Thursday, 30th May 2013
I warmly welcome the Minister to the House. The purpose of my request for her to address us was twofold. The first was to give confidence to the public, particularly to parents, which I believe she has done in her statement. The second was to send a strong message to her Cabinet colleagues about the importance of this issue – this needs to be a wake-up call. Yesterday during the Order of Business we all got plenty of time to voice our concerns over the images we saw. Today I want to move beyond that shock and talk about our role as legislators. The Minister has spoken today about the importance of the registration system, having sanctions and amending the Child Care Act, on which she will have the support of the House.
The responsibility of management has not received sufficient focus. The researcher on the “Prime Time” programme in some cases reported issues to members of management, who did not see the need to take action until they knew they would be exposed on television. That indicates a more systemic problem in that they did not believe they needed to take action on the basis of reports from one of their workers.
I welcome the Minister’s assurance that not only is the Garda investigating this, but that the HSE is following up as appropriate. I welcome the fact that she will publish the inspection reports. I agree with her that parents should ask for inspection reports if they wish to see them. However, there is an issue with facilities that have not been inspected. We have that heard some facilities have gone four years without an inspection. We need to prioritise the inspection of any child-care setting that has not been inspected within the past 12 months.
I agree with the Minister that we need to pay attention to relationships when the inspection is taking place. There has been too much emphasis on the physical environment and not on the learning environment and the relationship environment.
We need to invest in children and not concrete. The Minister referred to Síolta, the national quality framework, Aistear, the national curriculum, and the 2010 workforce development plan. Hopefully we will shortly have the early years strategy. I regard them as four wheels on a good car. We will have all the parts, but we need the engine to drive it forward and we need the investment to do that. I was alarmed at a report in The Irish Times this morning. There has been much talk about cost and whether this will place a greater burden on parents. The report showed a chart of public expenditure on preschool care and education as a percentage of GDP. Ireland spends less than 0.2%. France spends 1.5% of its GDP on early years education, the UK spends 1.1%, and New Zealand spends 1%. Belgium was closest to us at 0.7%. There is an issue with our expenditure as a percentage of GDP. Instead of investing in concrete, we should invest in our children and in childhood.
The National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012 has been mentioned. I tabled amendments – supported by Childminding Ireland – to provide that where there is regular payment for a service those involved should be vetted.
The Minister has said the Children First Bill will be published shortly. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. The committee had the opportunity to examine the heads of the Bill last summer. Representatives of many different organisations appeared before the committee to share their viewpoints. At the time – I seek the Minister’s reassurance today – the heads of the Bill proposed that emotional abuse would not be included under its provisions. In the Minister’s description of the “Prime Time” programme she talked about emotional abuse. I believe this issue is critical. Many members of the committee and all the representatives of NGOs who came in said that emotional abuse needed to be included and that the provisions should not be limited to dealing with physical neglect and sexual abuse. I hope that one of the achievements of the programme will be that emotional abuse is covered in the Children First legislation.
There is much we could do. We have already had discussions in the Seanad on early years education and intervention. We know the workforce contains some really excellent people, but if they are not being paid well as a profession – that is where the investment needs to be – how can we expect further education and training to take place?
There are many issues. I welcome the fact that the Minister has come to the House for this debate. As I am conscious that many others wish to speak, I will conclude, but I have so much more I would like to say on the issue.