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.

Statements on Budget 2014

 

Seanad Éireann

Statements on Budget 2014

Minister of State for Public Service Reform and the Office of Public Works, Brian Hayes TD

Speaking Notes

Tuesday 15 October 2014

[CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY]

 

Senator Jillian van Turnhout: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I will premise my statement by underscoring the importance of addressing today’s budgetary measures and fiscal adjustment, the sixth in line of extremely difficult budgets since 2008, and the context of their cumulative impact since this is the reality of the way they are being experienced by people.

As a Senator this is the third time I have made a statement on the budget and it is safe to say, and no doubt the feeling is shared by many members of the public, that my sense of disillusionment and powerlessness has been compounded on each occasion. It is a sense that nothing has changed about the way we do our business. I welcome what the Minister said about the European aspect but as far as we do our business, I do not believe anything has changed.

I have said on numerous occasions in previous statements on the budget and in response to various social welfare provisions that Ireland, while on the road to recovery, is still in serious financial difficulty and money must be saved and generated but how this money is saved, be it from cuts to existing provisions and services or exploring alternative revenue-generating measures such as tax increases and against whom the cuts are made, are ultimately political decisions. There is a strong public perception that the decision has been made to persistently target vulnerable groups and re-hit already stretched and hard-pressed families.

Accusations have been made that such decisions are made with political capital considerations in mind. There is a certain class of people that have remained largely unscathed by successive budgets. They are young employed individuals without children and without a mortgage. Effectively, that grouping has remained unscathed. I have spoken with many of those people in the course of my work and I have heard time and again that they are willing to shoulder their share of the burden more fairly. After each budget they are grateful they did not get hit.

I believe it is a mark of a decent and humane society to ensure that those with the lowest income and least resources are protected from further cuts. I recall when dealing in April 2012 with the impact of the provisions on lone parents in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2012 feeling that anything I had to say was futile since the relevant decisions had already been made. It almost felt disingenuous to be kicking up a fuss knowing that whatever I said, nothing would change but I spoke to the groups advocating for lone parents on the ground and they convinced me of the importance of ensuring that their voices, and the voices of their constituents, made it on to the record.

The voices of civil society organisations and NGOs on the ground, which witness the impact of the decisions and cuts we debate in these Chambers, must be heard. We need to reconsider our mechanism leading up to the budget, to have a greater engagement with those organisations and not have a showpiece hearing where the relevant decision makers are not present. This is also why I feel so strongly about the move to restrict the access of the NGOs to the AV room to have political briefings. We need to be very careful about our decisions. We should not close off or close down dialogue and open ourselves to accusations that political decisions are being made in a vacuum.

Moving to today’s budget, I very much welcome the decisions made, particularly in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and the additional funding of €6.7 million in 2014 to reform child protection. I know that money will go to the new child and family agency. It is really positive that it is being moved into the Vote of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. I am very concerned at the talk that the new agency will start with a deficit. The agency will be taken out of the HSE and created, and there is talk of transferring a deficit. That will be regressive and I will watch it closely.

I welcome the implementation of the preschool quality agenda for which there is funding of €4.5 million. Additional inspectors will be recruited. There should be nationwide coverage. I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of a preschool mentoring service. We need mentoring in that sector to bring quality up to a consistent level and not to see more scenes such as those we saw in the “Prime Time” programme entitled Breach of Trust. We need to support staff training.

I also welcome the initiatives to tackle child poverty at a local area level. A cut of €3 million in youth work funding was projected for 2014, and we are supposed to heave a sigh of relief that it is only €2 million. This sector has been disproportionately cut. We know that for every €1 the State invests in youth work it saves €2.22 in the long run. Youth work organisations around the country are under huge pressure. The youth council proposed the introduction of a 1% social responsibility levy on drinks manufacturers. I notice in the budget that €145 million is saved in the excise duty added to alcohol. Why can youth workers not receive some of that additional money? They do not take funding from drinks companies. All too often we hear it said of the sports organisations “Oh dear, they cannot afford to let go of the drink sponsorship”. Youth organisations say “No” to drinks companies because of the ethos of their organisations. They work with young people, as do the sports organisations. Youth organisations say “No” and I do not see why a measure like that cannot be found for them. I welcome and note the increase in tax on tobacco.

If one is in the 18 to 25 year age category one had no hand in creating the situation in which we now find ourselves yet there is a disproportionate reduction in the jobseeker’s allowance. That is very tough on young people. Yes, they should be encouraged into education and training but the reality is that the places are not available for them.

Minister Hayes: There is a 100% increase as announced today in the budget in places for that age cohort.

Senator van Turnhout: The places are not there. There is an urban-rural divide. I hear all too often that young people are being forced back into the family home. Once again, there is a geographical lottery.

On the tax exemption for starting one’s own business, does someone need to wait to be unemployed for over 15 months? We know most businesses do not make money in the first two years. I wonder what this measure solves.

It is great that the €14 million youth guarantee has been announced. I am however a little concerned about the figures and I will study this more closely. It seems very low. Much of this is based on the Swedish model but the Swedes estimated that it would cost €6,600 per participant. They estimate that it will cost €273 million to implement in Ireland, based on their figures. That is phased over several years but €14 million seems very low, given that we need to spend it before we recoup it from the EU. While it seems like a large sum it is too low to implement the youth guarantee as it is envisaged—–

Minister Hayes: Is it not matching?

Senator van Turnhout: No. The Government must spend it first then recoup it. That is why I am concerned about the €14 million because we must spend it before we recoup.

I warmly welcome the free GP cards for children aged five years and under but we must ask ourselves about the discretionary medical cards. What children will lose out? In the Irish Examiner there is a very good case study profiling some of the cases that have lost out. It is excellent to have a rights-based approach to introducing the free GP card and they should not be confused with one another. I am concerned about this and I am hearing these concerns from parents around the country. I welcome the grant for the protection of the homeless.

I am concerned about the tax credit for the one-parent family. I want to explore it further to see what implications it has for families. I hear that the mental health budget has been reduced. We never seem to be able to spend the money.

 Minister Hayes: It has been increased by €20 million.

Senator van Turnhout: I hear that the overseas development aid budget has been reduced by €14.1 million. I have a difficulty with the kind of society we are creating. I have voted for tax increases. I voted for property tax.

Minister Hayes: It is not enough.

Senator Darragh O’Brien: Some 3% on those over €100,000.

Senator van Turnhout: Senator Mary Ann O’Brien and I have put forward ways in which the Department of Health can save a significant amount of money on children with life-limiting conditions. The Minister of State should not talk to me about solutions. I keep putting them forward.

Minister Hayes: It is not enough.

Senator van Turnhout: I keep putting them forward. The Minister of State has not even taken one step in the right direction on that issue. I have concerns about maternity and adoptive benefit. I ask the Minister of State to look at my record. I have put down solutions in this House. I have tried to be fair and equal in what I have said. Some of the measures are hidden. These small cumulative cuts will affect people.

 

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?

The Lancet

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