Thursday, 21 October 2021
Child and Family Agency (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I will continue the debate on the Child and Family Agency (Amendment) Bill 2021, which we commenced yesterday. I believe I had just moved the adjournment of the debate and so had not yet had the chance to say that the Labour Party is happy to support this Bill. This Bill provides for amendments that might be described as somewhat technical but which are nonetheless important. They give effect to the Taoiseach's announcement of 27 June that certain education welfare functions performed by Tusla are to return to the Department of Education. This Bill will amend the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 to provide the Minister for Education with appropriate governance and oversight of the education welfare functions performed by Tusla following the previous transfer of responsibility for those functions from the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to the Minister for Education.
We believe that, as has been acknowledged by all of those who spoke in the debate thus far, including the Minister himself, it is sensible for the Minister for Education to be provided with a direct line for policy direction and oversight of Tusla in respect of these specific functions related to education welfare. These functions cover issues such as the home-school community liaison scheme, the school completion programme and the educational welfare service. Tusla has stated that all three of these strands share the same national outcomes, these being improved attendance, participation and retention. These programmes might be described as not letting children fall through the cracks in education. That is very important.
It was welcome to hear the Minister's words on the Bill and the purpose behind it yesterday. It would also be helpful to hear from the Minister, Deputy Foley, in the near future as to how she intends to take on these new functions, although it is clear these roles will still be performed by Tusla.
I will address a number of themes that emerge from the Bill and its purpose. The first of these is the importance of smooth transitions in the transfer of functions and roles between Departments, including oversight of bodies such as Tusla by Departments. Upon the formation of this Government and the establishment of new Departments, departmental responsibilities were rejigged. That always happens after the formation of a government. Responsibilities move between different Departments. However, there is always a period of transition and this can cause serious difficulties. I have certainly been made very aware of this in the last few months by a number of constituents who have contacted my office because their children have effectively fallen through the cracks. There has been a difficulty in identifying which Department is responsible for the welfare, education or care of a given child. There can be interdepartmental issues in the case of, for example, a child with particular needs who requires support not only from HSE services, but also from Department of Education services. This can cause difficulties. The division of functions related to special education, children, disability and other responsibilities between different Departments and the transitional period arising from the transfer of significant functions between Departments has, on more than one occasion, resulted in no Department taking ownership of certain issues that arose. I have spoken with the Minister and other Ministers about particular cases in which this has happened.
I acknowledge that there is a particularly big transition under way with the disability function being transferred, to a great degree, from the Department of Health to the Minister's Department. We are also seeing certain functions of the Department of Justice that relate to children and equality transferring to his Department. It is just something we all need to be conscious of. There is potential for gaps to emerge where such big transitions are taking place within the Civil Service. Everyone would acknowledge the importance of a smooth transition and of ensuring that there are arrangements in place that make lines of responsibility clear.
Tusla is accountable to the Department of Children, Disability, Equality, Integration and Youth and to the committee that works with it, a committee on which I now sit. With this new transition under the Bill, there must be assurances that duties transferred to the Department of Education will not go without scrutiny and that there will be a smooth transition. Perhaps the Minister might address how that transition will be managed? How are these new responsibilities to be transferred to the Department of Education? How quickly can it be done? The timing of transitional arrangements is also important.
It is particularly important that we see arrangements put in place to ensure a smooth transition in this year of all years, when we have seen such an enormous impact upon children as a result of the devastating Covid pandemic. We know that, in September 2020, Tusla data showed that more than 12% of primary school children had missed more than the permissible 20 days per year. Given the prolonged closure of schools due to Covid-19 and the necessary restrictions associated with it, it is more important than ever to ensure that children do not fall behind or get lost in the system. Will the Minister speak further about the school completion programme? Does he anticipate it being affected by this change in designated responsibilities? How can we ensure that there will be a smooth transition?
I will address the issue of the impact of school closures on children in some more detail. Recent reports have shown that some 4,500 students and young people did not return to school when they reopened following Covid-19 closures last year. There is no doubt but that contained within that alarming number are vulnerable students or students facing particular disadvantage who may have become really disengaged as a result of the closures and the great difficulties so many children and students experienced in having to work from home or having to be home-schooled. The term "home-schooling" was very much a euphemism. In many households, that was very difficult to achieve. We have seen research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Economic and Social Research Institute and Trinity College Dublin, among others, which has examined the effect of school closures in Ireland and found evidence of a widening of inequality and of significant learning loss.
We have all heard from individual families and constituents about the impact of school closures on their children, in particular children with additional needs. There have been some heartbreaking stories from parents about children regressing with slowdowns and delays in reaching developmental milestones, in particular children with additional needs. That is of real concern.
Research has also identified stresses on children arising from parental unemployment due to a loss of livelihood because of the Covid pandemic. As we now have a cautious return to workplaces, we will see more difficulties with parents and households trying to manage this transition.
While the Covid learning and support scheme is most welcome, we are concerned that it does not go far enough to ensure that those young people who are most at risk of becoming and staying disengaged from school and education are supported. Temporary increases in hours are not adequate unless backed up by ongoing investment. Budget 2022 could have taken the opportunity to expand the DEIS scheme, in particular, to include more schools which could benefit from the school completion programme.
In the debates on budget 2022 we said that instead of the €500 million in tax cuts offered by the budget, the Government could have made a radical change in our education system to make it truly free, tackle literacy issues and take more sustained and targeted action to tackle educational disadvantage. In particular, I and the Labour Party education spokesperson, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, spoke about our disappointment and frustration that we did not see more done on the catch up children scheme, which we have been calling for as long ago as February. We called for investment of about €100 million, which would be necessary to ensure we truly make up to children what they have lost out on through prolonged school closures, including the loss of educational and extracurricular opportunities, such as sport and other engagement in activities that would foster their development. We do not think the Government's funding is sufficient to ensure that there is adequate catch up, in particular for children who have been most severely disadvantaged.
The funding allocated by the Government falls short by about €50 million. The funding allocated equates to just €50 per child to make up for over 18 months of disrupted learning. In the Netherlands, by comparison, €2,500 has been allocated per child. Even in Britain, despite all of the critiques most of us make of its current Government, there is an allocation of £1 billion for a catch up for children fund, equating to £85 per child.
There has been research in Ireland on the effect of school closures and the need to ensure that we make up to children what they have lost out on. We have seen similar research in other countries. In Britain, the Education Policy Institute calculated that significant investment is needed to ensure that children do not fall any further behind.
We know in Ireland the enormous role education has played in the economic progress the State has made in the past 100 years. We know that educational disadvantage and inequality lasts a lifetime and is correlated with quality of life determinants such as health outcomes. We all know it to be true that investing in the education of children cannot start early enough. I have been to the fore in calling for a Donogh O'Malley moment. The Minister might recall that 55 years ago this year, the then Minister for Education, Donogh O'Malley, made the enormous and fantastic announcement that children would be entitled to a free secondary school place and that secondary school education would become free. At the time, this was seen as a very radical and unprecedented move because until then it was thought that children only had a right to a primary school place.
Just as that radical intervention was made, which became so significant in Ireland's economic and social progress since then and in our development as a nation, we now need to see free preschool education in the same light. We need to have the same radical intervention to ensure free early years places for every child are made available and that it is just a matter of course that all our children have access to the same educational and developmental opportunities in the vital early years.
I heard from constituents across Dublin Bay South during the by-election campaign during the summer about huge issues with the provision of childcare places and the scarcity of places. As we know, crèches and childcare providers have had to close during the pandemic. Many have found it unsustainable to remain open. Even where crèches and childcare providers have stayed open, the cost to parents of those childcare places has significantly increased.
I spoke on the debate on the citizens' assembly recommendations on gender equality yesterday and referenced an email I received from a constituent who told me a crèche in my area raised its fees on the day of the budget, the very day the Government announced a very welcome new funding scheme for childcare to be put in place from next September which would tie new funding mechanisms to a commitment that crèches would not raise their fees. That announcement, while welcome, does not do anything for parents who are now facing significant hikes in fees. It does not do anything for providers who have told us it is not sustainable to keep crèches open.
I spoke to the owner of a crèche in my area who would have liked to have stayed open, and desperately wanted to stay open. They knew they were letting down parents and children who rely on the service, yet they could not see a way to remain open. We have heard from professionals and staff working in childcare how unsustainable their position is. SIPTU's Big Start campaign identified serious problems with low pay in the sector and concerns about pay driving professionals out of the sector, which contributes to the difficulty in childcare services staying open. These are real concerns.
We are failing parents and professionals and staff in the sector. We are failing providers with our current ad hocsystem which has far too high a reliance on private providers. The State effectively takes no role in guaranteeing the availability or affordability of childcare places for children. This means we are failing children. We need to move very swiftly to a new model of childcare provision in Ireland.
The Labour Party, in particular Labour Party women, have been to the fore in promoting an equal early years campaign to ensure that we have a public universal childcare system in this country. That would have a game changing effect on our society. It would have the sort of effect the Donogh O'Malley moment had 55 years ago in guaranteeing children a place in secondary school. It would have an impact not only for our children, who would be guaranteed equality of access in early years to education and preschool, but would also have a transformative effect for women, men and gender equality in Irish society.
That takes up the theme we addressed yesterday in the debate on the citizens' assembly recommendations on gender equality. We know that in Ireland we have very low participation rates of women, in particular mothers, in the workforce. All of us know in our constituencies, and family and friend groups, that many women tend to give up work, or move to part-time work, because of difficulties with accessing and affording childcare. This, coupled with our gender pay gap of 14%, is driving women out of the workforce who may wish to remain in it if they were given the necessary supports to do so. This, of course, has an impact on gender equality.
I will conclude by saying that we welcome the Bill and will support it. It is largely technical in nature. We welcome the sensible moves it makes, but there is a bigger picture around the provision of supports for children, in particular those facing the sort of disadvantages Tusla and other State agencies are seeking to address and tackle.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this important Bill.
From my experience dealing with welfare issues in respect of children, there are one or two things to note, one of which is continuity. Continuity is hugely important to the child. Children are at a very formative age and, particularly if they have had disturbances in the past, are very conscious of who they are dealing with and become very quickly alert to what the attitude is and where they are and where they are going. They therefore need reassurance. They also need continuity in respect of whatever treatment they get, whether it is psychological treatment, attention of a particular kind or education. It needs to be consistent. A psychologist once explained to me that in a child's life six months could be a very long time, the equivalent of four or five years to an adult. I think that is why when we look at it from that point of view we realise more than ever that the important things to the child are continuity, confidence in the system and recognition that the system is on the child's side and will help and support him or her and that there will be a voice to give advice and a listening, sympathetic ear in order that the child will know where he or she is going and have some idea as to what to expect in the future. One of things I have noticed over the years is that simple follow-up action, whatever that action may be and whatever is required, must be continuous and seamless and there to access through the least effort because, again, we are dealing with the welfare of a child. In some cases there may well be reticence within the home or the institution or whatever the case may be and the child may then be at a crossroads. If one thing is certain, it must be that when children have confidence that somebody is on their side, they can go forward in the clear knowledge that not everybody dislikes them and, if they have particular problems, they will get help with them. They need reassurance, and that reassurance is hugely important when it comes to making progress. Fundamental to that progress are continuity and support.
The last point I will make is about any delay. Deputy Bacik referred to this earlier in the context of Covid. Anything that interrupts the stream of the system of assistance or support or whatever else will cause a problem for the child unless that reassurance comes through again. It is important we recognise that this Bill is an improvement and will produce that continuity and ensure that that theme continues. This will happen at a time when the child is in a learning mode. There is no sense in having one part of the child's treatment in one Department and another part of the child's treatment in a different Department. It does not make for good administration, confidence or the best possible assistance to the child. It is hugely important, as we proceed from here, that the issues that might have arisen or that have arisen in the past in respect of seamlessness are addressed and, as a result of that, that the welfare of children in general will benefit. As public representatives, we come across the issues that arise fairly regularly. We may say two or three cases at a given time does not seem a lot, but to the individual households and the individual children who are affected and find themselves in those situations they are huge lifelong issues that may never go away. The manner in which their situations are treated at that time is of critical importance. I believe this Bill is the right decision and goes in the right direction and I am happy to support it. If I had other things to say, I would be only too willing to say them. I support the Bill entirely.
I wish to reinforce what my comrade, Teachta Ó Laoghaire, talked about yesterday when we were discussing this Bill and the importance of the home liaison programme and the school completion programme. The home school liaison officers often save futures and sometimes even save lives. They can be the lifeline not just for a child but for whole families and the younger siblings coming up behind the child. They can iron out even the difficult wrinkles and help the child and the school discover what both need. In certain cases they can provide support to parents who might be struggling through no fault of their own. I know of one such co-ordinator who went on to hold DIY classes and furniture making classes specifically for mothers, building community and resilience where previously those mothers were isolated. In the time of Covid, when many students have fallen behind and others are barely hanging on and have lost out in terms of the education system, these programmes and the support they bring are even more critical than usual.
It is very hard to consider the number of schools that are locked out of the system due to the failure to expand the DEIS system, especially band 2, in recent years. The Minister can therefore imagine how disappointed our party was that this lack was compounded in budget 2022, making no commitment to extend the home school liaison and the school completion programmes to more schools, given their proven capacity to change and enrich young lives. In contrast, in our alternative budget we made provision for 100 additional home school liaison co-ordinators, with €5 million in additional funding for school completion. I know from talking to teachers in north Kildare that there are concerns that students who need extra support to stay within the system and to thrive once they have done so will not be able to get it. Some 4,500 children across the State did not go back to school after the Covid closures last year, so if there were ever a time to ramp up the support for these programmes and to enhance them, that time is now. The future of so many children and young people depend on them.
It is clear there is major work to be done to support all students but especially vulnerable students who missed in-class learning during the various lockdowns. I believe technology poverty was exposed during that time as some families had an array of equipment and connectivity to choose from while other children had to take turns to do classwork or submit homework with a parent's mobile phone. When there were home offices in spacious houses with a suite of laptops, iPads and tablets to choose from, things were difficult enough. When families were confined to overcrowded conditions, often with in-laws, aunts and uncles or grandparents, the divide in our education system became more apparent, the experience for children and families in such situations even bleaker. I expect, too, that quite a number of children would have longed for school as a refuge and the dignity and safety in the well-off leafy suburbs.
I agree with my comrade, Teachta Ó Laoghaire, that the Covid learning and support scheme, CLASS, recently announced by the Minister, though welcome, is not enough and does not go far enough. The small number of additional teaching hours involved are unambitious and in no way in keeping with the breadth or depth of the need. Equally, those few teaching hours are in no way sufficient to address the effects, many of which have yet to manifest, on a child or class and will therefore need to be enhanced.
I welcome the introduction of the Child and Family Agency (Amendment) Bill 2021. The purpose of the Bill is to give full effect to the Taoiseach's announcement on 27 June 2020 that oversight of certain education and welfare functions would return to the Department of Education. Those functions, namely, the functions vested in the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth or under the Education Welfare Act 2000 and the administrative functions in respect of the administration of the home liaison scheme and the school completion programme, were transferred to the Minister for Education by the transfer of functions under SI 588 of 2020 with effect from 1 January 2021.
Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, is responsible for the delivery of these services under the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, through the Tusla education support services, TESS, and the alternative education assessment and registration service, AEARS. The Child and Family Agency Act 2013 currently provides for the governance and oversight of Tusla by the Minister for Children, in respect of all Tusla functions.
The proposed Bill will amend the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 to provide the Minister for Education with the appropriate governance and statutory oversight in respect of education welfare functions exercised by the Child and Family Agency. It will provide the Minister for Education with appropriate powers to provide policy guidance, direction and prioritisation parameters for Tusla in respect of education welfare matters. From 2021 onward, the funding for the education welfare functions performed by the Child and Family Agency is to be provided by the Minister for Education, all of which is welcome.
As noted, the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 provides for the governance and oversight of Tusla by the Minister for Children. This is also a good opportunity to consider how Tusla is working and serving the needs of Ireland's most vulnerable and families. Coincidently, the CEO of Tusla was with us at the Committee of Public Accounts this morning. One aspect that stuck out was the very high rate of turnover in frontline staff. The Minister is familiar with that. We have some 500 social workers currently in Dublin and it seems 100 of those, or about 20%, are new recruits. This very high level of turnover raises questions about the culture, management and resources within the organisation. I have no doubt that the people joining the organisation are committed to their role and do good work, but I cannot help but wonder if they are being let down by the system as a whole. In our engagement this morning, in fairness, the CEO of Tusla committed to looking at different aspects of how the organisation responds to service users. This is crucial. Given the feedback that I and other Deputies have received, certainly over the past months in this House and particularly in the height of the pandemic and during the post-pandemic period, there is big room for improvement. Are there sufficient senior social workers available to supervise and support those new staff, that 20% of new recruits I spoke of? Within An Garda Síochána, a sergeant and experienced gardaí are always on hand to support new recruits, as they usually work in pairs in the community. I do not expect the Minister to reply on this matter today but it would be good to see some comparative statistics published, and perhaps the Minister can ask his officials to review the recruitment and retention issue and send on the information if possible. Ultimately, it is the children and families who suffer where there are insufficient social workers, or where there is a high turnover of social workers.
I am personally aware of one case where a vulnerable mother is currently on her third social worker in nine weeks and has been unable to see her children in that time. She has had to retell her story of domestic abuse each time to each social worker, while wondering if she will be believed. This is simply not good practice. She has struggled to send information to Tusla as the social workers will not provide email addresses, and in one case told her no mobile number was available. This is actually contrary to what we heard from the CEO this morning at the committee, whereby every single member of front-line staff has a mobile phone. If the State is paying for that then surely there must be a better form of communication. I am happy to send on the information to the Minister, but I would be worried if this was happening on a wider scale than that.
We were also told at the committee today that social workers are not even provided with business cards by the agency. It was as if this was a revelation to the CEO. I am aware that he has only been in the role for 24 months, but this needs to change. I do not believe that such a small operational issue should need to be raised on the floor of the House, but such is the importance and simplicity of that request I feel I have to do so.
I would also like to raise the lack of family support workers in Dublin to supervise court ordered access visits. The service is under the Department of Justice via the Courts Service. These are important to de-dramatise court ordered visits and I would like to see them introduced in Dublin. I ask the Minister to raise this with his colleagues.
I would like to see more information about the research being carried out by Tusla on the outcomes of cases across various socio-economic communities to ensure equality of treatment for all children. Can copies of the reports be forwarded to the committee and if not why not?
I thank the Minister for bringing this Bill forward. It makes sense finally to move educational and welfare supports and the school completion programme back to the Department of Education. Due to the very nature of the school completion programme it should not have been under the auspices of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.
Education is an extremely valuable resource. It is a fundamentally unique and important resource that needs to be delivered based upon the requirements and the needs of the child. Only by understanding this at an official level can we ensure that the children in economic or socially disadvantaged situations can have that latent talent nurtured. If this can happen, then such potential can be tapped into and transformed into something that can prepare the child for his or her future. It can enable the child to shape that future in a way that will benefit the child throughout life.
The school completion programme is very important in ensuring that educational attainment is acquired by the young people in the different circumstances I refer to. This is an incredibly important programme for primary school children, for post-primary young people who have been identified as at risk of leaving school early, or for those who have left school early but have not transitioned into employment, training or college. The programme is aimed at stopping children and young people falling through the cracks, and especially at an age when ceasing education can have a huge impact on their future lives. It is also at an age when the capacity and potential of a child can prevent that damaging situation from occurring.
These are some of the reasons I believe the Bill to be important. The school completion programme must be child focused for it is this young person who will absorb that educational process in a way that can unlock the potential in that child. Since coming under the jurisdiction of Tusla, however, the focus of which I speak can become diluted in the overarching remit of Tusla and healthcare, and it can veer away from the child-centred and education centred approach. This can lead to situations in which a child who could otherwise have accessed the programme is not recommended a place. The Minister for Education's main focus is providing for the educational needs of children with all types of requirements and support needs, and I believe that our children must be best served by giving this level of governance and oversight of the school completion programme to the Department of Education.
While I have the opportunity I will also speak about delivering equality of opportunity in schools initiatives, DEIS, through which the school completion programme provides schools with key supports. For many schools in my constituency the DEIS programme is hugely appreciated and is seen as a very important factor in the education of children.
I have recently been in contact with the principal of a primary school in Tipperary who feels that many of the issues they face are in keeping with schools who are characterised as DEIS. That school principal is looking for support and advice in relation to becoming categorised as a DEIS school and is also anxious to see the results of the ongoing process around redefining the DEIS programme.
Schools are a fundamental part of every community in the State and, as such, engagement with these communities and updates on the progress being made in the development of a refined DEIS programme would be welcome.
Indirectly, I give that message to the Minister today. I urge the Minister for Education to engage with all stakeholders in our communities, as I believe there is a certain shortcoming in this regard.