This is an especially busy time for me in the Seanad. I have lots to report but would like to take this opportunity to draw your attention to two of my recent contributions. The first is the content of my Irish Times opinion piece, 28 February, on the new Child and Family Support Agency. I continue to pursue this issue in the Joint Committee on Health and Children and welcome any contribution you have as we work toward establishing this vital agency. The second is the press release I issued yesterday, 6 March, upon securing inclusion in the Finance (Local Property Tax) (Amendment) Bill 2013 exempting properties used by a charity for recreational activities from paying the property tax.
The Seanad has seen the passage of important legislation and enjoyed probing and fruitful debates on a wide range of issues over recent weeks and I plan to bring you an update on this in my next newsletter.
Until then, best wishes,
Senator Jillian van Turnhout
- 1. Jillian van Turnhout: Child protection agency needs more public scrutiny
Opinion We have an opportunity to get the Child and Family Support Agency right. But, with so little transparency, we may repeat the HSE’s flaws.
When the Government took office in March 2011, it pledged to “fundamentally reform the delivery of child protection services by removing child welfare and protection from the HSE and creating a dedicated child welfare and protection agency, reforming the model of service delivery and improving accountability to the Dáil”.
For those of us who have campaigned for years to strengthen and uphold children’s rights in Ireland, this commitment to establish the new Child and Family Support Agency was a source of celebration, and heralded a new and long-overdue reform of children’s services.
However, slow progress and questions around the creation of the agency have turned celebration into concern.
What has happened so far? In September 2011, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald established the taskforce on the Child and Family Support Agency as a direct response to the Government’s commitment. Reporting back to the Minister in July 2012, the taskforce described the new agency as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fundamentally reform children’s services in Ireland”.
In July 2012, the Minister announced that her department had started to draft the heads and a general scheme of a Bill to establish the Child and Family Support Agency.
Some seven months later, we still have not seen the Bill. We are in the dark about the agency’s remit, function and operation, and about how it will ensure transparency and accountability.
This is an extremely important juncture in the conception and development of the new agency, yet the process appears to be taking shape behind closed doors. If we are to create a new culture of children’s services, child protection and family support, we must avoid establishing what is effectively a rebranded Health Service Executive.
Thus far, there has been inadequate debate and input involving the relevant external stakeholders such as experts, service providers, parents, and children’s organisations. I believe this is a missed opportunity.
As someone who campaigned hard for a Yes vote in the children’s rights referendum, I readily admit to being disappointed that it was not the landslide victory so many of us had hoped for. However, the ensuing debate afforded policymakers a real opportunity to learn from and remedy past failings.
We cannot ignore the fact that many No voters had concerns about past treatment by our social services system. We need to listen to these concerns and ensure the new agency is fully resourced, that it works for all children and families, and that it is focused on the kind of early and accountable intervention that can deliver the best possible outcomes for children and families.
The latest Health Information and Quality Authority inspection report of the foster care service run by the HSE’s Dublin North West local health area has found that the area “could not guarantee good outcomes for children” in its foster care service.
This is the fourth consecutive report to identify serious gaps in the HSE’s ability to provide for the safety and wellbeing of children in this foster care region. I am aware that parts of the HSE are already in the process of being transferred into this new agency.
Have the deficits identified in these reports been remedied? If not, is the new agency destined to inherit a failing system of service delivery? How do we insure against this? The Child and Family Support Agency will have a budget of €546 million for 2013 and we are advised that it will have 4,000 staff. Will the staffing needs for the new agency reflect a strong professional mix? Will staff from the current HSE simply be transferred? What is the Minister’s rationale for not including public health nurses in the first phase of the new agency?
The HSE has never been a beacon of accountability. Money set aside for mental health services is routinely diverted to plug other gaps in the health service budget.
In December, we learned that in spite of efforts to earmark funding, the long-promised mental health staff and services are still not in place. To the best of my knowledge, no one at the HSE has been held accountable for this.
Will this new agency have robust checks and balances to ensure oversight and accountability? How do we ensure that in developing this new agency, we do not lose sight of what is best for children and families?
Surely the whole purpose of the consultation and debate was to maximise the potential of this essential agency.
What we need is an informed, integrated approach – one that brings together all the health and support services for children and their families under one roof: child welfare, prevention and early intervention services, child protection, family support, therapeutic and psychological services, public health nursing and accessible mental health services. The new agency will also need to connect with schools and other community organisations and agencies.
To do this – and do it well – the Government should publish the Bill to establish the new Child and Family Support Agency.
In the interim, the heads of Bill should be published to allow for public debate and consultation. As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs should appoint an interim board to ensure that there is oversight and governance in determining the vision, remit and resources of the new agency.
We have a unique opportunity here to ditch ineffective systems and to finally make sure that children get the treatment they deserve, and that families get the help they need. An effective and accountable Child and Family Support Agency would be a monumental step forward for a country that has so spectacularly failed our most vulnerable children in the past. This opportunity has been a long time coming – and we know that history is unforgiving. We are duty bound to get this right. Frances Fitzgerald has shown great capacity for change and reform. So, let’s take ownership and publicly debate what we expect from the new agency.
- 2. Government responds favourably to Senator van Turnhout’s proposal to grant property tax exemption to youth organisations
In a Seanad debate in December 2012 attended by Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan TD, Independent Senator Jillian van Turnhout made the case that charities that hold properties used for hosting and accommodating activities for children and young people should be exempted from the Government’s proposed property tax.
Senator van Turnhout, who is the Leader of the Independent Group in the Seanad and a campaigner on children’s issues, argued that the imposition of a property tax on properties owned by the Girl Guides and similar youth organisations would place many of these organisations in a precarious financial position.
Minister Nooan expressed his appreciation of the fact that groups like the Girl Guides and Scouts provide facilities and work with young people and with other sectors for social and personal development purposes. He said in the debate that just as he had granted such organisations an exemption from the household charge for the buildings in question, he would ensure that the exemption would also apply to the property tax.
Today in the Seanad, Minister Brian Hayes, TD, announced that on foot of Minister Noonan’s commitment in December to respond favourably to Senator van Turnhout’s proposal to grant an exemption, the properties used for accommodation purposes by groups such as the Girl Guides or Scouts will indeed be exempted from the property tax.
Section 7 of the Finance (Local Property Tax) (Amendment) Bill 2013 now states that “Properties used by a charity for recreational activities” shall not, for the purposes of this Act, be regarded as a relevant residential property.
Senator van Turnhout:
“Naturally, I am delighted that the Government has recognised the merits of my proposed amendment. The Irish Girl Guides Trust, of which I am a director, holds a number of properties around the country that are used for children’s and youth activities. These are held on a non-residential and non-commercial basis, with the guides spending weekends away in these properties. The guides pay a very low fee for their stay, because no profits are made on the properties, most of which are in need of serious investment and repair. At a time when families are being squeezed, today’s decision by Minister Noonan to exempt these properties from the property tax is very welcome.”