Wednesday, 15 September 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
Community Development Projects
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.
The Mulvey report, Dublin North East Inner City - Creating a Brighter Future, which was commissioned by the Government and published in February 2017, contained recommendations for the social and economic regeneration of Dublin's north inner city. This report has been further supplemented by the publishing of the north-east inner city strategic plan 2020-22. Both documents are available on the north-east inner city website, www.neic.ie.
In June 2017, an independent chairperson was appointed by the Government to the north-east inner city programme implementation board. Members of the board include representatives from relevant Government Departments and agencies, businesses and the local community. The board is assisted in its work by six subgroups, which focus on enhancing policing; maximising educational, training and employment opportunities; family well-being; enhancing community well-being and the physical landscape; substance use, misuse and inclusion health; and alignment of services. The board and its subgroups continue to meet monthly to oversee and progress the implementation of the Mulvey report and the north-east inner city strategic plan 2020-22. Officials from my Department work closely with the board, the subgroups and the dedicated programme office based in Seán MacDermott Street.
The chair of the board reports to an oversight group of senior officials chaired by the Secretary General of my Department. The membership of the oversight group is comprised of the chair of the north-east inner city programme implementation board and senior officials across Government Departments and agencies who are actively engaged with the work of the north-east inner city initiative, namely the Department of the Taoiseach; the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth; the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; the Department of Rural and Community Development; the Department of Social Protection; the Department of Education; the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and a whole range of other Departments including the Department of Transport; the Department of Health; the Department of Justice; the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage; the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media; Dublin City Council; the Office of Public Works; and An Garda Síochána. This group, which has met 13 times to date and met most recently via video conference on 3 June 2021, supports and oversees the work of the north-east inner city programme implementation board and ensures strong and active participation by all relevant Government Departments and agencies in the north-east inner city initiative and deals with any barriers or issues highlighted by the chair of the programme implementation board.
The Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality provides political oversight of the north-east inner city initiative. The Government is committed to supporting and investing in the north-east inner city community and ensuring the board has the necessary resources to achieve its targets and fulfil its ambition. To this end, the Government has made available €6.5 million in funding for the initiative in 2021.
The programme implementation board will continue to implement the remaining actions set out in the Mulvey report and the north-east inner city strategic plan 2020-22 and to adopt a greater focus on long-term sustainable outcomes while operating in an integrated framework and adding value to the existing service infrastructure. Progress reports on the north-east inner city initiative are available on www.neic.iefor 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.
I thank the Taoiseach for that response. He might recall that when we discussed the north-east inner city initiative on previous occasions, I asked and I suggest again that there be a review of progress made and achievements in this part of our capital city. That is essential for the success of this initiative.
I acknowledge the work that has been done but I also flag to the Taoiseach that the social and economic problems within the area remain extremely deep. In my own view in many respects we are only skating on the surface of what actually needs to be done. I therefore recommend to the Taoiseach the need for a review to be done not least because we are now in the autumn of 2021 and 2022 will soon be upon us.
Before we broke for the summer recess the Taoiseach may recall that I raised with him the looming closure of a number of community early learning providers in the north inner city. This is as a direct consequence of the restructuring of the national childcare scheme.
Since then, a coalition of providers in Dublin 8 have raised the same concerns as I raised with him. My colleague, Deputy Funchion, is engaging with a number of providers in disadvantaged areas across the State who face similar funding challenges. The truth is that kids from the poorest households are going to lose their after-school or childcare places. Some providers tell me that they will lose up to 70% of their income because the new scheme penalises the children of parents who are not at work and are not studying and as a consequence will disadvantage children who are living in circumstances of profound disadvantage. I have corresponded with the Taoiseach on these matters.
He has made reference in that correspondence to the sustainability fund. In practice, that is not a fund. In fact, it is described to me by those seeking access to it as an adversarial compliance, governance and financial audit. The statement from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth that children with particular needs, as it calls them, might qualify for the full 45 hours if sponsored by Tusla simply does not recognise the very real fear that families not already engaged with these agencies have of inviting Tusla into their and their children's lives.
In my correspondence with the Taoiseach and with the Minister over recent months, and I have been raising this for months, I reminded them of the urgent need for a DEIS model for early learning settings in areas of disadvantage, as supported by the current Government and the previous Administration. This problem is not going away. I ask the Taoiseach to liaise with the Minister to agree a revised strategy to ensure these children retain the existing childcare and early education entitlements they so desperately need.
As we are tasked today with coming in here and talking about the review of the inner city initiative, it would be remiss of me not to mention that tomorrow, once again, several hundred people from the north inner city will descend on the Dáil in protest. That protest will be in recognition of the 16th anniversary of the death of Terence Wheelock. I cannot separate the inner city initiative from the legacy of poor relationships between the community of the north inner city, which has for decades been disadvantaged by structural inequality and structural violence. The initiative had absolutely no targets or benchmarks. It involved lots of good work because of the nature of the good people involved, but it will not address the legacy of a community which has a mistrustful relationship with the State and its infrastructures because of deeds the community believes were inflicted on it. To my mind, there is no greater example of that than the north inner city community's continued 16-year quest for answers to what it believes to be the outstanding questions surrounding the death of Terence Wheelock. Until that is addressed, every year, like tomorrow, that community will continue to march on the Dáil and on Store Street Garda station and will continue to have a mistrustful relationship with the State, and all these nice initiatives will fall on deaf ears.
Once again, therefore, in advance of Terence's anniversary tomorrow, I ask for an independent review into the circumstances that led to his death in order that his family can stop having to show up at Store Street Garda station and at the Dáil demanding what they believe is justice for their son and their brother. Please, Taoiseach, I know there was a GSOC review. That was ten years ago and questions still remain. Let us simply address this issue now and bring some finality to it.
I thank the Deputies for raising these issues. To respond to Deputy McDonald's basic point about a review of probity, yes, we should do that. I will talk to my Secretary General about that and about the broader interest in terms of just reviewing the progress that has been made, the remaining issues and perhaps lessons learnt from the model. As I said earlier, maybe during Leaders' Questions, I am anxious we would broaden out and learn from previous experience of models that were developed before in certain communities in terms of multidisciplinary, multi-agency-based responses to disadvantage. I think we can now learn lessons from this initiative, which has been up and running since 2017. I am anxious to do that and I do not doubt what the Deputy says about the social and economic problems remaining. Deputy Gannon has referred to those also. That is something we can do.
As for the childcare issue Deputy McDonald raised, I did write to her about that and, again, I am anxious to resolve it. No provider should lose 70% in any new scheme. I do not think anyone intends that to happen, nor should it happen. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has aimed to ensure alignment of existing initiatives as well as the development of other responses which add value to the actions to achieve maximum impact in respect of integrated service delivery relating to children, young people and their families. As for the issues Deputy McDonald has raised, my understanding is officials from the Department have met with a small number of providers operating in the north-east inner city several times regarding the national childcare scheme. I am just saying this is what I have been informed, so the Deputy may take it as she wishes, but we could follow up on it. It became apparent through this engagement that some issues arising were due to a lack of familiarity with the scheme, with some parents registering for the wrong subsidy.
On that basis the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has provided and will continue to provide additional training and support to providers through the Dublin city childcare committee in order that it can in turn advise and direct parents to better understand the operations of the scheme and the subsidies available through it. A letter issued to the committee providers on 23 July restating the offer of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth of case management support and the potential for financial supports where assessment criteria are met. A highly skilled and experienced early years specialist team from the Better Start quality development services is to work directly in a mentoring capacity with services in the north-east inner city to support quality improvement. The Dublin city childcare committee is a key resource that is supporting services in the area on matters relating to the structure of their service delivery, governance and management and optimal use of the current subsidy schemes.
The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Department are actively monitoring this issue and are committed to ensuring this scheme functions in the best interests of families and children, that the Department supports services in adjusting to this new or more progressive approach to early learning and childcare, and that State investment in the sector delivers affordable, accessible, sustainable and high-quality service provision. The Department has engaged an external consultant to review the first year of the scheme. This will include looking at its use by socioeconomically disadvantaged families and by providers serving socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. Work is also progressing on a new funding model for the early learning and childcare centre, which is being led by an expert group.
To cut to the chase, we need to engage with the providers Deputy McDonald has identified, see how this scheme is performing in meeting their requirements and see what we can do to make up the balance. It is not our objective that any child from a disadvantaged situation should lose out on childcare. I know Deputy McDonald has raised this a good few times. We need to get people around the table and just ask what are the issues here and can we get them sorted.
Deputy Gannon has been consistent in raising the issue of the very sad death of Terence Wheelock. Again, I extend my deepest sympathies to the Wheelock family for their terrible loss and the pain his tragic death still causes them. The challenges are, as the Deputy knows, that the case was subject to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and that the report of that inquiry was published by GSOC in March 2010. I also note that legal proceedings arising from these matters were settled in 2014. Both GSOC and the courts are fully independent in the exercise of their functions. It is not open to the Minister for Justice or to me to intervene or to comment on an inquiry that has been carried out by GSOC or on the outcomes of any court proceedings. The case was fully considered by GSOC. I believe the death has been the subject of legal proceedings.
I have a general view that, more generally across our system, our independent agencies should be the mechanisms by which these issues are resolved. There are no easy answers, but I am not clear as to what new mechanisms can be devised that would supersede ones we have put a lot of investment and resources into to do just that, to carry out independent investigations into the actions of An Garda Síochána, for example, in given situations. I empathise with what Deputy Gannon says but I think we need as a political system as well to have greater faith in the organisations we set up. Otherwise, we will have different types of inquiries under different Acts on an ongoing basis, and that is not-----
First, on early education and childcare, the Taoiseach and I have corresponded at this stage extensively, and I accept the Taoiseach's bona fides that nobody wants to see any disadvantaged child put in this position. I will take him up on the offer, if that is okay, of engagement in his office but also through the Minister. I thank him for that.
Second, I reiterate Deputy Gannon's call for a fresh investigation in respect of the Terence Wheelock case. It is true to say there were previous processes and procedures, but it is also true to say big questions remain, not just for the family but for the wider community.
It would be helpful if we could have political agreement that, whatever the specific mechanism, there would be at a minimum some form of review of this case. Any death in custody is extremely serious. As the Taoiseach knows, in the early 2000s there were profound concerns about places of detention, including Garda stations, and previous governments had to deal with that reality. We need to progress this issue. There will be the gathering for Terence's anniversary. This issue does not go away; it festers in the soul of a community, as we have seen in other parts of Ireland. General political agreement today that there are issues here and that they need to be reviewed, in and of itself as a first step, would be good progress.
There were two items there. I will take up the issue of the childcare question. I will ask the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, to engage with the Deputy on that and I will follow up with the Minister.
I cannot agree to any form of new inquiry today. I will make the general point that, ultimately, we have to get to a position where our existing mechanisms are ones in which we trust and whereby we say it is their duty to investigate. We can see with commissions of investigation how, even after three or four years of investigations, people are not necessarily satisfied with their outcomes, and that creates all sorts of challenges for our entire system of inquiry and investigation in regard to GSOC, commissions of investigation, tribunals of inquiry and the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement. We are now setting up a new mechanism regarding impropriety on the part of finance officials. When we create these institutions that are at arm's length and independent, we have to allow them to do their work. That is the point I am making. It is something we will have to develop but I will engage with the Deputies.