Statements on Early Child Care

I start with a declaration of interest. I am chair of Early Childhood Ireland, but it is a governance role. The Minister is very welcome to the House to discuss this issue. I applaud him for the work he is doing in setting up an interdepartmental group on future investment in child care. It is very encouraging to see the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs taking ownership of and showing leadership in the area.

I was surprised recently when I saw a map of the State, Department and agencies involvement developed by Mr. Thomas Walsh of NUI Maynooth. The list was large and I wonder about resources and costs, purely on the State side. That issue needs to be re-examined to ensure the system is streamlined. The map is an exemplar of the role of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, for which I applaud it. The role of the Minister is to co-ordinate and bring people together and to fulfil the missions of the strategy of the Government in Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures.

I hope the template will give us all an agreed map in order that we can declare where we need to go to. Difficult choices will have to be made, but at least we can agree at last what needs to happen. Parallel to this, as the Minister will be aware, the Joint Committee on Health and Children is having hearings on this issue. Deputy Sandra McLellan is our rapporteur, under the excellent chairmanship of Deputy Jerry Buttimer. The hearings have started and last week Early Childhood Ireland, Start Strong, the NWCI and the Children’s Rights Alliance came before the committee to set the scene for the issue. We have already had a good debate.

I want to discuss special needs and additional needs, which came up at the hearings last week. I mentioned the fact that the Department of Education and Skills provides more than 6,500 SNAs in primary schools, yet, apart from some local resources, none is allocated to children in early years education. I know that very often the focus is, correctly, on a child with needs, but we all know, and it was stated in the hearings last week, that the importance of inclusion and mainstreaming for all children in a setting cannot be overestimated. What came out of it was that perhaps the special needs assistant model is not the right model, so I hope the Minister is examining other models. It was about how they could access resources to support children in order that they were included in the settings and about adequately resourcing the preschool setting to include and mainstream the child rather than having a shadow with the child, . I advise the Minister to examine some of the answers we received from the organisations at that hearing.

What also came out very strongly from each of the organisations that presented was the importance of the first year of the child’s life, and that we must do everything we can to ensure this first year is at home. This came from all the organisations and it is something I ask the Minister to bring into his consideration. Perhaps over time, as we are trying to be ambitious, the Minister could look at how we ensure we have maternity and paternity leave. In Sweden either parent must take three months of the leave and it is up to them to work out how it is done. We need to look more inventively at this.

I strongly urge the Minister to ensure any money allowed goes into investment and not into cash transfers. We do not have to look too far back in history in this regard. The early child care supplement was withdrawn by the former Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, and the free preschool year was started at the beginning of the recession. I am hugely surprised to see that Fianna Fáil has gone back to tax credits in its plans. For me it is about investment. I urge the Minister to examine this.

 

Private Members Motion: One Parent Families

I welcome the Tánaiste. It is with pride that I second the motion. The result of inadequate income for many one-parent families is food poverty, fuel poverty, over-indebtedness, difficulty with education-related costs, cutting out extra-curricular activities and children’s hobbies, living in poor quality housing, risk of homelessness, and homelessness. The latest SILC data for 2013 revealed that in lone parent households, the at-risk-of-poverty rate was 31.7%, the deprivation rate was 63.2% and the consistent poverty rate was 23%.

The particular and distinct vulnerability of this group is further shown by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul which has confirmed that one-parent families constitute one of the major groups to which it provides services. The financial assistance the Society of St. Vincent de Paul provides is connected with their low and inadequate incomes, particularly those in receipt of one-parent family payment. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has advised that despite incredibly careful budgeting, there simply is not enough money in the house, and they find they need a payment to buy food or meet the costs of school, energy and housing.

Parents who work part-time find that their pay is low and unlikely to rise significantly as they often have low educational levels because of the situation they are in. Child care is an issue in terms of cost of child care and the salaries for those working in child care because all too often jobs that are considered to be women’s work get lower rates of pay.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul also supports both two and one-parent homeless families that are in emergency hotel accommodation, in the majority of cases because of the major shortage in social housing or having been pushed out of the unregulated monopolistic private rental sector where market rate far exceeds rent supplement caps and where the housing assistance payment is only available from selected housing authorities. That is an issue that differs around the country.

Society of St. Vincent de Paul volunteers report that their members are finding that the move from one-parent family payment to the jobseeker’s transition allowance is causing them considerable uncertainty and fear, particularly among those who have received the letter from the Department. This is something I found repeatedly as I talked to groups in preparation for this debate.

The proposed changes regarding the one-parent family payment have also caused considerable stress, upset and confusion with Doras Buí, a community-development organisation centre that provides high quality supports and services to one-parent families living in the Coolock area of Dublin. That organisation outlined some of its concerns. Obviously a major cause of concern is the provision of adequate, quality and affordable child care in that area. It claims that the provision of the after-school subvention scheme is not adequate. First, not all private child care providers have taken up this scheme and many parents are unable to find a provider to collect their child from their school. It is great to say that one has the scheme in one place and the child somewhere else, but how is the child supposed to get to the scheme? Second, the subsidised scheme only lasts for 52 weeks. What are parents to do after the first year of the scheme finishes? The Department has advised parents to contact their child care committee after this time.

Many parents have expressed concerns regarding their current working arrangements and qualifying conditions for jobseeker’s allowance. Some are working ten to 15 hours per week, broken down to two to three hours per day for five days, in order to fit around child care arrangements. While working these hours, they do not qualify for jobseeker’s allowance because they work for more than three days per week. Many parents and their employers are not in a position to increase working hours to at least 19 hours, which would allow parents to be eligible for FIS and the back to work dividend. Another example has been clearly illustrated by the Dunnes Stores workers who work 15 hours per week. We see the precarious position they have been put in. A person may be called in to work thinking they might have five hours, and organise child care on that basis, only to go in to find out they have one hour of work.

Due to the current housing crisis and the lack of social housing, many lone parents are in receipt of rent supplement. Under the conditions of rent allowance a recipient cannot work more than 30 hours per week, so we are moving up the scale. If they do, they lose their rent supplement, so parents are left with a choice between working full time and keeping their home.

While there are child care education and training support programmes available for parents who are studying a FETAC level 5 course to help towards the cost of further education, there is no such funding for parents who want to go to degree level. This is limiting their education choices, which in turn limits their ability to gain full-time well paid employment.

I will end by mentioning a lone parent involved in Doras Buí who asked me to share her story with the House. Her name is Leanne and she is a single mother of one. She says:

The new changes in the One Parent Family Payment will really affect me in a bad way. My son turns 7 years old on the 14th of July, so this will affect me immediately. My son has been diagnosed with ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder and takes daily medication. I attend monthly and sometimes weekly appointments in the Mater CAMHS hospital. I am currently working part time and I face a drop of 70/80 euro a week, basically between 280/320 a month. This is a huge stress on a lone parent like me, trying to better myself for my son by getting out and working part time and this strain is unbelievable. I attend counselling over these stresses. I cannot work full time as I don’t have a minder for my child and with these changes I won’t be able to afford one any time soon.

This really illustrates how a number of factors that I have tried to demonstrate come together and compound this downward spiral at a time when we should be supporting and lifting up lone parents and giving them the opportunities we say we wish to give them. I cannot see the evidence of investment in child care and after-school care. There has been investment, but there are no guidelines, no clear structures and no regulations, so the reality is that when people try to access services, be they housing or employment, all these obstacles are in the way. We really need to tackle this issue to lift lone parents and their children out of poverty.

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.

 

27 March 2014: Quarterly Meeting of the Joint Committee on Health and Children and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald TD

Questions submitted in advance by Senator Jillian van Turnhout and response received:

Question 9: Figures in relation to Special Care Placement.

Question 10: EU Commission Recommendation ‘Investing in Children: Breaking the cycle of disadvantage’.

Question 11: Amendment to Childcare Act 1991.

 

Question 9: Figures in relation to Special Care Placement

To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to provide the most up-to date figures on the following, in relation to Special Care Placements:

a)   What is the current waiting list for Special Care Placement?

As of 11th March 2014, there was one young person waiting for a special care placement. There have been ten admissions to Special Care since 1st January of this year.

 

b)   How many applications have been made to date since the beginning of 2013?

From 1st January 2013 to 5th March 2014 there were 116 special care applications – 22 of these applications were re-referrals.

 

c)    How many of these applications were successful?

Forty applications were successful, 27 were withdrawn or removed by the relevant Social Work Department, 46 were not approved and there were three in 2014 where further information had been sought and a decision has not yet been made. A Social Worker making an application for a Special Care place will also work to put in place other supportive mechanisms for the child while they await the outcome of the application. Where it is found that the alternative supports are meeting the needs of the child without the necessity of detaining the child for his/her own safety, the preference is to continue with the alternative programme. Where a child has been sentenced to detention in a Detention School, the child’s application for Special Care is withdrawn.

There is an appeals process available to Social Workers if they disagree with the decision where a child’s application to Special Care was unsuccessful. The Social Worker will also consider the Care Plan for the child and make other arrangements to find the most appropriate placement for that child. An unsuccessful application does not preclude the Social Work Department from applying at any other stage, especially in light of a child’s needs changing.

 

d)   How many State provided places are there in mainstream residential care and

e) How many are provided by Private Providers?

All Special Care placements in Ireland are operated by the Child and Family Agency and placements are under the direction of the High Court. There are no private providers of Special Care Services in Ireland, however some children with complex needs are placed out of State.

More generally, in December 2013 there were 142 Children’s Residential Centres in operation throughout the country; 47 of which were Agency-managed; 28 were run by the voluntary Sector; and 67 were operated by private providers.  These centres are typically found in domestic homes in housing estates, on the outskirts of towns and villages. The centres typically have between three and six children. These children are usually in their teens.  There is always some flux in placements available as services adapt to meet the needs of the resident children.

In December 2013, there were 356 children in care placed across the different types of residential care. Of these there were 143 children placed in the 67 privately run centres.

 

f)    What is the allocated budget for private provision?

The cost of the provision of mainstream residential placements in the privately-owned children’s residential centres for 2013 was approximately €50m. To date private placements have been commissioned on the basis of a child’s needs which will influence staffing ratio, the need for live-staff at night and additional supports to the child in the placement. There has been a consistent and predictable spend in respect of this type of residential provision, which reflects demand.

Significant work is under way within the Agency to secure the most appropriate and cost-effective care for children in the different settings in which they are accommodated. In early 2012 the HSE’s Children and Family Services undertook a tendering campaign to secure 80 places at a cost of €18.7 m per annum or €4,500 per place purchased for a two year period (extendible for a further two years if required). This arrangement will be for children whose needs can be met in a centre caring for 3 or 4 children. The process is now complete and contracts are currently being awarded in respect of 2014. It is estimated that the procurement arrangements utilised will reduce the spend in this area by €3.9m in 2014.

Any additional places that will be required will be purchased on an individual basis and in some cases may be more expensive where bespoke placements are commissioned for young people with particularly challenging needs.

The Agency has been working to increase value for money in this area by, as outlined above, seeking to promote cost effectiveness within the different options available and also moving to fostering where appropriate.

The Agency intends to undertake a centre activity audit of all aspects of residential care in 2014, and this will allow for a level of comparison of cost of placement across private and public group children’s centres and individual placement arrangements.

 

Question 10: EU Commission Recommendation ‘investing in children: breaking the cycle of disadvantage’.

To ask the Minister what action the Government is taking to implement the EU Commission Recommendation (20 February 2013) Investing in children: breaking the cycle of disadvantage, concerning child poverty and well-being and, having acknowledged that tackling poverty requires a whole-of-Government approach, will DCYA carry out a social impact assessment on any fiscal adjustments in Budget 2015 and onwards?

Ireland, led by the Department of Children & Youth Affairs (the first such Department in any EU member state), is committed to improving the lives and experiences of Ireland’s children and young people.

Many of the actions being implemented by this Government are in line with the EU Commission recommendation on ‘Investing in Children’ which was adopted by the Council of Ministers in 2013. These actions include:

·     Protecting and enhancing children’s rights on foot of the decision of the people in the Children’s Referendum 2012;

·     Improving child protection, welfare and family support services through the newly established Child & Family Agency;

·     Implementation of the recently-reviewed Youth Homelessness Strategy;

·     Continuing to be a world leader in both the areas of children’s participation (through the national Dáil na nÓg and local Comhairle na NÓg model); and childhood research (through the ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ longitudinal study and ‘State of the Nation’s Children’ reports).

Tackling Child Poverty

The EU recommendation on ‘Investing in Children’ includes a significant focus on tackling child poverty, referencing the ‘setting of national targets for reducing child poverty’ and access to quality services.

The draft National Policy Framework for Children & Young People, which is being prepared by my Department and which is due to be considered by Government shortly, currently includes a commitment to address child poverty.

With respect to services, my Department is responding through initiatives such as establishment of the Child & Family Agency (with an enhanced focus on prevention, early intervention and family support) and the roll-out of the €30m Area Based Childhood (ABC) Programme.

 

Early Years/Childcare

The EU recommendation on ‘Investing in Children’ recognises the importance of early childhood education and care. The EU Commission has set a target of member states having at least 95% of four year olds in pre-school. Ireland is in compliance with this target through provision of the free pre-school year.

The EU recommendation on ‘Investing in Children’ also recognises the importance of access to affordable childcare. In this context I announced a review of existing targeted childcare schemes to consider how best to structure future childcare support, to both support working families and to incentivise labour market activation, which could be expanded to more families as resources allow.

Delivering improvements in quality standards and staff qualifications is a critical precursor to any future expansion of universal childcare provision and/or Government supports. I have prioritised implementation of an eight-point Quality Agenda, and there has been significant and unprecedented progress in the implementation of this agenda over the past eight months. This will continue in 2014 with establishment of landmark new National Quality Support Service, which is being seen a significant development in the context of developing EU policy.

 

Social impact assessment

In February 2012, the Government decided to develop an integrated social impact assessment to strengthen implementation of the new national social target for poverty reduction and to facilitate greater policy coordination in the social sphere.

Work in the area of social impact assessment is being led by the Department of Social Protection. A social impact assessment of Budget 2014 was published in February 2014 by that Department.  My own Department liaises regularly with the Department of Social Protection to ensure a child-centred approach informs such assessments and consequently provides learning to use in the development of our policy and service responses for children.

 

Question 11: Amendment to Childcare Act 1991.

 

Can the Minister provide a timeline for the delivery of the legislation to amend the Child Care Act, 1991, to provide a statutory right to the preparation of an aftercare plan for eligible young people leaving care and will the Minister consider extending this statutory support to young people leaving detention, as they often present with very similar needs?

The amendment to the Child Care Act 1991 to strengthen the aftercare provisions for children in care was approved by Government on 25 February 2014 for publication, and has been submitted to this Committee for its consideration.

I understand that the Committee plans to consider the matter during the month of April. Following the Committee’s deliberations the text of the amendment may need to be refined in conjunction with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, after which a timeframe for the progression of the legislation will be discussed and agreed with the Houses of the Oireachtas. I am very appreciative of the work of the Joint Committee and the contribution of the members.

Regarding children leaving detention, on average approximately one third of such children normally would have care orders and so would, in the main, be required to have an aftercare plan prepared by the Child and Family Agency.

At present, the mechanism for supervision of a child post-release from a sentence of detention (other than those who were in the care of the Child and Family Agency) is by the Probation Service if the courts impose a “detention and supervision” (i.e. in the community) order at conviction stage. Extending the right to an aftercare plan to all children completing a sentence of detention would require significant and detailed examination by officials in the relevant units of my Department, and the relevant other Departments and agencies involved, before any recommendations in relation to the matter might be formulated.

Early Child Care Education Standards: Statements

Thursday, 30th May 2013

I warmly welcome the Minister to the House. The purpose of my request for her to address us was twofold. The first was to give confidence to the public, particularly to parents, which I believe she has done in her statement. The second was to send a strong message to her Cabinet colleagues about the importance of this issue – this needs to be a wake-up call. Yesterday during the Order of Business we all got plenty of time to voice our concerns over the images we saw. Today I want to move beyond that shock and talk about our role as legislators. The Minister has spoken today about the importance of the registration system, having sanctions and amending the Child Care Act, on which she will have the support of the House.

The responsibility of management has not received sufficient focus. The researcher on the “Prime Time” programme in some cases reported issues to members of management, who did not see the need to take action until they knew they would be exposed on television. That indicates a more systemic problem in that they did not believe they needed to take action on the basis of reports from one of their workers.
I welcome the Minister’s assurance that not only is the Garda investigating this, but that the HSE is following up as appropriate. I welcome the fact that she will publish the inspection reports. I agree with her that parents should ask for inspection reports if they wish to see them. However, there is an issue with facilities that have not been inspected. We have that heard some facilities have gone four years without an inspection. We need to prioritise the inspection of any child-care setting that has not been inspected within the past 12 months.

I agree with the Minister that we need to pay attention to relationships when the inspection is taking place. There has been too much emphasis on the physical environment and not on the learning environment and the relationship environment.

We need to invest in children and not concrete. The Minister referred to Síolta, the national quality framework, Aistear, the national curriculum, and the 2010 workforce development plan. Hopefully we will shortly have the early years strategy. I regard them as four wheels on a good car. We will have all the parts, but we need the engine to drive it forward and we need the investment to do that. I was alarmed at a report in The Irish Times this morning. There has been much talk about cost and whether this will place a greater burden on parents. The report showed a chart of public expenditure on preschool care and education as a percentage of GDP. Ireland spends less than 0.2%. France spends 1.5% of its GDP on early years education, the UK spends 1.1%, and New Zealand spends 1%. Belgium was closest to us at 0.7%. There is an issue with our expenditure as a percentage of GDP. Instead of investing in concrete, we should invest in our children and in childhood.

The National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012 has been mentioned. I tabled amendments – supported by Childminding Ireland – to provide that where there is regular payment for a service those involved should be vetted.

The Minister has said the Children First Bill will be published shortly. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. The committee had the opportunity to examine the heads of the Bill last summer. Representatives of many different organisations appeared before the committee to share their viewpoints. At the time – I seek the Minister’s reassurance today – the heads of the Bill proposed that emotional abuse would not be included under its provisions. In the Minister’s description of the “Prime Time” programme she talked about emotional abuse. I believe this issue is critical. Many members of the committee and all the representatives of NGOs who came in said that emotional abuse needed to be included and that the provisions should not be limited to dealing with physical neglect and sexual abuse. I hope that one of the achievements of the programme will be that emotional abuse is covered in the Children First legislation.

There is much we could do. We have already had discussions in the Seanad on early years education and intervention. We know the workforce contains some really excellent people, but if they are not being paid well as a profession – that is where the investment needs to be – how can we expect further education and training to take place?

There are many issues. I welcome the fact that the Minister has come to the House for this debate. As I am conscious that many others wish to speak, I will conclude, but I have so much more I would like to say on the issue.

Order of Business, 29 May 2013

Wednesday, 29th May 2013

Anybody who had the opportunity to watch the RTE investigation unit’s broadcast of “A Breach of Trust” last night found it extremely difficult and disturbing. It was unimaginable for parents with children at the locations in question. I e-mailed the Cathaoirleach earlier this morning to invoke Standing Order 30. I seek the adjournment of the Seanad to deal with a motion on a specific and important matter of public interest that has arisen suddenly. Senators know their Standing Orders off by heart.

The reason I have invoked the Standing Order is that it allows for a debate of up to an hour and a half. All Senators have concerns about this issue. I had hoped in the lead-in to the “Prime Time” programme that what would be described would be once-off bad practice. Having watched the programme, however, I noted several instances of maltreatment and emotional abuse at the three locations. For me, it raised some serious child protection concerns. The researcher in each case had reported to management, but no action was taken. Obviously, the programme focused on specific crèches, on which there had been bad reports. A serious question must be asked. Why did it require an RTE investigation unit to expose what was happening?

There has been considerable debate about the quality of child care and investment in child care. We should also focus on child protection. I want to be assured that action will be taken by the HSE and the Garda, where appropriate. The HSE should publish the inspection reports without delay. We need to ensure child care places that have not been inspected within the past 12 months will be inspected immediately. The Children First Bill was launched in April 2012 and the Joint Committee on Health and Children considered the heads. The legislation needs to be published and enforced to ensure there will be a statutory obligation to report a child protection concern. We need to invest in workforce development. These are just starting points for debate. The HSE child and family services have answers to give to us, not just on quality assurance. For me, what has occurred is not good enough and is unacceptable. I hope we can have a debate on this matter of urgent public interest.

Order of Business, 27 March 2013

Wednesday, 27th March 2013

On behalf of the Independent group of Senators, I pay tribute to and thank Jimmy Walsh. As I will have only been a Member for two years in May next, my memories of Jimmy do not go back as far as those of other speakers. However, I used to read Jimmy’s accounts of Seanad proceedings before I entered the Oireachtas and had the opportunity to meet the legend. I thank him most sincerely for his advice and the insights he gave me in the corridors of Leinster House. His journalistic skills are clear. He is able to get to the heart of an issue and understand what speakers are driving at. He has given me great encouragement in my work as a Senator, including, on occasion, to press a little harder on certain issues as perhaps I seek consensus a little too much. We will, however, leave that issue for another discussion. Even in the relatively short time I have known Jimmy, I feel I have made a real friend, someone who will give critical advice but also explain in his newspaper articles what takes place in the House. I echo the tributes paid to him.

The issues of insolvency and early childhood education and care must be decoupled. The latter is about the child, not the status of his or her parents or whether they are working. We need to decouple these issues and discuss them separately.

On the issue of direct provision, last Saturday The Irish Times featured an excellent article by Breda O’Brien under the title “Inhumane asylum seeker system needs radical reform”. A letter by Dr. Joan Giller in today’s edition of the same newspaper is a must-read for all of us as it provides a marvellously accurate account of the harrowing system of direct provision offered in this country. Given that Dr. Giller has worked in direct provision accommodation since 2007, her comments are not hearsay. I have raised the issue of direct provision several times, primarily on the Adjournment, and recently took it upon myself to visit the direct provision accommodation in Hatch Hall as well as a site in Athlone located behind a Department of Education and Skills building which houses 100 mobile homes for asylum seekers. I was accompanied by Senators Fiach Mac Conghail and Katherine Zappone.

I refer to the work done on this issue by a group of committed Senators from all parties and none. As such, this not a party political issue. I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on the system of direct provision, in particular, to address the appropriateness of direct provision for the welfare and development of the 1,725 children who have been in the system not for one or two months, but several years. When we speak of institutionalising people, we should not forget this is being done now. I call for the establishment of an independent complaints mechanism and inspection system for direct provision centres. The Government’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection called for such a system to be introduced one year ago. Let us debate and face up to this issue as it can no longer be tolerated. Will we wait for another 20 years to have another Ryan report published, this time on direct provision?

Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2013

Wednesday, 13th February 2013

The Minister is welcome, as always, to the House. Having regard to the children’s rights referendum, as I have said here previously, I applaud, commend and congratulate the Minister on delivering on the Government’s promise. When I was on the referendum trail, as many of us were, I listened to the concerns of many parents on the doorsteps, on the streets and at public meetings. We cannot ignore that some of the “No” voters spoke of concerns about how they have been treated or how they perceive they would have been treated in past, would be treated now or in the future and some of those concerns were based on reality and some were based on perception. In addressing these concerns, I stress the significance of the Department’s decision to improve the social services system by removing child welfare and protection from the remit of the HSE and moving it into a dedicated new agency, the Child and Family Support Agency. I assure parents that the new agency will focus on early and accountable intervention that supports better outcomes for children and families and that will work to keep families together, which is something we all want to do where possible.

The Minister’s Department published the Report of the Task Force on the Child and Family Support Agency in July last year. I have asked the Leader of the House on a number of occasions if we could debate that. The Bill will be produced shortly and I ask the Minister to outline when it will be produced but I am also cognisant of the fact that the agency will have 4,000 staff and that it has a budget of €545 million. Many of us could make an impromptu speech about the failings of the system at present and we all want to get it right. We should have a debate on the remit, resources and vision for the new agency to help frame that Bill. I ask the Minister to give consideration to having a debate on it in the House perhaps prior to the publication of the Bill because this is an issue on which we could have a consensus in the House in that we that we all want to work together on it.

I wholeheatedly support this Bill and welcome the initiative the Minister has taken in bringing it forward. The making of care orders under the Child Care Act 1991 is a very important function of the District Court in the interests of the child welfare and protection. Care orders are made where the District Court, upon the application of the Health Service Executive, is of the opinion that a child has been or is being assaulted, ill treated, neglected or sexually abused, or where a child’s health, development or welfare have been or is being avoidably impaired or neglected or the child’s health development or welfare is likely to be avoidably impaired or neglected. A care order allows the child to be placed or maintained in the care of the executive pending the making of a full care order. Ordinarily the first step in the process, as the Minister said, is an emergency care order, which can last up to eight days, followed by an interim care order, which, under the current arrangements, is only extended by a maximum of eight days in the absence of parental consent. We know that, in the interests of logic and practicality, District Court judges have recently – I believe it was the beginning of last year, under the recent direction of the President of the District Court- stopped granting 28-day extensions of interim care orders in cases where the necessary consent has not been provided. I welcome that the Government has put forward the amendments in order to give the clarity that is necessary because I believe this was always the intention. These amendments are urgently required to remedy the impractical and counter-productive nature of the maximum eight-day extension without consent in terms of finding and working towards an appropriate solution for children in the cases in question.

The current system of returning to court every eight days to extend an interim care order – especially since extensions are practically always granted, I have talked to many solicitors working in the area about this – is not in the best interests of children and their families. The reality is that it creates insecurity for the child who knows he or she is being discussed in the court every week. One is over one court case and into the next one. It places an increased burden on parents that these cases are before the District Court every week and no time is given for consideration to work towards a solution. It means that social workers, team leaders and solicitors are in court waiting around all day to justify the continuation of the order only to return one week later again and again for the same case. This seriously undermines the time and resources available to social workers and team leaders who need to focus on the care and best interests of the child. It incurs an excessive and unnecessary cost for the HSE and the Courts Service. It creates unmanageable court lists and there are considerable blockages in the system.

I wholeheartedly support the Bill. The benefits of it are that it will move the focus to the best interests of the child because it will free-up the time of social workers who are most important in this process and also other people involved in the HSE towards looking at the best interests of the child. There will be significant cost savings. It will mean that the courts will be able to deal with the cases that are necessary to be dealt with. It will also mean that there will be certainty and security for the child concerned and that he or she will know that this is what will happen. The emergency care orders are there for a reason but here we are talking about interim care orders. It will move the focus to working to find a solution that is in the best interests of the child and it will rebalance the focus from going to court to managing a positive outcome in the case. That is where the focus should be.

I support the Minister bringing into line the 28-day extension to 29-days because it makes sense to have one day and one could say this is the day in question and it also ensures there is clarity and consistency which will greatly benefit the management of court lists. I thank the Minister for this. It is excellent that she has brought forward this Bill. Many people are waiting for it to come through and hopefully it will relieve a lot of time for those involved.

Community and Voluntary Sector – Statements, Questions and Answers

9th November 2011

I wholeheartedly agree with what Senator Zappone said and will not duplicate it. I cite the exemplar, which I believe goes across the board, of the scheme to support national organisations in the community and voluntary sector. We all appreciate that we are in a time of cuts. However, to try to meet the shortfall created by those cuts, organisations are approaching many Departments or statutory agencies such as the HSE. This year far more organisations received grants from this scheme, which disproportionately affected those national organisations for which this is the sole or core funding they receive from the State. That needs to be reviewed within the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and also in the wider scheme of funding community and voluntary organisations.

In the Dáil on 16 June the Minister highlighted the need to eliminate duplication, with which I agree. However, we also need to be careful about the gaping holes being created by the funding crisis as we force organisations to move from place to place looking to fill that vacuum of a non-consistent funding policy. We have an opportunity to put in the building blocks consistent with the vision we want for the country in the years ahead. A few years ago the previous Government in a very courageous move dropped the €1,000 early child-care supplement and introduced the free pre-school year. It considered impact and outcomes for children. It was universal with no top-up facility and has a 98% uptake rate. It saves money for the State and has improved outcomes for children. Those are the types of initiatives we should consider for this sector.