Exchange of Views on Literacy with HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands

Breakfast Briefing/Exchange of Views on Literacy with HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, 23 September 2015, Leinster House

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Hartelijk Welkom en Leinster House Koninklijke Hoogheid Princess Laurentien.

Fáilte roimh go leir.

We are delighted to have you, Your Royal Highness, and indeed you, Ambassador Paul Schellekens (of the Netherlands to Ireland), here with us today.

The theme of this week’s National Adult Literacy Awareness Week is “Learning and life chances-promoting equality through basic education”. The aim is to raise awareness about literacy in Ireland and to promote the free courses available to people who want to improve their reading, writing and maths skills.

“Literacy is essential to effective communication and active participation in all aspects of daily life. It goes far beyond reading and writing. Literacy in a contemporary context also involves listening, verbal reasoning, numeracy and the use of commonplace technologies like the telephones and the internet. Literacy means we can be plugged into the world and negotiate the complexities of modern life.

It is to our national shame that 1 in 6 working age adults are found to be at or below literacy level 1 of a 5 level scale and 1 in 4 below level 1 for numeracy (OECD 2013)”.

I have convened this session as both a briefing and an opportunity to exchange views on how best to support literacy through lifelong learning.

All too often I see in my work on children’s rights how literacy is an inter-generational issue.  I fully support the need for family literacy initiatives.

Princess Laurentien is a passionate advocate on the issue, which she first encountered during her studies in the U.S. Her Royal Highness worked as a literacy volunteer in the 1990s. From 2001 onwards she started giving speeches on the importance of basic literacy skills, providing a platform for the work of others in the field and working as a ‘match maker’ between different actors. In 2004 she took this work to the next level when she founded the Reading & Writing Foundation in the Netherlands. While she continues to serve as that foundation’s Honorary Chair, she also promotes the cause of literacy internationally as UNESCO Special Envoy on Literacy for Development.

Following Princess Laurentien’s address we will hear from Inez Bailey, Director of the National Adult Literacy Agency, a charity dedicated to ensuring people with literacy and numeracy difficulties have access to educational opportunities that meet their needs and can fully participate in society.

Role of drinks industry in Schools – Commencement Matters

I thank the Cathaoirleach and welcome to the Visitors’ Gallery Ms Siobhán Creaton from the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and Ms Suzanne Costello from Alcohol Action Ireland. The issue I have raised with the Minister for Education and Skills pertains to the role the drinks industry is trying to develop with regard to the education of children in Ireland. I will begin by applauding the Government on the public health (alcohol) Bill. As a member of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, I have been very much involved in the consultations and the process. If anything, I would like it to go further, but I certainly will do everything I can to ensure that it comes into law.

However, as part of those consultations, the first red flag went up for me when I saw, for example, the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland saying how the industry decided in 2014 to refocus its initiatives in the education space and to concentrate activity on drinkaware.ie. It currently is establishing Drinkaware as an organisation whose work will be modelled upon the influential UK Drinkaware Trust. Unfortunately, if one looks at independent evaluations of Drinkaware in the United Kingdom, one concludes that it is not a model we wish to see in our schools. It has not come out well from an evaluation. Not surprisingly, the drinks industry believes it is excellent, which makes me even more worried about it. The second flag for me was the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign, rolemodels.ie, which is due to produce its report shortly. I can nearly see what this report will say. It will state that we need to educate children, because this is the constant mantra of the drinks industry – namely, that education is needed and that, were everyone educated, it would reduce our risk regarding alcohol-related harm. All the evidence shows that education informs our behaviour but that it does not change or influence it. That is why we introduce laws in respect of, for example, speeding. We all know what is good or bad for us, but legislation is often necessary in order to ensure that we do what is right. A recent Drink Aware advertisement relating to the post of education programme manager refers to the successful applicant working directly with schools. This is despite the fact that a spokesperson for Drink Aware indicated that this is not intended to be the case. If that is so, then the advertisement to which I refer misrepresents the position, because it refers to working with teachers, unions, principals, the Professional Development Service for Teachers, the Department of Education and Skills and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. It is obvious that those responsible for Drink Aware want it to become embedded within the education system. I know someone who applied for the position of education programme manager but whose application was unsuccessful. The person in question was informed about the rolemodels.ie campaign, which is going to lead to what I have just outlined. There are no surprises here.

The HSE is not often applauded, but I want to take this opportunity to applaud it most heartily. On 23 April the executive issued a statement to the effect that it is no longer prepared to take any money from the drinks industry and that it will not be associated with said industry, particularly in the context of public health advice or any form of partnership. The statement in question was quite unequivocal in terms of public health advocacy. In my opinion, it reflects what the World Health Organization has said, namely, that public health policies concerning alcohol need to be formulated by public health interests without interference from commercial interests. I am seeking an assurance from the Minister of State that the drinks industry will play no role in our schools. The HSE has worked on the SPHE model with schools. I am concerned by the fact that the National Parents’ Council Primary has put its name to the rolemodels.ie campaign, and I really hope it will withdraw its support. The National Parents’ Council Post-Primary has distanced itself from the campaign and indicated that it would question the motive behind any campaign funded by the drinks industry and aimed at educating our children.

I tabled this matter because I believed the time was right to do so. What I have stated reflects Government policy. We cannot just leave matters stand and wait to discover what people think. The majority of people do not know that Drink Aware equals the drinks industry. The idea of representatives from the tobacco industry going into schools and telling children about anti-cessation measures relating to smoking is abhorrent. We should also abhor the fact that those in the drinks industry even think it is acceptable for their representatives to go into our schools. It will be reprehensible if the Department of Education and Skills says that it is sorry but there is nothing it can do about this matter. It is not acceptable for those in the drinks industry – regardless of whatever costume they may choose to wear – to have any hand, act or part in the education of the children of Ireland.

Minister Kevin Humphreys (response):

I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, who sends her apologies.

The Department of Education and Skills is working very closely with the Department of Health in respect of the overall Healthy Ireland agenda. This encompasses co-operation in a range of areas including physical activity, healthy eating and student well-being, as well as substance misuse. At national level, the Department of Education and Skills is represented on key Government structures that provide a co-ordinated approach to addressing substance misuse. These include the national co-ordinating committee for drug and alcohol task forces. The Minister does not believe it appropriate for her to write to schools to prohibit particular materials or resources that may be developed by certain organisations, including the drinks industry. This could form a dangerous precedent for the future. However, officials at the Department of Education and Skills will continue to co-operate with the HSE and the Department of Health to ensure a co-ordinated and partnership approach to alcohol misuse and the range of other areas that are encompassed by the Healthy Ireland agenda. One recent example of such co-operation is the development of healthy lifestyle guidance that is currently being finalised. This guidance is intended to encourage schools to promote physical activity and healthy eating. It is also designed to encourage their participation in the health-promoting schools initiative, which is supported by the Department of Health and the HSE.

It is important to recognise that while education has a role to play in addressing the problem of alcohol misuse, behavioural change will not happen without the support and co-operation of parents, industry and society as a whole. Parents have a responsibility to help children and young people to adopt sensible and responsible attitudes and behaviours regarding alcohol and drug abuse. At present, the education sector is supporting national policy on substance misuse. In particular, schools are equipping students with the key skills and knowledge to enable them to make informed choices when faced with a range of difficult situations.This includes providing students with age appropriate information on the issue of alcohol abuse through aspects of the curriculum such as the social, personal and health education, SPHE, programme. This programme is mandatory in all primary schools. It will also form part of the new mandatory Wellbeing component of junior cycle, along with physical education and civic, social and political education, CSPE. Schools are also encouraged to deliver the SPHE programme in senior cycle. The substance use module of the SPHE curriculum focuses on the issues relating to the use and misuse of a range of substances. It actively seeks to promote healthy and responsible choices by students in a range of areas, including alcohol.

The latest data taken from Department of Education and Skills’ Lifeskills survey 2012 indicate that 90% of primary and 100% of post-primary schools provide their students with information on alcohol abuse through SPHE and other means. These results were almost identical to the position reported by schools through the 2009 Lifeskills survey. The 2015 Lifeskills survey is currently being completed by schools and the Minister hopes to publish the results before the end of the year. This will allow for the measurement of schools’ progress in this area since 2012.

Schools have access to a number of programmes and resources that support the delivery of SPHE and increase students’ awareness of well-being, including drug and alcohol issues. Examples include the Walk Tall programme for primary pupils and a post-primary resource available from the Professional Development Service for Teachers, called On My Own Two Feet. It is a matter for schools and teachers in the first instance to determine what resources and supports they will use to support their implementation of the curriculum. Teachers are equipped to make such decisions as a result of their initial teacher education and the ongoing support provided by the Professional Development Service for Teachers. I am confident that teachers are best placed to identify the most suitable resources to assist them in delivering the SPHE curriculum in their classrooms.

I listened carefully to the Senator’s contribution. She has raised red flags in respect of alcohol awareness and the industry in regard to that. She has been strong and logical about this. The Senator also referred to education, behaviour and role models and expressed concern about the involvement of the drinks industry in both primary and post-primary schools. She made some good points and I will ensure they are highlighted to the Minister. I will ask her to consider the important issues the Senator has raised.

Jillian van Turnhout:

I thank the Minister of State and appreciate that he was not in a position to answer my questions but perhaps he will also relay these questions to the Minister. The drinkaware.iejob advertisement for education programme manager states: “To manage relationships with relevant stakeholders, including the Department of Education, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the Professional Development Service for Teachers”. These are all within the Minister’s remit. I cannot see any reason for the drinks industry to have a relationship with the Department or the NCCA. I seek the Minister’s assurance that they will not have a relationship with the industry.

I appreciate the Minister cannot write to schools to say they cannot do this but, at the very least, could she write to them to advise them that drinkaware.ie equals the drinks industry. It is nothing else. drinkaware.ie is the costume the industry chooses to wear today. It will come up with something else when drinkaware.ieis exposed to people. Schools need to be warned and a warning bell is needed in this regard.

Minister Kevin Humphreys:

I thank the Senator. I will raise those points. I have a meeting with the Minister later this afternoon at which I will ask her to look at the Senator’s contribution and reply to her directly.

Jillian van Turnhout:

I thank the Minister of State.

Statements on Direct Provision 22 January 2015

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

An Update on Youth Justice Policy

28 January 2014

 

I have a good deal to say but I will try to contain myself.
I welcome the Minister, who has laid down a comprehensive statement on youth policy, which she had hoped to do in December. It is great that this is all together and that the Minister used the House to do this. The Minister mentioned that we are improving our data, but I remain concerned at the lack of data in the area, a point to which I will return. This particularly applies to juvenile offenders and children coming into contact with the criminal justice system. Through an analysis of various reports compiled by the Association for Criminal Justice Research and Development and a number of significant academic studies by the likes of Sinead McPhillips, Dr. Ursula Kilkelly and Dr. Jennifer Hayes, three key risk factors associated with children who became involved in criminal behaviour have been identified. As the Minister knows, these are family background, educational disadvantage characterised by poor literacy skills and low levels of academic achievement, and personal and familial factors such as alcohol and drug misuse, intergenerational crime and mental health problems. The studies have categorised the factors for us but it is not the understanding of the majority of the public, who are confronted daily with media reports and headlines about violent youth offenders and delinquent youths who are out of control. In the absence of political and media discourse to the contrary, it is understandable that they want to see zero tolerance and tough-on-crime type approaches. That is why the Minister’s intervention is important. I support her understanding and her moves to promote prevention and early intervention.

I commend the work of so many of the agencies involved in the delivery of juvenile justice policy in Ireland, such as An Garda Síochána, particularly its Garda youth diversion projects, the dedicated young persons’ probation division of the Probation Service, the Courts Service, and the Irish Prison Service, as long as it still has 17-year-old children detained in St. Patrick’s Institution. I would like to make special mention of the Irish Youth Justice Service, IYJS, which has been leading and driving reform in the area of youth justice since its creation in 2005. It has made important strides and shows the importance of Departments working together, as the Minister outlined.
It is a real missed opportunity that a centralised data and research department has not been established in the IYJS. We need to co-ordinate inter-agency research between the agencies involved in the delivery of juvenile justice and map the trajectory of the child through the criminal justice system. Every child has an individual story but we mostly get to read these in child death reports and other significant reports. We need to collect the data earlier. We also need to identify divergences between the policy and legal framework of youth justice and its implementation, administration and practice.

I would like to personally congratulate the Minister on a number of successes and advances in youth justice policy under her stewardship. In particular, I welcome the decision on St. Patrick’s Institution and today’s update on bringing the detention centres together. It has been long promised, but the Minister has done it and I thank her for it. We need a unified approach and I am happy to hear that a new head of the campus has been appointed. I look forward to the opportunity to support the legislation brought to the House. There are significant challenges in respect of the campus but I will support the Minister. In the interim, since December 2013, 17 year olds are being remanded to Wheatfield Prison. I note specific concerns raised by the Irish Penal Reform Trust in respect of 18 to 21 year olds, and obviously any 17 year olds detained there, that Wheatfield is often overcrowded and does not have adequate education and training capacity for its inmates. The focus for our young adult prison population must be on rehabilitation and not simply containment. I remain concerned about the interim period and how we are serving these young people.
I raise my concern over the lack of sufficient special care and protection places available to children with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties. I raised the point in November when we debated the Child and Family Agency Bill. From a juvenile justice policy perspective, my concern echoes that articulated by Judge Ann Ryan, who until recently presided over the Children’s Court in Smithfield. She has spoken of her frustration at the lack of HSE special care and protection places available to children, citing a correlation between the failure of the State to appropriately deal with these acutely vulnerable children and the likelihood that many will find themselves before the children’s courts facing criminal charges.

I remain concerned about this. For example, a HIQA report was published and the response was to close the centre, yet there are not enough places for the children who are vulnerable.
I refer to children who are remanded in custody. The most recent data available from the IYJS are from 2008 and show that of the 111 children detained on remand in children detention schools, only 44% went on to be sentenced to detention on conviction. That raises a twofold concern – first, that detention as a last resort requirement, the principle underlying the Children Act, was not being adequately embraced by judges at the pre-trial stage and, second, that there was an urgent need to introduce a formal system of bail support to help children to manage their bail conditions, thus helping to reduce the number being placed in detention on remand. Unfortunately, the pilot scheme mooted in 2008 in Young People on Remand: The National Children’s Research Strategy Series to offer bail support services for vulnerable children who ceme before the Children Court in Dublin and Limerick failed to materialise owing to insufficient resources. Will the Minister provide the House with the figures in this regard for the past few years? I would be interested in seeing and trying to understand them. I fear the position has not improved much from what I hear anecdotally. Will the Minister consider revisiting the bail support pilot scheme?

I refer to the issue of training. Staff and personnel engaged in the formulation and delivery of youth justice policy should be trained in the provisions of the Children Act. The Committee on the Rights of the Child made a recommendation to this effect in 2006. An advanced diploma in juvenile justice is being run by the King’s Inns. The course is attended by a great mix of professionals from a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds, including legal professionals, juvenile liaison officers, prison officers, detention centre staff and the IYJS. Robust, specialist training such as this needs to be rolled out on a systematic basis and attendance supported by employers such as the State.
I also raise the issue of the age of criminal responsibility. The concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern about the age of criminal responsibility being ten years under the Criminal Justice Act 2006. The Minister has submitted a consolidated report to the committee. Has she had a communication from the committee? Will Ireland consider this issue before it appears before the committee?

On Second Stage of the Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill in March last year I alerted the Minister for Justice and Equality to my concern about routine breaches of the Children Act in the Dublin Children Court. Examples include the court appointed registrar calling the name of the child in the public waiting room, the former practice of District Courts including YP, meaning “young person”, beside the child’s name on the court list and the presence of Gardaí and legal representatives unrelated to the specific case in the court which is mandated to sit in camera. The Minister said he would write to the Courts Service and I await a response. I raise the issue in this debate because we need to consider practical remedies to ensure the Children Act is implemented in the spirit intended by the then Minister and the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Youth Unemployment: Motion

Thursday, 12th June 2013

The Minister is welcome to the House. I very much welcome that Senator Reilly and her colleagues tabled this motion.

It is an important issue for us to debate, and considering the motion and amendment, one could see the glass as being half full or half empty. Nevertheless, it is really important that we are discussing youth unemployment. Unemployment, and specifically youth unemployment, is something that concerns us all across the House. Nevertheless, focus should not be solely on employment as for the age group in question, this is the period in which they are most likely to be in education and training. Unfortunately, the picture remains seriously bleak when we take employment, education and training into consideration.

Some people have already cited the Indecon assessment of the economic value of youth work report of 2012, which was commissioned by the National Youth Council of Ireland. We know Ireland has the fourth highest number of young people not in education, employment or training at 18.4%, compared to the average at 12.9% for the EU in 2011. In April 2013, the figure for young people who are long-term unemployed for more than 12 months was 27,857. I realise that is a reduction on previous months but it is still a considerable number of long-term unemployed young people. Ireland also has the highest number of children and young people under 18 at risk of poverty or social exclusion, with the figure at 37.6%, as compared to the 27% EU average.

We are all aware of the devastating impact that unemployment has, particularly on the social and health aspects of young people’s lives, as well as morale and self-esteem. It is generally accepted that increased social pressures such as financial and employment worries can trigger mental health problems or exacerbate existing issues. Unless concerted action is taken, the mental health of young people in Ireland and Europe will decline in coming years. We know that in 2009, Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, which is based in Dublin, conducted research indicating that across 21 EU member states, the cost of exclusion of young people from employment amounted to more than €100 billion. The study considered the cost of social welfare payments and contributions to GNP and it put a preliminary figure for the cost to society at €14,000 per young person who is not in education, employment or training. Some €11,000 would be from unpaid contributions like PRSI and PAYE and €3,000 is representative of benefit payments.

The cost to the Exchequer of youth unemployment is estimated to be €3.16 billion annually. Last December, the Independent group put forward a motion in this House on the importance of the value of youth work. We had good support across the House in our belief that the State must recognise the value of the youth work sector and its potential for a cohesive approach in tackling youth unemployment and exclusion. We know just under 400,000 young people benefit from youth work in Ireland and 53.3% of these are from socially or economically disadvantaged areas. Over 40,000 volunteers are involved in youth work, with almost 1,400 whole-time staff equivalents. Some 26% of young people in Ireland participate in a youth club or youth organisation, and that is the highest level in the EU. The Indecon report proved that for every €1 invested by the State in youth work, we save €2.22 as a State in the long run. This can be contrasted with the fact that youth organisations have received cumulative cuts during the recession, with the cuts running at approximately 30%. Youth organisations could be used as a vehicle in tackling youth unemployment but we are cutting their funding.

The youth guarantee is very important to me and everybody in this House because it will give young people an offer of a job, work experience, apprenticeship, training or combined work and training. It is hoped this will be found within four months of the young person finishing education or becoming unemployed. We should hope it will achieve the target of having 2 million young people out of unemployment by 2014.

I agree with the contention in the motion that the youth guarantee scheme must play a central role in the Government’s strategy to address our young person not in education, employment or training, or NEETs, crisis in Europe. I commend the Government for signalling its support for the youth guarantee from the outset and making it a priority. Given what I have stated on the importance of the youth work sector, I also welcome the determination of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, in securing EU agreement on a greater role for youth work in supporting EU policy proposals for youth employment and social inclusion. I welcome the pilot scheme planned for Ballymun. It is good that we will have a pilot but we must consider local circumstances. I am a bit concerned about the length of time it may take to mainstream the process.

I am conscious of the time but I will comment on those who are most disadvantaged. These are the 9,000 young people who have been on the live register for three years or more. They have literacy issues and they are early school leavers. The have a poor relationship with State agencies. We must do much more to tackle the problems of this cohort of young people within the youth guarantee. The youth sector is well placed to work with this cohort, who are the hardest to reach. There should be a joint initiative between the Departments of Education and Skills, Social Protection, Children and Youth Affairs and Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.
Has the Minister identified additional measures to support young people who are long-term unemployed in avoiding the weaknesses identified in the scheme already in operation in Finland and Sweden?

Order of Business, 15 February 2012

My question to the Leader today relates to the growing levels of child poverty here. Ireland is near the top of the table for OECD countries as regards percentage of children living in poverty. Figures for 2011 show that 19% of children live in poverty and 9% of children experience consistent poverty. The OECD has clearly identified that child poverty rates are significantly higher for jobless families than for families with at least one parent in employment but also lone parent households compared to two-parent households. Many more children are at risk from poverty due to the cumulative effect of successive budgets. This means that children in Ireland are living on poor diets, they are missing developmental milestones, they are suffering more ill health, they are struggling at school and they experience increased isolation because they are unable to participate in ordinary childhood activities. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Social Protection to the House to debate how best to tackle growing child poverty and how to reverse this unacceptable trend.

In this regard I have organised a briefing today at 5.30 p.m. in the audiovisual room and I have brought together four organisations, SPARK, Single Parents Acting for the Rights of our Kids, One Family, OPEN and Treoir. They will give a joint briefing to Deputies and Senators on the cumulative effects of the budgets. Child poverty is something of concern to Members on all sides and it is vital that we work together to safeguard the future of our children.

Innovation at the Heart of the Jobs Challenge – Statements

14th September 2011

I thank the Minister for joining us today. He might be wondering what I, as a children’s rights advocate, have to say about jobs. For more than 15 years I worked for a small and medium-sized enterprise, through the good times and bad times. As I dealt with making staff redundant and dealt with transfer of undertakings to a UK entity, I understand the sleepless nights that people are going through. I very much welcome the commitments the Minister made today about driving down costs for businesses, increasing the access to credit and the need for regulatory reform. I also appreciate his understanding of the situation for young people because according to the National Youth Council of Ireland, Ireland has the second highest rate of youth unemployment in western Europe, with one in three young men unemployed, which represents a trebling of the figure since 2008.

Senator Cummins asked us to keep our comments for today short. I have one question and one proposal for the Minister. My question is very topical as it relates to the junior certificate examination results. I know there has been a focus on mathematics, and in doing so I take the opportunity to congratulate my nephew who got an A in his honours mathematics paper and who single-handedly may have contributed to the upward trend. However, people have not focused on foreign languages. Some 12% failed ordinary level French, 8% failed ordinary level Spanish and 7.5% failed ordinary level German. Poor foreign language capacity will hinder job creation, especially in the emerging export-led markets and with the changing demand for the global economy, the focus having shifted towards Asia and the consequent need for graduates with, for example, Mandarin. Only one secondary school in Ireland teaches Mandarin as a foreign language subject. I ask the Minister to clarify the role he will play regarding education and whether we will actually join the dots.

I was very encouraged by what the Minister had to say about us needing to add to our exports and we need to put a foot on that export ladder. In preparation for today’s debate I talked to representatives of a number of companies and I will now make what I believe to be an innovative proposal. I will give credit for this to a home-grown entrepreneur, Colm Lyons, of Realex Payments. Irish businesses need to get established in overseas markets, which can sometimes be achieved online, but more often it requires staff to relocate to set up offices. This can often take from 18 to 36 months. During this time local staff are typically recruiting others to train, after which they go back to the head office. Realex has asked several staff to move and while some have moved, many are concerned about the general state of things here and want to remain in their job in Ireland. The proposal is to have a scheme for Irish staff working abroad whereby if a staff member is assigned to grow the business in an overseas market, the company could accrue a bonus for the staff member that is paid tax free when the assignment is completed. It could be controlled, for example, by Enterprise Ireland, which would approve the company, the role and the individual against certain criteria. I believe this scheme would act as a great incentive for staff to be based abroad for a certain period of time and thus accelerate the growth of Irish businesses overseas. I ask the Minister to give the proposal serious consideration.

I conclude by going back to my children’s rights background. Research in the UK and US has found a negative impact of parental unemployment on children and young people. For example, young people living in a workless household are more likely to have poor educational outcomes, including increased incidence of truancy and early school leaving. Therefore I believe the Minister’s brief includes children’s rights and I will be doing what I can to support his work.

School Transport – Statements

28th June 2011

I thank the Minister of State for sharing his decision with Members today. I have yet to hear of a person who is opposed to the school transport system. While I realise the predicament we are in, I equally recognise the unprecedented financial times in which we find ourselves and that we have not been obliged to face such decisions heretofore. Moreover, I agree with the need to rein in expenditure. Although all these points are a given and are not up for debate, one must be careful in the actions one takes to avoid incurring additional expenditure in other areas through unintended consequences. My question to the Minister of State pertains to the displacement of pupils to which this decision potentially could give rise and which could lead to the need to increase school buildings in some areas and to the closure of schools in other areas because parents will take a decision, based on school transport costs, to change their children’s school. As it is known that such potential unintended consequences could occur, the Minister of State should indicate whether there has been an assessment of the school catchment areas. My understanding is they last were closely examined in the 1960s. How do we know what impact these decisions will have?
Moreover, although I listened carefully to the Minister of State’s contribution, I found it difficult to understand the issue and as a parent, I am trying to envisage how do parents understand the impact this decision will have. If one considers the constitutional right that the State shall provide for free primary education, I note that parents are being asked for voluntary contributions for water charges, school books and other costs, on to which another cost now is being heaped. These costs are being heaped upon the same parents and children. While one might state that this is a single charge, that is not the case as additional charges are being heaped upon the same households and families. The Minister of State noted that school transport eligibility for all new children entering post-primary education will be determined by attendance at and distance they reside from their nearest post-primary centre or school. I listened carefully last week to the Minister talking about parental choice at the forum on patronage. However, it is not parental choice if one then states the only way in which one can avail of school transport is based on distance to the school. Does this mean that children in urban areas will get to have parental choice and will get to choose the schools they wish to enter but that those living in rural areas will not have the same choice? Equally, parents and children will tell me about the fact they have changed schools because a bad situation, such as bullying, has occurred in their school and all of us, at times, need a fresh start. Are we to say that those children will not be allowed that same fresh start, that they will not get an opportunity? These are the unintended consequences. Listening to the Minister of State, I note he very carefully outlined some of the questions to which we need answers. However, we should take these decisions with these answers in hand because I agree there could be a short-term gain for us but I question at what price and whether there will be long-term pain. I am thinking of the child and the impact on that child when a parent has decided the child is going to a school because it is within the 3.2 km catchment area rather than looking at what is best for our children and the future of their education.

European Affairs – Statements

22nd June 2011

I am pleased the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs is present for this discussion on enterprise, innovation and job creation. She referred to reputation. Colleagues in other member states have told me how impressed they are with our new Minister of State following her visits to the Continent. I am delighted she is helping to rebuild our reputation.

I echo the Minister of State’s words about Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn who has taken an active role since taking up her job. The Commissioner’s portfolio is critical for Ireland. It is good for us to be seen in this light.

As Senators will be aware, I have been a member of the European Economic and Social Committee for 12 years and vice chair of the European Movement Ireland. Clearly, therefore, issues of a European nature are crucially important to me. Part of our success will be working together with our European counterparts and other member states. However, if I may make a slightly negative point, in working on European semesters we have a missed opportunity to target smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. All too often, the focus has been fiscal consolidation and labour market and pension reforms without consideration being given to how we can achieve inclusive growth or putting in place growth drivers to enable the fiscal consolidation to take place. I am concerned, therefore, by certain elements of the course we are pursuing.

I propose to focus on two of the flagship initiatives under the 2020 strategy, namely, the new agenda for skills and jobs and the Youth on the Move initiative. The latter tackles the high levels of youth unemployment across the European Union. When one considers the variation in youth unemployment rates – in the Netherlands, my husband’s home country, it stands at 4.3% whereas in Spain it is currently 20.5% – one sees the challenge facing us. While each member state faces individual challenges, the European Union must meet collective challenges in countering youth unemployment. As a flagship initiative, I am pleased Youth on the Move has been given its own space. All too often, when the subject of youth is discussed, it is done purely in the employment sphere and associated matters such as entrepreneurship, training and education are overlooked. Youth on the Move claims it will unleash the potential of all young people. To achieve this objective we must give young people a solid basis in life.

The Minister of State referred to sanctions. All too often member states are willing to agree to lofty ideals but unwilling to set clear and measurable targets. As I indicated, unemployment rates vary considerably across member states although many of the challenges facing them are the same. We could set clear and measurable targets and indicators for each of the member states. If they were not met, some form of sanctions should be imposed. The rewards would clearly speak for themselves. With regard to young people, I have concerns that in dealing with our economic crisis focusing on reducing sovereign debt, we are reducing public investment in education and training, the very areas we will need to develop in the future. The teaching of languages is very important as are what are often called the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We need to focus on attracting more young people to take up those subjects. The early study and career guidance looking at the labour market needs and the skills of young people and providing entrepreneurship at all levels of education are also important. The Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs programme was launched a few years ago and we could encourage more young Irish people to get involved. This Erasmus programme will give a young person the opportunity to go to another member state and look at opportunities of entrepreneurship there and bring them back. The Minister referred to the growth in the German market and we need to be thinking in this way.

I was in China recently with the Chinese economic and social committee. We were looking at areas such as inclusive regional development and the green economy. We often talk about our young people leaving Ireland and we see them as being gone forever. I was impressed that China is encouraging its young people to leave, but come back after a year or two and bring that knowledge back. That is a message we should be giving to our young people. While the jobs are not here, that will not necessarily be the case for life. We should be looking at training opportunities and upskilling. We should be exposing them to innovative and creative markets, and entrepreneurship. I recognise the Every Job Counts: Youth Solutions initiative to encourage entrepreneurship launched recently by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

We can learn from some of our counterparts in other states about additional training opportunities for early school leavers and low-skilled workers. We have an issue of access to apprenticeships. We are often told that the best way a young boy can get an apprenticeship is to join the Army, which offers some of the best apprenticeships in the State. We should draw on some of that knowledge that it does so well and create apprenticeships to develop those skills.

The validation and certification of skills across educational settings is very important. This is true not just of the formal education setting but also in the informal education setting – looking at us buying into European skills passports, etc., so that when our young people go to other countries they are able to transfer that accreditation and qualification.

The big questions are on the spending programmes of the Europe 2020 strategy, such as research and development, and education. I am very conscious that we are lining up in Europe for a battle royale. They are likely to be reducing funding across all our multi-funding spending lines. I know that next week Commissioner Barroso will announce the financial framework beyond 2012 and I know the battle lines are being drawn up on this debate. It is a crucial time for the future of Europe and for Ireland. This is funding that has benefited Ireland greatly but how do we ensure we can maximise it? I am concerned as to how we, as Senators and others, can support Ireland’s role in tackling the funding crisis that will potentially loom as the funding reduces at a time when we should be investing more.

I am organising an event in September with representatives from several member states. I will contact the Minister of State in that regard. We are trying to bring experiences from different countries to try to use that knowledge and hopefully come up with some creative solutions and ideas that can be used in several member states.

Progress on the 20 Year Strategy for the Irish Language – Statements

9th June 2011

Thank you very much. I apologise. Three weeks ago I did not know I would be standing here and I have another pressing commitment. I trust the House will understand.

I welcome the strategy and its ambitions. I hope I can be one of its successes by building on the Irish I learned at school and, in a future debate, I may be able to contribute as Gaeilge. That is a challenge I have set myself. I very much welcome the information provided by the Minister of State. The Cabinet sub-committee is central to driving the implementation of the strategy and I am happy that it has been established and has met twice. I look forward to hearing more about that.

I also welcome the fact that the Minister for Education and Skills is a member of the sub-committee. The backdrop to the debate today is the many thousands of students sitting the junior certificate Irish examination, including my nephew. I hope all our students, including him, do well. However, I refer to the issue of how Irish is dealt with in the education system. I welcome the changes being made, but we need to do more to ensure Irish remains a living language not only in gaelscoileanna but throughout our education system with children being exposed to the language in preschool and through the media and so on.

I lived for three years in Brussels, which is a bilingual capital. It taught me that all advertisements have to be in two languages. My husband is Dutch but I did not know him at the time. I gained great exposure to Flemish during my time in Brussels because I had French and I was able to compare both languages. Subliminally, one’s vocabulary increases. There is something to be said for subliminal exposure aside from formal education. For example, in our system, Irish classes are held for set periods of 30 or 40 minutes. The language should seep through our education system in smaller, fun and creative ways so that Irish becomes a living language for children from an early stage. They should not be restricted to set periods where they have to learn, rehearse and recite. They should be encouraged to play games and engage in activities. A number of sporting organisations are doing this and that is welcome. There must be a greater focus on the aural aspect of the language and we need to be creative in how we do that.

The Minister of State announced that there will be a new statutory definition of linguistic borders based on studies. Will he elaborate on the criteria that will be used and on the studies? I tried to research them but I was unable to establish whether they had been published. Perhaps he can advise us on this. I welcome his planned approach to Gaeltacht networks where Irish is spoken so that an appropriate environment can be created and they can expand.

I very much look forward to future debates on the language in the House. I hope we will be able to support the Minister of State in the implementation of the strategy. It is rightly ambitious. This is a good time for us to have this discussion but we need to examine the strategy’s implementation and ensure the language gets to live.

The Lancet

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