultation and engagement with stakeholders is ongoing and, in the new year, a comprehensive awareness campaign will be launched for parents and the public, alongside training and information supports for childcare providers and other key stakeholders. Finally, Budget 2019 provided for enhancements to the scheme which will ensure that an even greater number of families will now benefit from the scheme once launched.
In the few seconds remaining to me I want to get a sense from the Minister of where the architecture of the affordable childcare scheme is at this point. That is one of the key questions we have on this side of the House. I also want to ask the Minister about the recent Pobal and ESRI report on the link between the cost of childcare and the fact that there are lower rates of access to childcare among those who are lone parents. The issue is one this society needs to deal with and I hope the Minister will respond to that. Thank you for your latitude with time, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
I move amendment No. 2:
To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:“ — commits strongly to the principle of ensuring a fair start for every child underpinned by the principles of justice and equality;
— endorses the objectives of the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil by supporting the development of all children and by making provision for their physical, mental and spiritual well-being, to alleviate poverty;
— welcomes the overall increase of €107 million (8 per cent) over 2018 in the 2019 vote of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs;
— welcomes the increased investment in early learning and care by 117 per cent over the past four Budgets and the Government’s commitment to ensuring that high quality developmentally-appropriate early learning and care is accessible and affordable for families throughout Ireland and reflects diversity of need;
— welcomes the publication of First 5 as a whole-of-Government strategy to improve the lives of children in the birth to age five age range, and the lives of their families, which speaks directly to the aspirations set out in the Democratic Programme;
— welcomes the commitment to the introduction of the Affordable Childcare Scheme as soon as the Scheme’s regulatory, administrative, and information and communication technology infrastructure is in place, namely in October 2019;
— welcomes the commitment to the establishment of a statutory scheme to facilitate all children who have been adopted to access information about their birth parents to the greatest extent possible;
— reiterates the need for a continued focus on reducing the rate of child poverty through a coordinated approach by Government Departments through the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures National Policy Framework for Children and Young People (2014-2020) implementation infrastructure;
— supports the overall work being co-ordinated by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs through the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures process;
— notes the Government’s commitment to report on a regular basis on the efforts being made across Government to tackle child poverty based on the six priority actions contained in the Whole of Government Paper on tackling Child Poverty, published by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in 2017;
— notes the commitment to reporting on the forthcoming Poverty and Social Inclusion Strategy which will be implemented by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection;
— notes that the draft Civil Registration Bill 2019 makes technical amendments that will facilitate commencement of existing legislation that will allow both partners in a same-sex female relationship, who have been through a donor-assisted birth process, to have their details shown on birth certificates;
— welcomes the provisions of Parts 2 and 3 of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015, as well as the General Scheme of the Assisted Human Reproduction Bill 2017, which uphold the principle of equal recognition of same-sex and opposite-sex parents;
— notes that amendments were approved by Government to the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 on 6th November, 2018, and will be included alongside legislative provisions to introduce a new paid parental leave scheme, which was announced as part of Budget 2019, and the proposed amendments will afford the same entitlements to adoptive leave and benefits to all couples who are married, co-habiting or who are in a civil partnership, irrespective of gender;
— notes that the Government remains committed to the extension, in phases, and subject to negotiation with general practitioners (GPs), of free GP care to all children under 18 years;
— notes that Ireland confers citizenship to a child born on the island of Ireland, if one or other of its parents has been lawfully resident on the island of Ireland for three out of the last four years;
— further notes that Ireland has generally less onerous requirements for the acquisition of citizenship when compared to our fellow European Union Member States;
— notes that under Part 2 of the Disability Act 2005, any child suspected of having a disability and born on or after 1st June, 2002, is entitled to an Assessment of Need, to be conducted within a specified timeframe;
— agrees that timely access to assessments and services for children with additional needs is of the utmost importance;
— welcomes the fact that the Health Service Executive has a number of initiatives in place to improve services to all of these children, and that Budget 2019 provided for 100 additional posts specifically to improve the access to assessment of need and ensuing therapies;
— welcomes the Department of Education and Skills policy initiative, Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS), aimed at tackling educational disadvantage in primary and post-primary schools, and the DEIS Plan 2017, which sets out the vision for future interventions in the critical area of educational disadvantage policy;
— welcomes the work being done by the Department of Education and Skills in supporting a range of interventions across the education continuum, with the objective of achieving its vision for education to become a proven pathway to better opportunities for those in communities at risk of disadvantage and social exclusion;
— strongly supports any measures that can be put in place to reduce school costs for parents, noting that schools must be sensitive to the financial pressures on parents in making decisions, not just about fees, but about any matter that has cost implications for parents, including, amongst others, uniforms and books;
— acknowledges that the Minister for Education and Skills has issued specific guidance to schools on the issue of costs (circular 32/2017) and the need for schools to do everything possible to keep costs down for parents;
— notes that the Minister for Education and Skills also intends that under the draft legislation on a Parent and Student Charter, schools will be required to consult students and parents regularly in relation to school costs and working to avoid costs acting as a barrier to participation;
— welcomes the commitments contained in Rebuilding Ireland, the Government’s Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness, to:— increase the overall supply of new homes to 25,000 per annum by 2020;— acknowledges that supporting households experiencing homelessness is a priority for this Government and that Budget 2019 increased the funding available to local authorities for the provision of homeless services by over 25 per cent to €146 million.”
— deliver an additional 50,000 social housing units in the period to 2021; and
— meet the housing needs of an additional 87,000 households through the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) scheme and the Rental Accommodation Scheme; and
All of us in this Chamber share a deep sense of duty to our children. With this in mind I welcome the tabling of this motion by the members, the gentlemen of the Labour Party. The Government's actions and commitment is reflected in the countermotion.
We must invest if we want to deliver for our children. In the case of my Department, the gross funding being made available in 2019 is a little over €1.5 billion. The Deputy suggested I would refer to that. Many Deputies will be aware of our radical new approach to childcare. A 117% increase in investment since 2015 has seen the families of 84,000 children getting extra supports. This year's €574 million investment brings us to a new milestone, that is, the affordable childcare scheme, to which one of the Deputies referred at length.
We are using the opportunity to deliver more benefits. Changes in thresholds will see an estimated 7,500 more children benefit from the scheme, while over 40,000 other children who are already eligible will get extra.
Getting us to this point has been a major task. New laws were needed as well as one of the most complex information technology projects undertaken by Government in recent years. We are building a childcare infrastructure that will last for generations. I will directly answer the Deputy's question. During my last set of meetings with my officials, we discussed how we are on target in respect of the 2019 hoped-for full implementation.
As Minister, I am honoured to have been able to bring the budget for Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, past €750 million for the first time ever. This supports care and social workers who are transforming lives in our communities every day. I have seen this work at first hand. It also allowed us to end the 20 years of debate across five Governments to make mandatory reporting a reality, something demanded by children's rights experts and campaigners. Of course the demands are big and must be responded to. Only two weeks ago I was delighted to join Tusla and the HSE to launch a new training resource that gives front-line teams the skills to identify hidden harm. This important initiative will ensure care, social and addiction workers can respond when the behaviour of addicted parents impacts on children. An estimated 600,000 children are at risk in our country.
The spirit and specifics of the Labour Party motion are responded to comprehensively in the recent publication of the First 5 strategy.
For the first time ever there is a ten-year plan to improve the lives of babies, very young children and their families. The Department of Health will develop a dedicated child health workforce. The Departments of Justice and Equality and of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will have initiatives to support parents to balance working and caring responsibilities. This is an exciting time and I look forward to giving an update and an implementation plan after Easter.
Where children are homeless, my Department works closely with Tusla to provide supports. Tusla provides spaces where homeless children and families can avail of services in a safe, warm, welcoming space and where they feel comfortable and respected, and therefore mitigates some of the impact of being in the settings to which the Deputy referred. Funding is now available to approved housing bodies to acquire accommodation for young people leaving State care under the capital assistance scheme, CAS, operated by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. At the end of December 2018, a total of 50 properties had been acquired under CAS. Thirty units have been sold, 20 units are at sale agreed and ten young people have been housed. These figures will increase in 2019. The Government is determined to increase the stock of social housing by 50,000 homes by 2021 under Rebuilding Ireland, with money ring-fenced to achieve this. There is a 25% increase in the current spending budget for the provision of homeless services, bringing the total for 2019 to €146 million. In addition, €60 million in capital funding was provided in 2018 to allow for development of further homeless facilities including family hubs.
The Government already has a strategy in place to deal with child poverty. Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures includes a target that the number of children in consistent poverty in 2011 be reduced by two thirds by 2020. At a meeting with the advisory council this morning, we discussed how we can continue to move towards that goal in an increasingly ambitious manner. A whole-of-Government approach to tackling child poverty is being adopted, building on the lifecycle approach in the national action plan for social inclusion and informed by the European Commission's recommendation on investing in children and breaking the cycle of disadvantage.
I am committed to progressing the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016 to Committee Stage in Seanad Éireann as quickly as possible. This legislation provides adopted people and other relevant people with statutory rights to information and to a tracing service. It also protects relevant records by bringing them into the custody of the Adoption Authority of Ireland. The Bill seeks to balance the rights to identity and to privacy. I continue to actively explore all options to facilitate the release of as much information as possible to adopted and other relevant persons and will introduce any necessary amendments on Committee Stage. In light of my very intensive negotiations with the Attorney General and his office, I anticipate that I will table improved recommendations and amendments on Committee Stage.
Parents need support. The increasing focus on parenting has developed in a somewhat fragmented way across Departments and State agencies. This is why in November 2018, my Department established a dedicated parenting support policy unit, to help realise the State’s duty in supporting parents by leading out on the important work of co-ordinating policy direction and activity relating to parenting support. The new parenting support policy unit will collaborate with others to streamline and improve existing parenting supports to ensure that all parents are supported to parent confidently and positively.
The Adoptive Leave Act 1995 provides for an entitlement to 24 weeks adoptive leave for an employed adopting mother or a sole male adopter. The Department of Justice and Equality identified a lacuna in the Act that prevents male same-sex married couples from availing of adoptive leave and benefits. They have prepared draft legislative proposals to amend the Act to afford the same entitlements to adoptive leave and benefits to all couples who are married, co-habiting or who are in a civil partnership, irrespective of gender. These amendments will be included alongside legislative provisions to introduce a new paid parental leave scheme announced as part of budget 2019. It is expected the legislation will be progressed this year.
The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, is also concerned that the issue of parenting rights for same-sex couples should be addressed speedily, as am I. To this end, the Government has approved the preparation of the civil registration Bill 2019. Commencement of these amendments is also dependent on commencement of Parts 2 and 3 of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015. The Minister for Health intends that these provisions will be commenced as soon as possible.
Deputy Howlin raised the matter of citizenship. The motion seeks to introduce new rules to provide for citizenship by naturalisation of all children born and raised in Ireland irrespective of the nationality or migration status of their parents. This proposes to change existing citizenship legislation including the changes introduced following the 27th amendment to the Constitution. Existing citizenship laws have been carefully calibrated. Ireland, in most cases, adopts less onerous requirements than many other member states. Ireland confers citizenship to a child born on the island of Ireland if one or other of its parents has been lawfully resident on the island of Ireland for three out of the last four years. Any changes, as outlined in this motion, to citizenship laws must be carefully considered. Since 2010, just over 27,000 children, the vast majority of whom were born to non-EEA nationals, have become citizens of Ireland through naturalisation.
The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, wants to give parents a strong voice in ensuring school costs are kept to a minimum. He intends to ask schools to develop a parent and student charter. It is intended that every school will be required to set out a financial statement. The Deputy has mentioned the many changes that have been made to GP care
I hope it is clear to the House that the Government is pursuing a broad-based, ambitious and necessary strategy, underpinned by actions, to ensure that our children receive the very best of services and the very best start in life; a fair start that they deserve and nothing less.
We are all learning here this evening; that is good.
We all agree there should be a fair start for children. The motion is very welcome and timely. It encapsulates everything from well-being to education and health, social welfare, disabilities, childcare, citizenship and child and family relationships. Deputy Howlin spoke of life experiences, which is something I believe in. I believe it does not matter whether one comes from Dublin or Galway, from a single-parent family, a family with two parents whether same-sex or not, from a four-parent family or raised by one's grandparents; factors such as parents or geography should not define a person in any way.
It has fallen on the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to come before us but many other Ministers are missing who might be sitting beside her, namely, the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputies Flanagan and Stanton, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, the Minister for Health and the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputies Harris and Jim Daly, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, because what is needed is a whole-of-Government and a whole-of-Department approach. While the motion is very broad, it is really good and if we want to be serious about moving on after 100 years, we should return here in a few months and discuss this motion with all of the Minister's colleagues in government. Let them all talk to us about the various aspects which we are discussing tonight.
The Fianna Fáil amendment makes a number of calls on the Government. They include facilitating the swift passage of the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017, allowing for the swift passage of the Shared Maternity Benefit and Leave Bill 2018, immediately commencing Parts 2 and 3 of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015; immediately implementing actions to ensure no child remains homeless and implementing the affordable childcare scheme, as announced in budget 2019. I acknowledge the Minister has addressed this point eloquently. They also include addressing the extremely lengthy waiting periods that are faced by children awaiting a disability assessment, a subject into which my colleagues undoubtedly will go into depth, increasing the availability of vital disability services for children, including occupational therapy and speech and language therapy and increasing capitation funding to schools around the country, thus reducing the need for parental contributions. This is a point to which Deputy Howlin already has referred. The amendment also calls on the Government to immediately establish a register in order to facilitate adopted persons' access to information surrounding their birth and to enable mutually agreed upon exchanges, in the form of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016, the arrival of which in this House would be welcome. It also calls on the Government to prepare and implement a comprehensive strategy to eliminate consistent child poverty and material deprivation, with clear timeframes for its implementation and to report to the Dáil on this strategy on a quarterly basis.
The Minister and I are used to taking Question Time on a monthly basis. The motion brings it all together well. Some 100 years on, the gaps are shocking. What my party is looking for is not to be critical. I do not want to wait for the future but to deal with the issues in the here and now - the thousands of children who are trying to access services; the number who need to have special needs assistants appointed; and the number who need classroom provision that is properly equipped to deal with them. No child should have to leave his or her community to receive an education. It should be provided within the school. If we need to establish an ASD unit, so be it. Capitation grants must be provided to allow it to happen.
Capacity will be a significant issue in the early years sector in the future. We must ensure we will have the ability to cater for all children, regardless of location. In modern Ireland it is unacceptable that almost one in four children is experiencing ongoing deprivation and that 105,000 children are living in consistent poverty. The experience of poverty and deprivation has a profound impact on a child's ability to develop well and flourish. It also has a profound impact on how a child's life is shaped, how he or she views the future and how he or she is pitched within it. It has a major impact on a child's well-being and mental health and how he or she engages with friends in the school yard.
When the Minister discusses the DEIS model with her Government colleagues, it must be the case that every child will receive a good lunch at school. I have seen advertisements about this recently. A little boy opens a lunchbox and feels guilty about not having a proper lunch. He makes an excuse to go and wash his hands. When he comes back, his lunchbox has been filled by his friends. It was a meaningful advertisement. Children are very aware of the position of others, but we should not put responsibility for sorting out adults' problems on the shoulders of young people. We should try to sort out some of them. My colleague, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, speaks about his school where certain parents bring extra lunches to provide for children who might not have any. The Government should consider this matter.
I thank my colleagues on the Labour Party benches for tabling the motion. Although we have tabled an amendment to it, we are behind its principle and vision. No matter what we hear from the other side of the House, there is no doubt that the health system is failing too many young people. It is not just me or any other member of an Opposition party who is saying this. In his report last year the Ombudsman for Children spoke about having received almost 2,000 complaints highlighting the stark failure of the HSE and Tusla to act in children's best interests. The number grows every year.
The issue is not just one of health but also education. It is about every Department working together to ensure young people will have the best start in life in order that they can become the best they can be.
The Ombudsman for Children also spoke about his serious concerns about how suicidal young people accessed emergency services. As a member of the Joint Committee on Future of Mental Health Care, some of the most stocking statistics and stories we heard were related to young people who desperately needed the intervention of child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, and the lack of a response from the system. The final figures we received for November showed that 2,568 children were still awaiting assessments and that 295 had been left waiting for longer than one year. These are particularly shameful figures.
In modern Ireland it is unacceptable that almost one in four children experiences ongoing deprivation and that 105,000 children are living in consistent poverty. This experience of poverty and deprivation has a profound impact on every child's ability, immediately giving a child a disadvantaged start in life. It is important that children with disabilities, for example, undergo appropriate assessments and interventions within the first five years of their lives to help them to navigate what will be a difficult world. At the end of October, 36,531 people were waiting for speech and language therapy, most of whom were children, while 6,531 children had been waiting for longer than one year for their first assessment for occupational therapy. In the light of these shocking figures, much more needs to be done, including providing greater support for parents in their caring roles.
I show my support for the amendment which is timely and important. Considering that this is 2019, many children are getting a raw deal. Let us take homelessness, for example. There is not a night that I go to bed that I do not think about the appalling situation of children sleeping in hotel rooms. It behoves all of us to sort out this matter as quickly as possible.
There are 6,251 children on outpatients' lists. Some of them have been on them for more than two years. A further 1,000 have been waiting since 2016. These appalling statistics affect young people and their parents. Enduring the trauma of having a sick child is bad enough; enduring the trauma of having to wait years to avail of badly needed services is another major challenge.
We should take seriously the issue of extended parental leave. The Minister might listen to me a little better than other Ministers who have not listened to me at all. I am a strong advocate and supporter of extended parental leave. The reality of the world in which we live is that many parents in my part of the country get out of their bed at 4.30 a.m. to travel to Dublin to work and get home at 9 p.m. or 9.30 p.m. They tell me that their kids are still in bed in the morning when they leave and have gone to bed by the time they get home at night. That is not acceptable.
Last November saw the launch of the First 5 strategy. Unless I am mistaken, the Taoiseach, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, the Minister for Health and one other Ministers were present and the Taoiseach stated he would support the call for extended parental leave. It appears that, although the Government will support the call, it will extend the leave entitlement over a period of two and a half years. This issue should be tackled, given the great strain and stress placed on many families.
Like my colleagues, I will focus on the HSE and the way the health service is failing young people. They have cited figures for the numbers of children on waiting lists.
I am conscious of the anxiety of parents who are waiting for their child's assessment. Those parents are gravely concerned that the waiting will make the resolution of their child's problems more difficult.
The waiting lists for children with suspected learning difficulties is frightening. Here, too, we have parents concerned that the difficulties are worsening while they cannot get a proper diagnosis.
An answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled recently stated there were 337 children in my county of Tipperary under 13 years of age waiting for orthodontic treatment - 102 waiting up to one year, 107 waiting up to two years, and 66 waiting up to three years or more. This is shocking. While these children are languishing on a waiting list, the damage that can be done to them for future years is impossible to comprehend. Dental experts explain that the longer they are left waiting, the harder it will be to put things right. The HSE should be far more active in the treatment abroad scheme. These children should be sent to Northern Ireland, if necessary, to get this treatment.
I have been fighting hard for a Jigsaw project in Tipperary. All the work has been done, including representatives of the local authority, and all that is missing is the funding. We have been promised this since I was elected to this House in 2016. A Jigsaw project would play a significant part in trying to deal with mental health issues for young people in my county. There is no mental health bed in my county, but to be refused the resources for a Jigsaw scheme is intolerable. If we got these resources, it would help to prevent some of the common tragedies within our community. I am looking for the Minister's support in calling for that funding for Tipperary.
My colleagues have highlighted the wide-ranging consequences that have come to pass as a result of the Government's failings when it comes to the children of our country. As my party's spokesperson for disabilities, I will concentrate on the issues that pertain especially to my brief. I am also aware from my constituency work in Cork South-West of the many families affected by having their children waiting on lists. It is not only the child but the whole family unit that is affected.
The number of children who languish on waiting lists is simply incredible. I have been highlighting this matter consistently since 2017, and yet at the end of October 2018, more than 36,500 people were awaiting speech and language therapy and a further 23,000 were awaiting occupational therapy. The majority of these were children.
The HSE service plans over a number of consecutive years provided for 129 children's disability network teams to be put in place by the end of last year. To date, 56 teams are in place. This is hardly a resounding success. Worse still, even with the significant numbers waiting more than a year for first assessments for occupational therapy, OT, there are no additional occupational therapists put in place to address the situation. This makes a mockery of the statutory six months turnaround from when a child enters the system.
It is well documented that if children are to stand any chance, early intervention is vital. As for speech and language therapy, sadly, the number of therapists employed has reduced rather than increased. Budget 2019 provides for the recruitment of 100 additional therapists. With the number of therapists falling, the Government is, unfortunately, on the back foot from the start. When will reality set in?
Nelson Mandela said, "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children." Indeed, Aristotle said, "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man". These both ring true in this motion by the Labour Party, but particularly in the wording of it which refers to "every child".
In my conversation with the Minister, Deputy Zappone, when she was appointed to the position, I congratulated her but referred to the need for education for life. I also said that while the Minister's work and the focus on her work would be laudable, she would not be judged by her success, which had been laudable to that date, but by the failure of those children who were slipping through the gaps, of which there were and are many.
My colleagues have referred to homelessness and people, especially children, living in temporary unsuitable accommodation. That in itself tells me that we are failing every child. Others have referred to healthcare - children on waiting lists, children suffering with autism and, indeed, the need for early intervention. My colleague, Deputy Murphy O'Mahony, referred to the issue of disability and respite. While strides have been made there, we are still failing the families of those with a disability. There is a daily crisis in many of these sectors.
The Minister referred to the pathway for citizenship. In my constituency where there are asylum seekers in Mosney. The pathway for those children's education, while laudable at primary level and secondary level, is often made difficult by the failure to be able to achieve success at third level despite the fact that many of their parents have third level education. There is a need to rectify that.
That day I spoke to the Minister, I spoke about the prescriptive curriculum we have for the modern age and the need to impart those skills for learning for life. That leads me to the issue of the capitation grant. As a primary school principal of 35 years' standing, to suggest that we have free education, and particularly where capitation grants and such like are barely paying the heating and insurance bills in school, speaks for itself in terms of the Minister's need to get real in that Department. I welcome her statement where she indicated about schools having to set out a financial statement, but that will not solve the problem.
On the issue of the affordable childcare scheme, will the Minister clearly outline the timeframe for introducing the measures that she announced in 2017? Many families are struggling to afford childcare and those thresholds need to be increased for those families. I thank the Minister for her work but she will be rated on the basis of those we are failing.
I support the motion put forward by the Labour Party. It quite correctly calls for a fair start for every child in Ireland. All young people should be able to reach their potential regardless of family background and of how much money their parents have in their pockets. Unfortunately, many young people in this city and island grow up in poverty and homeless. One judges a society by how it treats its most vulnerable, and children who are homeless, children with disabilities, children in State care, and children in direct provision centres all need to be prioritised because they are our most vulnerable citizens.
The motion speaks about childcare. It has been shown time and again that investment in early years education has a positive effect on children's development and ends up benefiting both society and the economy in the long run. Parents should not have to pay the equivalent of a second mortgage for childcare, but neither should childcare workers, who are skilled workers, be paid so little.
The motion speaks about the rights of adopted persons to their family history. With everything we have learned in recent years of the illegal adoption scandal, this is very important.
We saw protests outside the Dáil last week by same-sex parents demanding that the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 be implemented. Same-sex parents are still being discriminated against when it comes to parental rights, and this has a major impact on their children in terms of their legal and guardianship rights. The delay in sorting this out has been unacceptable.
We have a lot more to do. The Proclamation of 1916 spoke about "cherishing all the children of the nation equally", and that is as relevant today as it was when it was written.
If every child born in Ireland does not have an equal opportunity to succeed in life then Ireland as a country is flawed. Unfortunately this is the case. Ireland has failed many children. We are aware that children are living in consistent poverty all over the world. Ireland, however, is a wealthy country and no child in Ireland should be living in poverty. There is no doubt that Government policy is contributing to this disgraceful situation. The recovery in the economy still has not reached those who need it most and consistent poverty remains intergenerational in the most deprived areas of the country and in the most deprived minority communities. This cannot ever be acceptable. Consistent well-being, fair access to education and balanced development of children is of vital importance in allowing every child the opportunity to succeed in life from an economic, social and cultural perspective. This is not happening.
I listened to a radio interview yesterday about delivering hot meals to DEIS schools around the State on a pilot basis. This service is funded through the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. It was heartening to hear the little children's voices and their welcome for these hearty and nutritious meals. Credit where credit is due and bualadh bos. Homelessness, however, and children living in emergency accommodation is on a scale that is quite simply unforgivable, and will live long in the memory of this generation of Irish people.
Child homelessness did not just happen. It was caused by a fundamental failure in Government policy. It was caused in the first instance by the previous administration of Fianna Fáil and deepened by Fine Gael and the proponents of this motion, the Labour Party. I am happy to give my full support to the motion. Child homelessness is a shameful consequence of the blinkered and uncaring policies pursued by these parties then, and continuing in the case of some.
Focus Ireland, the Peter McVerry Trust, Barnardos, the Children's Rights Alliance and many others have consistently said that the policies employed by the Government are not working. These groups have warned about the impact the policies are having and will have on children's development and psychological well-being into the future.
Will the Minister, Deputy Zappone, indicate if anybody is listening? Is the Minister being listened to? I wish her well.
I welcome the motion put forward by the Labour Party. I agree with the sentiments expressed, the motion and the proposals. I cannot emphasise enough how much I agree with the motion when it says "it is the first duty of Government to provide for the wellbeing, education and development of children". I am at a loss, however, as to why the Labour Party did not come to the same conclusions when it was in government not that long ago. Everything the Labour Party has said in the motion makes sense. Labour was in government with Fine Gael and had the Ministers who could have implemented many of these proposals. Not only did the Labour Party not do that, it did the opposite. The Labour Party in particular brought in some of the cruellest and most vicious cuts specifically targeted at the most vulnerable in society. Far from giving children a fair start Labour crippled their chances to rise out of disadvantage and poverty.
The policies and cuts the Labour Party implemented when it was in government crushed the dreams, hopes and ambitions of a generation of young people.
Is Labour being wilfully ignorant about how its devastating cuts and policies when in government resulted in a lost generation? It is all very well to get hot and bothered now that it is in opposition, but it had the chance when it was in government to make a real difference to people's lives, but it did not take it.
-----cut the invalidity pension, axed the bereavement grant, took medical cards off the sick, the elderly and the terminally ill, cut the one-parent family benefit for children over the age of seven, cut the clothing and footwear allowance and cut the carer's allowance. The full list of cuts the Labour Party made while in government is too long to outline in the short time I have. By any accounts this is a shameful record but it is a thoroughly shameful record for a party that claims to represent the working class.
There is any amount of things I could touch upon but I have not much time. I shall just focus on two points that I have raised previously with the Minister. First is the category of young people who are leaving care, an issue that is very often forgotten. It is my firm and long held view that there is not adequate support for young people leaving care. There is a statutory entitlement to an after-care plan but that is just a plan on a piece of paper. I believe there needs to be a statutory right to after care. I realise there are recruitment and retention issues for workers in this regard, but it is badly needed. These young people have already been failed on several occasions in their lives and the least they deserve is a good, well supported transition into adulthood. I am afraid this is not happening currently.
My second point is on childcare. I believe we have come at it in a very piecemeal way in recent years. We need to have a vision of where we are going to get to a place where childcare is provided as a right, where it is a public service provided by a well remunerated and well supported workforce providing quality, early years education and care. To achieve that we have to get away from the constant approach of providing piecemeal subsidies on different bits and pieces of schemes. I am aware that they are being rolled into one as part of the affordable childcare scheme but I do not believe that this is the right route ultimately. We need to work towards the way education is provided in schools through the Department of Education and Skills. We need to provide childcare as a public service. It cannot be done in the unsustainable way that we have been doing it. The Minister said that childcare workers can organise and try to get a sectoral employment order, SEO, but I do not think that is good enough. The childcare schemes devised by the Department are based on calculations that acknowledge that the wages paid to childcare workers are inadequate and unsustainable. If we are to build a reasonable childcare system worthy of the supposed prosperous country that Ireland is, we need to invest in the wages of childcare workers, develop sustainable community and publicly funded services that can provide a quality service to all. We will not achieve that if we keep pursuing the approach of providing subsidies to private providers in the community. While the subsidies are good they will not, ultimately, give us the sustainable basis.
We could not argue with any of the content of the Labour Party motion. In the 100 years since the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil child inequality is now, as it was then, compounded by social class. This is a "C" word we should use more often. Disadvantage is determined by political policy and postal address. Class or location should never define a person’s ability to thrive but class is an economic reality.
The consequences of class-based society mean that 130,000 children still live in consistent poverty. This disproportionately affects single parents and Traveller families. This was compounded by the policy of the then Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, on the one parent family payment in 2012. Many lone parents will never forgive or forget the Labour Party for those cuts. Those deep cuts were social vandalism by the Labour Party, which is supposed to represent working people. The party stabbed people in the back. Those who live and work in the low-wage economy are the working poor, which also affects children.
Other consequences of the class-based society are the nearly 3,500 children who live in emergency accommodation. Anybody would find it quite extraordinary and shocking that 3,500 children have no home but a hotel to live in. This is completely unacceptable. The trauma of this for those children is incalculable. I do not know how the Government Deputies can sleep at night when they know that 3,500 children do not have a home.
There are also waiting times for essential services such as the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, and for speech and language therapy and occupational therapy.
In relation to the scandal of CAMHS, some children have to wait for up to two years for assessment. It is incredible vandalism to visit on children in a society. Incredibly, parents are now brining the State to court on foot of the Disability Act which this House passed in 2005. The Act provides that children must be assessed within a certain period, but the Government cannot meet its six-month deadline. The Government is actually breaking its own laws. That is where children are at today. What does it say about Ireland and the political establishment? What about child poverty and its effect on every individual? Revolutionary socialists must act on the political upheaval in society. Child poverty, homelessness and long waiting times cannot be allowed to be normalised. Tackling child poverty is a task for revolutionary socialists and the people out there who can address this crisis.
I support the motion and will vote for it. It is correct to draw attention to the absence of a fair chance at equality and a fair start for children. One of the most difficult things we deal with in our case work is when we meet children who live in hotels and the like night after night. It is an incredible disruption in people's lives and it will continue to impact on them in the long run. As such, I support the motion. However, it would be hypocritical of those of us who protested against the policies of the Labour Party in government and the attacks on children it implemented to voice support for the motion while forgetting about everything that happened. It is fair and reasonable to expect there to be a relationship between words and deeds in politics. People find it disgusting that there is not and that when in opposition, people say all the right things whereas in government, they do all the wrong things, unfortunately. It is not a question of having nothing positive to say. I will say some positive things at the end regarding what I think needs to happen.
Now, I will respond to Deputy Howlin's comments to Deputy Ellis that what he said was rubbish, because it was not rubbish. The record of the Labour Party in government was particularly about attacking and destroying the lives of children and creating some of the crises we have today.
Let us listen to Social Justice Ireland on budget 2012 and the Department of Social Protection under the then Minister, Deputy Joan Burton. Social Justice Ireland said families with children were among the greatest casualties of that budget. It described as "draconian" cuts to child benefit for the third child and subsequent children as well as to the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance when almost one in five children was at risk of poverty. Social Justice Ireland said the cumulative effect of the cuts would make life unbearable for many individuals and families. St. Vincent de Paul said of Deputy Burton's second budget that a lone parent with three children who had returned to third level education would lose a minimum of €906 a year as a result of the then Minister's welfare cuts.
Child benefit cuts were made in every budget from 2012 to 2014 and the total cuts for a family with four children came to €104 a month. There were cuts to the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance in every budget. The cumulative loss in payments to a lone parent with two children working part-time and earning €200 per week as a result of Deputy Burton's cuts from 2011 to 2016 was €1,430 a year, which was an income loss of 12%. The Labour Party is absolutely correct to highlight the figures for child homelessness, but those figures were not even counted before that party was in government because it was such a negligible factor.
In July 2014, there were 749 children in emergency accommodation but by the end of April 2016, just before Labour left office, that number had almost tripled to more than 2,000. The trend has continued under the same policies because under the Labour Party, including its responsible Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, the building of council houses collapsed to an all-time low of 75 in 2015.
Exactly. Some people got a lot of money in that time. Child care costs are obviously astronomical but the answer is not to outsource the State's responsibility to provide it by subsidising private child care. The answer is to invest in a massive State-run and publicly-owned child-care system like the systems which already exist in several EU member states, including Spain and Italy, while ensuring the workers in that system are well-paid as opposed to the current condition of poverty wages.
How does the Government think children in Ireland today are getting a fair start to their lives? It is far from a fair start they are getting. From the number of homeless children to the long waiting lists for children's hospital and consultant appointments and the lack of adequate special needs assistants, SNAs, and resources, how can the Government think it is doing well by children living here? Homelessness is a serious issue and the number of homeless families is unacceptable. More than one in three people in emergency accommodation are children. We need the Government to provide more affordable housing. I have listened enough to the plans and various reports the Government has on the matter. I want to see real results on the ground. My offices in west Cork are inundated with constituents who have waited for years on the housing list. Some are living with their children in awful, substandard accommodation. Many are living in houses with damp, mould and funguses growing on the walls and ceilings. No child should have to endure such living conditions in this day and age.
Does the Government comprehend the crisis facing children who are waiting for hospital and consultant appointments? Last year, Barnardos reported that more than 37,000 children were waiting for mental health, disability and speech and language treatment nationally. Adding insult to injury, the report highlighted that some children had yet to receive an initial assessment while 78% with a disability or suspected disability were overdue an assessment. This is outrageous and the Government cannot allow it to continue. In talking about a fair start for every child, we cannot forget this evening the local voluntary groups which provide excellent supports and services to families and children in their areas. In my own area of west Cork, the Jack & Friends support centre, formally known as Bandon Autism Parent Support, is an excellent resource for children and their families. The group is holding its official opening on Saturday week and I wish them every success. They have worked very hard and moved to a beautiful premises in Bandon which will bring much joy to the children of the town and its surrounding areas.
I welcomed the Government's announcement last May that there will be an overhaul of the special needs assessment scheme in schools. SNAs do amazing work and must be supported. We must ensure that all children who require resource hours will get all the hours they need. Having spoken to people on the ground, it is clear to me that we still have an issue with the time it takes to assess a child and put in place resources. The Government must recognise the problem and tackle the waiting list for once and for all.
When a motion like this comes before the House which deserves support, a Member will usually stand up and say so. The first thing I must do, however, is ask why, in God's name, the Labour Party was not as thoughtful, caring and considerate when it was in government. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. When I hear a proposal like this from the Labour Party, I think of what it did to the people it hurt so greatly. The Labour Party really did not care. I hate talking about someone who is not in the Chamber-----
-----but I remember when the then Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, stood in the Government benches and was as brazen and as cocky. She did not give a damn about the people she was hurting. There were people on low family incomes.
It is lecturing the Government and telling it what to do. I do not blame the Minister who is sitting opposite but I blame Deputy Howlin for being a bloody hypocrite in coming before the House with this type of proposal.
He was a respectable person but the Labour Party tarnished his reputation. The Labour Party and the Workers Party destroyed themselves when they hurt every worker and every person who was trying to do something in Ireland and good-----
Look at what the Labour Party did to young people when it had power. It abused its power, that is what it did. There was a Labour Party Minister who was nothing but outright disgraceful in her actions. The Labour Party hurt so many people and now it is wondering why it is in the doldrums. It will never again scrape itself up off the ground because of what it did to people.
The Labour Party is a disgrace and I am only acknowledging in the House that it is a disgrace. As for this charade of bringing the motion before the House, when it had power it abused it. That is what it did.
I sympathise and empathise with what is being said but coming from the people who have tabled the motion, I am sorry for all the harm and wrong they did to families in the previous Government. They have already said that if the numbers add up, they will go into government with Fine Gael the next time. They are not finished yet if they get their way.
All children should be cherished equally and there is an anomaly and wrong happening to children-----
You have interrupted the debate continuously. I have asked Deputies to deal with the motion in a respectful manner. If Deputy Howlin would allow the debate to continue, please, without interruption.
Children are being wronged at present when they must go into homeless shelters and centres, where they are being accommodated in overcrowded conditions with other people who have addiction problems. Children should not have to be put in places such as this. I appeal to the Minister to rectify this anomaly. The homeless centres we have are not adequate. When people are evicted from their houses or when their tenancies are taken from them, families find themselves in these very unfortunate situations. It is very wrong and hurtful for children at the start of their days. It was an ideology of de Valera that all the children of the country should be cherished equally.
I also regret what the Labour Party did in the previous Government to families throughout the country-----
I thank the Acting Chairman. I am going to speak about the motion first. Two weeks ago, we were all in the Mansion House at a very dignified and moving ceremony commemorating the first Dáil. Very much central to the first Dáil was the Democratic Programme, written by Tom Johnson, the leader of the Labour Party. It was adopted by the first Dáil 100 years ago. It stated the first duty of a parliament or government was to look after its children. This is the central tenet of the motion. I very much respect most of the people who have contributed in good faith to the debate on this very important issue. We are now a relatively wealthy country. We have recovered from the worst economic crisis that has ever befallen the country, when budgets were reduced by one third. In the worst of times, the Labour Party, in government with Fine Gael, protected some of the most vulnerable of our citizens and we will not take the type of attacks that have come from other people. There was absolute stone wall abuse in the House.
Other people who spoke prior to the two Deputies Healy-Rae referred to various decisions made. Of course, they did not refer to the fact the Labour Party in government presided over the introduction of free GP care for children aged under six, special needs assistants and extra resource teachers in schools and the second free preschool year in the absolute worst of times. Just for the record, it was the Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government prior to the Labour Party coming into power that cut €8 from every single social welfare recipient because the economy had collapsed, because the bank guarantee, which we voted against, had been implemented and because there was no money. Any Minister who had to cut his or her budget did so because he or she was in an impossible situation with not enough money.
They know all of it. That is the background. However, this is now a developed country. We will have to take up what has just happened with the Ceann Comhairle. It is not acceptable to be called those names within this Chamber. I am also here a long time.
A point of order is normally taken and the person who made the charges is asked to withdraw them. I do not know whether the Acting Chairman, Deputy Connolly, intends to do so, but it should certainly be done. We have brought forward the motion in good faith. We want to see a focus on child poverty now that we have recovered financially from the economic crash. Most people did not expect the country to recover from it. There were much more serious cuts in other countries. We protected budgets as far as we could and are proud to be members of the Labour Party with our values and ideals.
We have brought forward the motion, whether some people like it, and are happy that many in the House have stated they support it. Its most important element is probably we want child poverty to be measured. We want timeframes and quarterly reports to ensure we will gradually move toward a situation where the incidence of consistent poverty will be steadily reduced. I have to give credit to the Government because it is reducing the incidence of consistent child poverty. It was reducing when we were in government also but not fast enough. The reduction was very slight. We need to reduce the incidence of consistent child poverty and the way to do it is to measure it with timeframes and trace it to ensure it will happen. All Departments must be involved. Deputy Rabbitte referred to other Departments being involved, not just the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. That is the main thing we want to achieve with the motion and we seek support for it from across the Dáil. It is about reducing the incidence of consistent child poverty, not throwing names at others.
I want to address the particular issue of child homelessness. There are nearly 4,000 children who do not have a roof over their head. Incidentally, in respect of the statistics, there has been a 14% increase in child homelessness in the past year. It has increased consistently in the past three years. There should be a basic right to a home, particularly for children.
While we did insert children's rights into the Constitution, we did not put in place the kind of legislation necessary to implement them. One concerns child homelessness. We presented the Housing (Homeless Families) Bill 2017 which was passed through the House. It is now on Committee Stage and a Government response is awaited on a money message. I trongly urge that the Bill be implemented because it will mandate housing authorities and the Government to ensure the needs of children within a family are prioritised. That will ensure children will not be taken to Garda stations when they become homeless. The Bill needs to be implemented.
More importantly, we can actually address the shortage of housing. Last week I attended the Raise the Roof conference, at which Mr. Mel Reynolds, a respected architect, indicated that there was enough land owned by local authorities and zoned for housing to build 50,000 units of accommodation nationally, 30,000 of them in Dublin. We could, therefore, address the housing problem if we used State-owned land to have publicly-led social and affordable housing built, for which the Labour Party is calling. We have costed proposals to have 80,000 social and affordable homes built over five years. We need that scale of delivery, but we also need the will to do it. We can do it, which is the important message today. We can and need to address the address of child homelessness, but we also need to prevent homelessness. This morning I attended another conference on youth homelessness, at which a gentleman from Wales spoke about how there was an obligation in Wales and England to inform local authorities well in advance of people becoming homeless. We can also prevent homelessness by ensuring people will not be kicked out of their homes because of unreasonable hikes in rent. We must also ensure a landlord will no longer be able to state he or she is selling the property, that it is needed for a fairly distant relative or it is going to be done up. We need to close all of these loopholes to keep people in their home.
The other day I spoke to a woman who was living in a hotel with her two children. She told me that she was really concerned about her children in school. Her son who is older is trying to pretend to his friends that he does not live in a hotel because he is ashamed. The behaviour of her daughter who is much younger has completely changed in school. She was a quiet child but is now disruptive. These are the terrible changes that come on children when they do not have a secure home. These are the issues that we want to highlight.
We also want to highlight the issue of children with special needs. Others have done so in the context of the gaps in services. There is also the issue of children with mental health issues. The child and adult mental health service, CAMHS, teams are not fully staffed. There are many other children in particularly difficult situations, including those in direct provision centres or Traveller accommodation, all of whom have particular problems and do not have an opportunity to reach their full potential. They need the supports we are advocating in the motion. We are also concerned about helping children who cannot even access knowledge on their parents, an area in which Deputy Burton has published a Bill. There is the issue of same-sex couples who equally do not have full rights in seeking knowledge of their parenthood.
These are the various areas covered in the motion which is about fulfilling the aims of the First Dáil and its Democratic Programme. We owe it to people in our republic to ensure we will focus on these issues to fulfil the vision and intentions contained in the Democratic Programme. There have been many difficulties throughout our history since. There are many reasons we have not fulfilled that vision, including because of conservative Ireland and sometimes, as was the case in more recent history, when there simply was not enough money available because of the economic collapse. However, we are now in a position where we can address these issues and focus on all of the children of the nation in having the opportunity to develop to their full potential. We need a whole-of-government approach in achieving this in the areas of education and health, as well as in the children's ministry and, particularly, the housing ministry. In many ways, the worst deprivation a child can endure is not having a secure home of his or her own, but we can address that issue if there was the will and the funding was provided. That is what the motion is about.
I welcome the positive contributions made by many Members. It is very unfortunate that the entire intention and spirit of the motion were thwarted by some Members who chose-----
They chose the path of personal abuse, rather than the path of responsibility that we all, as elected representatives, have to follow to address the issues that concern citizens, the most crucial of which is ensuring all children will have the opportunity to be the best they can be.
I thank the Labour Party and Deputy Howlin, in particular, for bringing forward this very important motion. I defend the position of the Labour Party in government between 2011 and 2016, as well as the role played by Deputies Howlin and Jan O'Sullivan and many other Labour Party Ministers who made very difficult decisions during those years. If had been some of the people on the opposite side of the House in government, I do not believe the country would be in the position it is today. I refer to the economic recovery we have made in those years.
I acknowledge the contributions of all speakers to this discussion. We are reminded that 100 years ago Dáil Éireann committed to the imperatives of the Democratic Programme and the principles of justice and equality to support the development of all children and in order to ensure a fair start in early childhood.
We were asked to reiterate that commitment in a range of actions and initiatives across government.
The Labour Party motion, as tabled, spans a number of areas of government activity, including the well-being, education and development of children, child homelessness, citizenship, access to information for adopted people on their birth parents, equal parenting rights for same-sex couples, access to high quality and affordable childcare, access to a special needs assistant and support services and access to a primary education free of charge. The Opposition party motion calls on the Government to ensure no children will remain in homelessness, implement the affordable childcare scheme, provide free general practitioner, GP, care for all children under the age of 18 years, prepare and implement a comprehensive strategy to eliminate consistent child poverty and maternal deprivation and report to the Dáil on the implementation of the strategy.
My colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, set out the Government's response on each of these issues. She asked the House to commit strongly to the principle of ensuring a fair start for every child, underpinned by the principles of justice and equality. She called on us to endorse the objectives of the democratic programme of the First Dáil by supporting the development of all children and making provision for their physical, mental and spiritual well-being to alleviate poverty. I ask the House to do likewise. The Government is investing widely in services for children, particularly for those who are most vulnerable. This is evident, for example, in the increase of €107 million, or 8%, on the figure for 2018, in the 2019 Vote for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, a Department that was established on the initiative of the Government to put in place a unified framework for policy legislation and service provision across government for children and young people.
In the area of early learning the budget has been increased by 117% in the past four years. We recently published First 5, a whole-of-government strategy to improve the lives of babies and young children up to the age of five years and the lives of their families, which speaks directly to the aspirations set out in the democratic programme. We have committed to the introduction of the affordable childcare scheme as soon as the scheme's regulatory, administrative and ICT infrastructure is in place in October 2019. We have also committed to the establishment of a statutory scheme to facilitate all children who have been adopted to access as much information on their birth parents as possible.
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs reiterated, as do I, the need for a continued focus on reducing the rate of child poverty through a co-ordinated approach by Departments through the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures implementation infrastructure. This forms part of the overall work being co-ordinated by the Minister through the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures process. The Government is already committed to reporting regularly on the efforts made across government to tackle child poverty, based on the six priority actions contained in the whole-of-government paper Tackling Child Poverty published by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in 2017. It is also committed to reporting on the forthcoming poverty and social inclusion strategy which will be implemented by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection.
The Civil Registration Bill 2019 makes technical amendments that will facilitate the commencement of existing legislation to allow both partners in a same-sex female relationship who have undergone a donor assisted birth process to have their details printed on birth certificates. The provisions of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015, as well as the general scheme of the Assisted Human Reproduction Bill 2017, uphold the principle of equal recognition of same-sex and opposite-sex parents. Amendments approved by the Government to the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 will be included alongside the legislative provisions to introduce a new paid parental leave scheme which was announced as part of budget 2019. The proposed amendments will afford the same entitlements to adoptive leave and benefits to all couples who are married, cohabiting or in a civil partnership, irrespective of gender.
In the area of healthcare, the Government remains committed to the extension, in phases and subject to negotiations with GPs, of free GP care to those under the age of 18 years.
Ireland currently confers citizenship on any child born on the island of Ireland if one or both parents have been lawfully resident on the island of Ireland for three of the past four years. In general, we have less onerous requirements for the acquisition of citizenship when compared to fellow EU member states.
The Disability Act 2005 provides that any child suspected of having a disability and born on or after 1 June 2002 is entitled to an assessment of need to be conducted within a specific timeframe. Timely access to assessments and services for children with additional needs is of the utmost importance. The HSE has a number of initiatives in place to improve services for these children. Budget 2019 provides for 100 additional posts specifically to improve access to assessments of need and ensuing therapies.
The Department of Education and Skills' policy initiative, Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, is aimed at tackling educational disadvantage in primary and post-primary schools. The 2017 DEIS plan sets out the vision for future interventions in the critical area of educational disadvantage policy. A lot of good work is being done by the Department in supporting a range of interventions across the education spectrum, with the objective of achieving its vision for education to become a proven pathway to better opportunities for those in communities at risk of disadvantage and social exclusion.
The Government is also putting in place measures and supports to reduce school costs for parents. All schools must be sensitive to the financial pressures on parents in making decisions, not only on fees but on any matter that will have cost implications for parents such as uniforms and books. In that context, the Minister for Education and Skills has issued specific guidance to schools on the issue of costs and the need for schools to do everything possible to keep costs down for parents. Under the draft legislation on a parent and student charter, the Minister also intends that schools will be required to consult students and parents regularly on school costs and work to prevent costs from acting as a barrier to participation.
The Government's commitments in Rebuilding Ireland, its action plan for housing and homelessness, are designed to increase the overall supply of new homes to 25,000 per annum by 2020, deliver an additional 50,000 social housing units in 2021 and meet the housing needs of an additional 87,000 households through the housing assistance payment scheme and the rental accommodation scheme. Supporting households which experience homelessness is a priority for the Government. Budget 2019 increased the funding available to local authorities for the provision of homelessness services by more than 25% to €146 million. It is clear from the debate that Deputies share a commitment to improving the lives of children, particularly those who are most vulnerable. While there may be some differences between us on the approach to be taken, that does not dilute in any way our shared determination to pursue an ambitious, integrated, cross-government strategy to effect change. The breadth and depth of the actions outlined span numerous Departments and indicate that we are making progress. We must continue the work and in so doing honour the ambitions of the First Dáil.
I support this important motion. I am somewhat taken aback by the rancour that it has generated. As the eldest of ten children who grew up in the 1960s when times were tough, I am acutely aware of how difficult circumstances are.
I will focus on the substance of the motion. It appears that some are peeved by the fact that the motion is both comprehensive and important in the context of ensuring every child in the Republic will be given a fair start. The motion emphasises the objectives set out by the first parliamentary leader of the Labour Party, Thomas Johnson, in 1913, the centenary of which we celebrated just a few years ago.
It further appears that some in this House would, with attempts at bullying, intimidation or something else, try to circumscribe our rights to pursue political actions or policies. My grandmother stood at the 1913 Lock-out and we will not be bullied or intimidated by anybody. We will bring forward policies on the floor of the House that are legitimate and correctly mandated by the people we represent. We will take people to one side if they try to bully, intimidate or call us names as we have had enough of it. It is not good enough and name calling should not be allowed. We will pursue this as what has happened is not appropriate to this House. I am going on 27 years in this House and I have never seen such rancour or name calling.
The question of the Labour Party's record and its effect on people has been raised. Allow me to put a few facts on the record. Has anybody forgotten that the economy crashed in Fianna Fáil's term and before the Labour Party came into government in 2011? The other day I heard somebody say houses were not built from 2008 onwards and that the Labour Party was responsible for that. That is the type of misleading statement and fake news that is out there. I went into the Department at the time and tried to save the €36 million for the disabled persons' grant. I recall it clearly. I fought my guts out and only €2 million was taken when the troika wanted to take everything.
You did not apply those rules a few minutes ago. Does anybody deny a wide range of cuts to public spending were introduced before the Labour Party came to government? When the Labour Party came into government, the unemployment rate was 15% and it was 8.8% and falling fast when we left. There was €500 million per year available for a jobs fund and 40,000 training places were made available annually to get people back to work. We reversed cuts to the minimum wage. I know because I was delegated by the Labour Party to ensure it happened. It meant a further €3,000 per year went to every full-time worker because of the reversal of the cuts to the minimum wage and it being raised afterwards. That was real help for families and children, and it amounted to more help than protest marches.
Household income rose while the Labour Party was in government and inequality fell. Material deprivation decreased by a third in our time in office, and at the same time we managed to reduce the national deficit so we could exit the troika programme earlier. As somebody who sat at the table, I can bet that the troika would have cut far more severely and savagely if the Labour Party had not been in office to protect people. I was there and I know it. What about the free GP service for children under six? It was the first tranche in a commitment to universality in the area, which is very important. I know what it is like to meet families who do not have €50 or €60 to pay a GP. People welcomed that initiative at the time but it was cut from this debate and there has been no mention of it happening at all.
More than 2,200 estates were unfinished when I was given the portfolio I held for nine months before I resigned. Many people, including Deputies in this House, told me to knock the houses because they were built in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were perhaps four estates that were demolished but I set up a programme to ensure others were finished over a period by providing a few million euro here and there to local authorities. Anybody can check the record as those estates were finished. I admit that some houses were built in the wrong places and this came from bad planning etc. We had to carry that can as a legacy of the Celtic tiger. I could say more, but people should make up their own minds in a fair and objective way about the parties or politicians that did their best for people in dire circumstances and for the country at a difficult time.
The Labour Party has moved the motion tonight on providing a fair start for every child to send a clear message to the Government that its policies are simply not adequate to achieve what has been promised. There have been some achievements, which we acknowledge, as we are not churlish. If the Government does some good, we should be clear, honest and say the Minister, Deputy Zappone, and others have done well. Now we are in a better place, we need to accelerate the delivery of the objectives.
As I stated, Labour brought forward this motion in part to remember the democratic programme of the First Dáil and the spirit of 1919, when the people of Ireland for the first time democratically elected representatives who they hoped would deliver a people's Government and address the pressing needs of the people arising from the dire poverty that was common at the time. We have a vision and it is outlined in the motion. Others may have a different vision. I am sure Fianna Fáil has a vision, and fair play to it, we compliment the party on that. We do not think we have a divine right, as some believe, and that our view is the only valid one. This is our contribution in trying to make improvements, and if somebody comes forward with adequate or positive amendments, whether it is Sinn Féin, Deputy Gino Kenny or anybody else, we will be on board.
We are in a new era and we cannot always hark back to the past. By looking in the rear-view mirror the only thing we get is a crick in our necks. We must look forward and consider how we can help young people get a fair start from the cradle all the way through. The first ten years of life are very important and I know all about that. No matter where they come from and what background they have, young people should have the opportunity to participate in second level education. In fairness, Fianna Fáil did this with the actions of Donogh O'Malley in the 1960s. I salute that work. Does Deputy Rabbitte believe I will argue it was a bad policy? It was a brilliant policy and Mr. O'Malley did it off his own bat. Fair play to him, and we need more Ministers with such initiative now. He was not circumscribed by the bureaucrats and he acted on that policy. Fair play to him, he has left an enduring legacy. I personally gained from it and I am very thankful for that. I will remember it. If somebody comes up with a policy, it should not mean others have to decry it.
I am surprised we are not pulling the rope one way with this. I was surprised by the level of rancour in the debate as I have never seen such bitterness before.
Perhaps Deputies were nettled because they did not formulate the idea in the motion. There is always a reason. The Labour Party's vision as outlined in the motion is for all children in Ireland to have an equal chance to fulfil their potential. That was the promise in 1919 but it has not been delivered. We must all hold up our hands, but now is the time to try to achieve that objective. It is 2019 but we still have not achieved so many of the basic gains. Focusing on a fair start is a fundamental challenge for the Government. We all talk about helping ourselves. Most of my family had to go to England in the 1950s. I was over there recently as an uncle who was 92 died a few months back. The health service is good enough there, but some of the family were ill, and every time they got medicine they had to pay a prescription charge. The man in question worked with Murphy, McAlpine and the whole shebang. He was a hard-working man. He used to say the old home sod was a great country. He got 10p or something for a fare every week and £100 for fuel allowance if the temperature fell. That is what he got after spending 60 years working. We should not always decry what we have. We might not have achieved everything we want but we are on the road to improvement, I hope.
It is not good enough for nine in ten children to be securely housed. It is not good enough for nine in ten children to get a good education. Our goal as a Parliament and people should be to examine why some people have been left behind. If one in ten is left behind, we must consider why it has happened. That means we must understand the reason for homelessness and address its root cause, as outlined by my colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. It means we must remove legal impediments to equality, and nobody can say we were not at the vanguard of such efforts. We did it at great personal cost and at a cost to our party.
We do not go around telling people to go on strike every other day or get rid of 5,600 workers from Intel, as I heard some of the Deputy's colleagues say. The most effective way to ensure long-term and sustainable economic development is to invest in early childhood education, as my colleague, Deputy Sherlock, has emphasised. That will require major planning and investment. The Labour Party in government has an impressive track record of delivering improvements. We saw the country through an appalling period of economic collapse but now money is available. The challenge now is for the Government to deliver on this properly for all the children of this State.