Wednesday, 24 March 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
Issues relating to children and youth affairs are dealt with by the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality. That committee last met on 30 November 2020 and will meet again shortly. I have regular engagement with Ministers at Cabinet and individually to discuss priority issues relating to their Departments. In addition, a number of meetings have been held between my officials and officials from relevant Departments since the establishment of the Cabinet committee in July 2020.
I am shocked to hear that a Cabinet committee dealing with children and youth affairs has not met since last November. There are many groups of people who are suffering with mental health issues, stress and anxiety as a result of the Covid pandemic and the restrictions. One of those cohorts is made up of our young people and they are very significantly suffering. There is a lot of lip service paid to supporting people's mental health but not a lot of action. That the committee dealing with this area has not met since November tells its own story.
There are more than 2,000 young people and families waiting, often for months, for a first appointment with a clinical psychologist at the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. Last week, we proposed a measure, which will be voted on tomorrow, that would take a very significant amount of stress off young people. There are many sources of stress for them but the leaving certificate examination and the question of access to higher education is a very significant one. We proposed that the Government would do something simple like make places available for all CAO applicants, in higher education, further education and apprenticeship programmes, and remove the financial pressure and burden of fees. The Government refused to do that. There is all the talk about supporting people's mental health and what is going to change post Covid.
However, in reality there has been nothing for our young people. There has been nothing to support them through this extraordinarily stressful period.
Last week, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth recommended the establishment of a joint labour committee for the early learning and childcare sector. I welcome this move. It is something my colleagues, including Deputies Sean Sherlock, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and Ged Nash and Senator Ivana Bacik, have been pushing for many years. We have been raising it for more than five years. The sooner it is up and running, the better for everyone working in that sector. The sooner we can get an employment regulation order in place to establish binding rates of pay, terms and conditions, etc., the sooner we would be taking a step in the right direction for all these workers. The legislation to put this in place was put forward by the Labour Party.
The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has written to the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Damien English, with this recommendation for joint labour committee to be established. The Minister must apply to the Labour Court for this to happen. Will the Taoiseach confirm that the JLC will now be established by the Government and the relevant Minister to support these workers? What is the timeline to put the committee in place? Will the Taoiseach commit to this happening in the near future? It is something of which we are highly supportive.
I agree it is concerning that the committee has not met since November given the considerable pressures, in particular mental health pressures, young people are under.
The Taoiseach previously gave a commitment on young people and children who are trapped in camps on Greek islands. As the Taoiseach knows, in September last year a fire at one of these camps left 12,000 people, including 4,000 children, destitute. When will the commitment to evacuate 50 of these people, including children, be carried out? Will he consider providing residency support for approximately 400 people who are trapped in these camps?
The fact that the committee has not met since November is alarming, frankly. It raises a question mark around the urgency and order of priority being attached to children and younger people, especially in the context of the public health emergency.
I have had conversations with community and voluntary organisations that provide support and mental healthcare and related services to adults and young people. Those involved have been telling me loudly and clearly that access to care is a major problem. The 2,500 children on the CAMHS waiting lists have been referenced. We should bear in mind that almost 9,000 children are waiting for a psychology appointment as well. Our spend on mental health is too low by international standards. A paper authored by clinical and public mental health specialists in May last year warned us that we were facing into a tsunami of mental health need. This is felt across society but it is felt acutely among our children and young people in particular.
We have published proposals for emergency investment in mental health. My colleague, Deputy Mark Ward, has put the initiative together to provide surge capacity for mental healthcare, to provide in an emergency way for talk therapies and to ensure that young people, children in particular, have quick access to vital emergency services. I am keen for these proposals to be considered and for urgency to be attached to this area. This is a difficult time for all of us, but, by God, some children and young people have had an extraordinarily difficult time. We need to respond with all due urgency and priority.
Following the third wave of Covid-19, we took a decision to reduce the number of times we would meet at Cabinet committee level. This does not mean these issues came off the Government radar or anything like that. In fact, the opposite is the case, especially in terms of mental health and education. A number of specific meetings have taken place in the intervening period with the Minister for Education on the leaving certificate and with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris. We had a Cabinet committee on education meeting and held a series of meetings with the Ministers for Education and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on the leaving certificate and the return to school more generally.
The position of Deputy Boyd Barrett is that we should provide places to everyone straightaway. That is not achievable or doable. It is simple to say that but it is utterly ridiculous and cannot be done. We could create many difficulties with that approach too. What we have done, however, is provide €200 million for targeted places and apprenticeships as well as a range of training opportunities for young people who many not wish to pursue further or third level education.
The further education colleges have got additional resources. We have created thousands of additional places at third level as well. The policy of providing a broad suite of opportunities for young people is key. The idea that we simply open up the CAO system to everyone who wishes to do whatever they want does not work. People need to think that through very carefully. It does not make much sense to me and could undermine the well-being and development of young people in future. I say this as a educationalist and as someone who knows a thing or two about education. Deputy Boyd Barrett's approach to politics of giving people whatever they want when they want it is not grounded in reality.
There has been reform in how the leaving certificate operates. I support further reform of assessment and the modes of study and so on. We need to create opportunities across the board in further and higher education and in a range of other areas that people wish to pursue. One area where this is relevant is youth strategy. The Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Deputy James Browne, brought forward the draft national youth strategy to Government yesterday. It was very much focused on developing opportunities for disadvantaged young people, especially for young offenders. One of the areas where we engage on a good deal is the past but we must be focused on the present as well especially on those children who are highly marginalised. When we go through why they offend and get into offending, it is clear a range of background issues are relevant, including addiction and family issues. This needs intense resourcing and supports. That will form part of the national youth strategy. This kind of work has been ongoing and the Minister of State has brought forward a comprehensive strategy in that regard. Another area is school completion, which has been a passion of mine for a long time. I believe we have to give every child born in the country an opportunity to complete second level education and we have to support and resource that. This is something we are highly committed to as well.
Deputy Kelly raised the question of early education and I agree this is a key priority. There is a long journey yet to go in terms of equalising the comparisons between early education and the later years of primary education. The Deputy referred to the joint labour committees. The Government and the Minister are committed to progressing that to support the entire sector. The age group from zero to three is key to the development of any child. A child learns more between the ages of zero and three than in the remainder of his or her life. That is something we want to progress.
I was asked about mental health. The Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19 decided to provide even more additional resources to mental health, in particular to non-governmental organisations. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Mary Butler, has put major efforts into mental health. She is an excellent Minister of State for that area and is working hard, especially in the context of Covid-19. It is without question that Covid-19 is putting considerable strain and anxiety on young people.
That is evidenced by the reports from mental health non-governmental organisations that help young people. We are conscious of that also. We provided additional resources this year through the national HSE service plan to deal with waiting lists for CAMHS. We have provided additional resources in terms of mental health more generally.
In terms of Deputy Cian O'Callaghan's question, I will revert to the Minister with responsibility for children in respect of that. We are willing to do our part in respect of the commitments that we have made. When we make those commitments, we have to fulfil them, and not just optically in the short term. There has to be a comprehensive follow-through plan in terms of the well-being of those whom we assist to make sure it is sustainable for the individual children involved and we follow through on those commitments.