Statements on Improving the Quality of Early Years Education: 21 January 2014

I welcome the Minister (Minster for Education Jan O’Sullivan TD) to the Seanad. She is particularly welcome as she is dealing with the issue of early years education. I know her personal commitment to and experience of the issue. The steps she made in the early days in terms of examining the early years and setting up the work she will do in this area are welcome. We have had many excellent debates in this House on the importance of the early years and I do not need to rehearse them. My colleagues have articulated the importance of early years education.

I should start with a declaration of interest. I am chair of Early Childhood Ireland, but it is a governance role. In speaking here today, I am not speaking in that role. I chair the board in the organisation in a governance role.

In her speech the Minister mentioned inspections and the importance of the inspectors she will appoint, which I welcome. It is an excellent decision. She said the inspectors will complement, not duplicate, the type of inspections carried out by the Child and Family Agency. At the moment early childhood care and education settings are inspected by Pobal and the Child and Family Agency, and will now be inspected by the Department of Education and Skills. I do not see why we need all of these inspections and different types of people doing the inspecting. It represents a mentality we have, namely, a silo effect of Government. We need to be much wider and broader.

I would welcome the Department of Education taking the lead in inspections. Would we accept multiple agencies and public health nurses inspecting the work being done in our primary and secondary schools? How many of us would say that makes sense? It does not make sense in terms of the use of public health nurses or the education and care of our children and young people.

In my experience, the Department of Education and Skills has built up a recognised and approved inspectorate. The Minister receives a lot of criticism, but it is rare that I hear criticism levelled at the inspection system. There is scope for us to examine how we develop an inspection system for early childhood care and education settings that is led by the Department of Education and Skills., and not have other Departments involved in the inspection process. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs can play an important part in the delivery and provision of settings, but we have to consider a much more co-ordinated approach. It is something I would urge the Government to reconsider.

I take the Minister at her word when she says this will complement inspections, but the reality is that I meet owners of child care settings who tell me two different inspectors will arrive, coincidentally, on the same day who are looking at slightly different things within their settings. They do not have extra staff to allocate to these inspectors. We need to be careful about what we are trying to achieve with the inspections. Are we really trying to ensure that the quality and standards improve? Are we trying to ensure that Síolta and Aistear are implemented in our child care settings or are we trying to make sure that a sink is in the right place? What are we trying to achieve with the inspections? What is the primary consideration for the inspections? I ask the Minister to go back to her colleagues in Government and ask whether we can re-examine this and find a better way.

I am greatly concerned about the investment by Government in child care settings. It is not adequate. We have to consider how we will increase it. Everybody agrees on the importance of the period from birth to six years of age, but early child care settings are only open for 39 weeks of the year. I would like to see the number of weeks provided for children in early child care and educations settings greatly extended. I would like to ensure that the staff are qualified. We will hear more in February about those who are on low and minimum wages, part-time contracts and go on the dole for the summer. One does not get paid for any non-access hours or child-free time. Teachers will get non-contact time, but those working in early child care settings do not, yet we are asking them to drive for quality while paying them the minimum wage or lower.

We have to examine how we can raise the quality bar and encourage teachers in early child care settings to get further education to be able to deliver the type of services we want to have. It is important that we build this up.

The other area of concern is children with special needs. This is not within the scope of the Minister’s Department, but the current system does not allow flexibility for children with special needs. Everybody agrees that we should extend the amount of time special needs children receive and that they would at least get a second year, as all children should get. The Department said it will have flexibility in regard to such children, but the ratios operate at a local level. A parent might know that a child with special needs can attend two or three days in a week. Nobody knows on a Monday the two or three days that will be used, so the setting has to provide the necessary staff. The State will only pay the service for the days the child attends. It does not compute.

We have to re-examine this issue because we need to ensure such children are in the system. We know early identification of special needs issues can often equip children to develop their full potential and be much more able to deal with and be part of life. We need to determine how to provide a facility whereby children with special needs and parents can feel they do not have to say they are fully in or out of the special needs early education system.

There is an issue in that the State is engaged in providing the free preschool year. I have had major debates on the issue of rates in this House, which the State sets in every county. I acknowledge that this does not come within the scope of the Minister’s Department, but it is a cost for child care facilities. In different services in different areas of the country, charges, be they rates, water charges or other charges, differ by area, yet the State decides how much a child care facility gets paid per child, the space required per child and the number of early years educators per child. It sets all these parameters and specifies that child care facilities cannot charge parents anything extra, which I support and with which I am in agreement. Different child care facilities, depending on where they are based in the country, are viable or not viable because of external costs such as rates or other charges related to the premises. This is an issue in that the State cannot say it is responsible for all these pieces, but it is responsible for the setting of rates. It is an area we need we need to revisit and in respect of which we need to look forward.

We need to ensure that we treat all children equally, and that is why I am a big supporter of the free preschool year. I would like it extended and for the State to invest more in services. As I said when we debated the Social Welfare and Pensions (No. 2) Bill, at the start of the recession we were lectured, and I use that word wisely, to the effect that it was not about cash transfers and that the way we could improve outcomes for children was by investing directly in the services and in the infrastructure to support such better outcomes. I hope, as we see an upturn in the economy, that those words will be acted on and that we will start investing in children’s health care and education and not go back to a system of cash transfers, which we know do not necessarily deliver better outcomes for children. I would encourage the Minister to say that we need a co-ordinated approach and a single system of inspection in order that it is clear both to parents and to those running child care facilities that our intention is to improve outcomes for children. I encourage the Minister in what she is trying to do and I welcome this debate.

 

Gender Recognition Bill 2014: Second Stage 21 January 2015

I very much welcome the Bill but note that Ireland has lagged behind. There are issues that concern me. Subject to the time limitations in this Second Stage debate, I will confine my intervention to three main areas of concern to me, arising out of this Bill. I say “of concern to me,” but that is not strictly true; my life will not be directly impacted by the legislation we will bring forward as a result of this process. Rather, these are deeply felt concerns of the transgender community itself, which were articulated to me by transgender young people and adults and, more generally, by transgender activists – for example, at the public hearings of the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection in October 2013. These are the voices to which we need to listen most carefully. Nobody is better placed to know what is best, more appropriate and most just in respect of the lived reality of transgender people’s lives than transgender people themselves. In that regard, I welcome our visitors to the Visitors’ Gallery. Part of me wishes we were switching who is actually debating this Bill and who is listening to this debate. I am sure some of my colleagues would share that wish.

In researching this area, I was most impressed with the Maltese approach to this issue. It has yet to be finalised but it is taking a very people-centred, lived-lives approach whereby the major focus of consultation is with the transgender community itself in developing the legislation. I was also very interested to learn that in Malta there is no requirement to register a baby’s gender at birth, nor is a gender disclosure required in applying to schools.

I want compliment TENi, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, Amnesty International, FLAC, and, particularly, my colleague Senator Zappone. We have been extremely well briefed on the issues before us. I have listened to the interventions and I really support what all my colleagues have said, so I really hope we can do good work on Committee Stage.

The issues about which I have concerns include the single status requirement as a precondition for gender recognition and its implications for transgender people, happily married or in a civil partnership – my colleagues have explored that issue – and the current medical criteria, which medicalise and pathologise gender identity and act as a barrier to gender recognition through an unnecessarily onerous process and which actually fail to meet the standard as laid out in the Yogyakarta principles that such procedures should be efficient, fair and non-discriminatory and respect the dignity and privacy of the person concerned. I do not understand why we need to put these very unnecessary and onerous hoops in place.

The third area of concern to me – several colleagues from across the House have mentioned this issue, so I hope we can make progress on this issue – relates specifically to young transgender people. On this point, I believe we have serious work to do in upholding and respecting our international human rights obligations to children under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 2 relates to non-discrimination, Article 3 relates to the best interests of the child, Article 6 relates to the right to life survival and development of the child, and Article 12 relates to the voice of the child and the protection of privacy. The UN convention speaks to me so much about many of the issues raised with me by those in the transgender community.

In this Bill, no account whatsoever has been given to inter-sex youths. There is no process for them to have their preferred gender identified. Furthermore, there is no legal protection for transgender children under the age of 16. We can think of cases where people are not in agreement, but what about situations where everyone is in agreement and where the six-year-old boy has clearly articulated his gender identity and his parents, friends and family all agree on his gender identity? As is the case at the moment, is this young child really going to be forced to go through a girls’ school wearing a girl’s uniform in order for him to access education available in his locality? Whose best interest are we serving? Surely, in this Bill, we could do something for that young person. In this Bill, we are saying we will bring in the process at 16 years. I would not advise anybody to go through that medicalised process. I do not understand it and I do not see why we are doing it. If one applies for a college place, one’s gender identity is assigned to one. We have to go further.

We have an opportunity here to bring in a law. We are probably talking about a handful of young people, but we can go further, which I will explore more on Committee Stage. As said by my colleague Senator Hayden, and as Sam Blanckensee said earlier, this goes beyond birth certificates. This is about real lives and it has a real impact, and we can do more in this House.

 

Statements on Direct Provision 22 January 2015

I hope the Minister of State has a little bit of latitude given the lack of Members in the House. We are approaching the 15th anniversary of the system of direct provision, a system that places asylum seekers apart and away from the community in conditions described by some as warehousing and others, who have made their way out, as open prisons. Therefore, it is not an anniversary that any of us here are celebrating. I welcome the Minister of State’s willingness to come to the House and debate the issue and his statements on the issue.

 

The significant length of time that asylum seekers and their children may have to stay in direct provision centres is something that I have raised consistently in this House along with many of my colleagues, most recently in the context of the Immigration (Reform) (Regularisation of Residency Status) Bill, initiated by my colleague, Senator David Norris, and I in October 2014. While we were not successful in our endeavour since our efforts on that date, I note that the Irish Refugee Council and Doras Luimní have published a joint proposal for a one-off scheme to clear the existing and significant asylum backlog, and I am happy to support that initiative.

 

There have been some welcome developments in recent months such as the assurances from the Minister for Justice and Equality that the International Protection Bill will be published by the end of January. I am sure the Minister of State is confident of the input and expertise he can expect from this House in shaping the most robust, fair, accountable and transparent system for protection status determination as possible.

 

I also very much welcome the appointment of the working group to examine improvements in the protection process and direct provision system, and it is on its work that I will focus. I noted with concern when reading the terms of the working group that the first proviso for the recommendations for improvements to be brought forward by the group states that “in light of the budgetary realities, the overall cost of the protection system to the taxpayer is reduced or the remains within or close to current levels”. The current system of direct provision is rampant with human rights breaches. While I do not need to remind the Minister of State, I would remind the Government of the position maintained by the international human rights fora that a state’s obligation towards the promotion and protection of human rights is not diminished by economic and financial crisis.

 

Like many, I eagerly await the recommendations of each of the three thematic groups, but I would be particularly interested to see the outcome from the theme two Group, which will deal with improved supports. There are a number of issues which I have raised repeatedly. One is access to education opportunities. I have long decried the fact that with no current prospects for post-secondary education, we are effectively hitting the pause button on young asylum seekers’ lives. I meet them all too often and see that the light has gone out because there is no hope for them within that system. Another issue is access to the labour market. Ireland is the only country in Europe not to have signed up to the Recast Receptions Conditions Directive. I have yet to be presented with convincing evidence of the pull factor so desperately feared with respect to allowing asylum seekers access the labour market, but I have spoken to enough individuals trapped in the asylum system who have spoken of the devastating impact of enforced and prolonged idleness on their family dynamics, self-esteem and mental health to know that the human price paid is far higher than the cost of this so-called pull factor. There is scope to increase the weekly allowance paid to residents and children, which has not increased in 15 years, and with no entitlement to discretionary social protection supports, in effect we see many living in poverty and not being able to have the same, or even near the same, opportunities as other children. We hear it from teachers in primary schools that are accommodating children from the direct provision system.

 

A feature of the issues that will be dealt with by the theme one group, and I still cannot understand why we cannot do something about this within a matter of days or weeks, is the putting in place of a complaints process available to residents. I am baffled and utterly disappointed there is still no independent complaints mechanism in place. The Minister of State mentioned the judgment from Mr Justice Colm Mac Eochaidh where he found that the Reception and Integration Agency’s complaints procedure was not sufficiently independent due to the fact that the RIA is the final arbitrator in the process. I have tried to put myself in their position, and I trust the system, but bearing in mind that there is nobody independent in place, I would find it very difficult if I was put in their position to trust that system without the willingness to have an independent complaints mechanism. For example, the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, includes a provision in section 69 for referral of complaints to the Ombudsman for Children’s office. We all trust in the State but Child and Family Agency still has an independent complaints mechanism. In 2012, the Minister for Justice and Equality was able, by way of ministerial order or statutory instrument, to give effect to a decision to extend the remit of complaints for children in prisons. That was done literally overnight. I know there was a lot of preparation work beforehand, but it was able to be done to ensure that the Ombudsman for Children could take complaints from children in St. Patrick’s Institution. Since then, complaints have been made, but it is nowhere near opening the floodgates, which was the argument used. It has not happened in the case of St. Patrick’s. It is the final arbiter, so I ask why it is not in place. I find it unacceptable that the RIA says it will be the final arbiter of its own work.

 

Another matter under theme one about which I have a concern is catering facilities in direct provision centres. In so far as I understand, direct provision centres were originally self-catering – or at least, self-catering step-down facilities were provided in order to prepare successful asylum seekers for independent living. These facilities have effectively been closed over the years. Is self-catering regarded as a pull factor? Is it a deliberate policy of the RIA to close these self-catering units? The official line from RIA is that the policy is supported by the value-for-money report carried out in 2010 and that it was done purely based on economic considerations. I do not accept this, because the value-for-money report did not consider the health and social inclusion costs for asylum seekers – their physical, mental and psychological health. I refer to Dr. Bernard Ruane, who spoke to colleagues at the Irish Medical Organisation conference in 2008. Dr. Ruane said there was a 90% rate of depression among asylum seekers who have been here for six months. He identified their cramped living conditions and the prohibition on working as factors contributing to their depression. We must be mindful of this point.

 

The Minister of State will know that I could say so much more on this topic. With regard to child protection concerns, I implore the Minister of State to be cognisant of the findings of Dr. Carol Coulter and team’s second interim report on the child care law reporting project. She found that social exclusion, poverty, isolation and disability were common features among the mothers and fathers facing court proceedings, and there is an acknowledgement that minority groups, including asylum seekers, are thus particularly vulnerable. This concern is supported because in one in four cases she examined at least one parent was either a member of an ethnic minority, an asylum seeker or a member of the Traveller community. This prevalence is evident. I ask the Minister of State why we are not seeing more action from the National Action Plan Against Racism. It seems as though the plan has been shelved.

I would like to say a lot more, but those are my points for now. I ask why we cannot do something now about the complaints mechanism.

The Lancet

In July 2021, Jillian co-authored an article in the world-renowned medical journal “The Lancet”