Wednesday, 6th March 2013
As always the Minister is more than welcome to the House and we are delighted that she is here. Her statement and speech to us today are seminal. It should be circulated generally. She was very fair in trying to give us a summary of what she has said to us today and it lays a strong foundation for a new home for children. I cannot commend enough what the Minister has said. More people should read her statement. We often focus on only one part of a child’s life but it is important to consider the child’s journey. I thank the Minister for providing that vision and starting this discussion with a very strong foundation. Everybody supports prevention and early intervention but it is music to our ears to hear a Minister promoting these strategies and putting them first and foremost. All too often people only talk about these theories in seminars and symposia while in the House we talk about firefighting and dealing with crises and do not give prevention and early intervention the thought and deliberation that they need.
I welcome the area-based approach to the child poverty initiative but have a difficulty with the selection criteria for the three new sites and the additional four that will come on stream. How do we ensure that the selection process is transparent, that the programmes are rooted in evidence and best practice? Programmes may look good but how do we ensure that they provide the outcomes for children and the delivery that we all want ? I want to see more details.
Often when we talk about early intervention we refer only to early years. That is why I welcome the Minister’s speech because she has looked at the child’s journey, the key transition points, the flash points in a child’s life that are all too often missed. This is true of disability services, where life chances are affected at an early age if we do not intervene when the child is very young. Mental health problems tend to become more apparent in early adolescence. The Minister mentioned the Heckmann curve. In 2010 Cunha and Heckmann wrote a working paper on investment in our young people. Their research showed that the effect of early intervention in the lives of disadvantaged children is reduced if it is not followed up by investment at later stages. We all talk about the importance of investment and what we reap from investing in early years but if we do not provide that continuum of support the investment is lost.
I welcome the Minister’s focus on how to provide services and the suggestion that we might take a step back and ask what is the purpose of child benefit and how do we ensure that it delivers the outcomes it should and that people want. The Minister mentioned the advisory report on which we had a good brief debate in the House with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, which we will continue. We were glad that she came in so soon after the report was published. There are different ways in which we can provide services and support to children. Should we consider the affordable, accessible and quality child care, or extending the scheme to a second year, or after-school care which is ad hoc and does not have a defined structure. Should we consider universal primary health care for all children or school book schemes?
The Minister mentioned the development in data which is very welcome. I welcome her approach to ensuring that we have an evidence base for moving forward and that we understand why we are doing something. Very often when I hear economists talk about demographics I shout at the radio “That is birth rate”. We have an increasing birth rate but economists do not want to talk about that. Too often children are forgotten in these issues.
The Minister mentioned Eurofound, the foundation based in Loughlinstown for the improvement of living and working conditions. I recently visited the foundation. It is doing some really interesting research on how parenting supports can best be delivered to children. Ireland has the fourth highest rate in the EU of young people who are not in education, employment or training, the NEET category. We do not want to be so high up on that list. Schoolteachers and youth workers can point to those young people much earlier in the cycle. That is where we should intervene. Eurofound did research on the loss to the economy that jobseekers represent. It calculated that they cost Ireland in the region of 2% of GDP which indicates that the cost of youth unemployment is €3.16 billion. Those are the figures but it has been proved that if a young person lives in poverty he or she is likely to continue to be unemployed. The pathway is laid. It is important to intervene early and help to change those young people’s lives. I welcome the fact that the Minister has asked the youth work sector to investigate how we could intervene and best ensure that we do so. We need to find the tipping point at which the young person ends up unemployed rather than going into education, training or employment and see how we can support those young people.
I know that next week the Minister is hosting the EU Youth Conference on social inclusion. It is significant that Ireland has chosen to host that conference under its Presidency and I was delighted to see that the Minister is doing so in co-operation with the European Commission, the European Youth Forum and the National Youth Council of Ireland. The European Youth Forum was born during the fifth Irish Presidency. It held its inaugural meeting in Cork on 6 July 1996. I was there. I am a co-founder of the forum. I was a secretary general of one the three youth platforms. We came together to merge into one. Two of the three secretaries general were Irish. That is why I am so delighted to see them coming back to Dublin.
I welcome the development of the child and family support agency and look forward to seeing the Bill. I have made public my opinion of it to ensure that we debate this. The new agency will have a budget of approximately €545 million for 2013 and at hearings held by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children last week we heard that approximately €100 million will go to NGOs and services. When my opinion of the new agency was published in The Irish Times I was surprised by the number of organisations which contacted me because they are afraid to speak publicly about this fearing that their funding will be cut. There is a chilling effect. We need to create an environment in which people can make constructive proposals to ensure that the agency works. I know that the Minister does not intend this chilling effect but I was surprised by the number and types of organisations that came to me about this matter.
I thank the Minister. The statement she made to us today should be circulated to all Deputies and Senators.