10 October, 2013: Questions to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, for answer before the meeting of the Committee on Health and Children.

Question 9: U.N Committee on the rights of the Child report.

Question 10: Special Rapporteur on Child Protection Reports

Question 11 Youth work budget.

Question 9: U.N Committee on the rights of the Child report.

On 16 July 2013, Minister Fitzgerald advised that her Department had finalised and submitted to Government for approval Ireland’s consolidated Third and Fourth State Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The submission of this Report, which is already considerably overdue (April 2009), are essential components of Ireland’s international obligation in relation to the review and monitoring process of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Can the Minister provide a definitive answer as to when Government approval will be secured and when the consolidated Reports will be furnished to the UN Committee?

The Government approved a consolidated 3rd and 4th Report in July 2013 and the report was submitted to the on the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, in August 2013.  The report is available on www.dcya.ie and outlines the most significant developments for children and how Ireland has been implementing the main aims of the UN Convention during the period 2006 to 2011 inclusive.

Ireland ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992. Ireland submitted our second progress report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2005. Following the establishment of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in June 2011, I directed that a substantial progress report, combining the 3rd and 4th reports, to cover the period 2006 to 2011 inclusive should be submitted to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.  An Inter-Departmental Liaison Group was established to prepare the report and a draft of the report was completed in December 2012.  This draft report formed the basis of consultations with the NGO sector and subsequently the Children’s Rights Alliance, on behalf of the NGO sector, submitted its observations on the draft to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.  These observations were considered by my Department in conjunction with other Departments and a draft report prepared for consideration by Government.

With the Report’s submission now complete I look forward to attending a hearing of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child on the report, although the timing of the hearing will be a matter for the UN Committee.  I understand there is currently a backlog of hearings to be dealt with by the Committee.  The hearing when it takes place will provide an opportunity to further bring the Committee up to date on what we have achieved as part of the programme of this Government since 2011.

Question 10: Special Rapporteur on Child Protection Reports

There have been a number of important Reports concerning children over the last number of years. Significant amongst them are the Fifth and Sixth Reports of the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr Geoffrey Shannon. In each of these Reports, recommendations are outlined to Government to improve the experiences and lives of children in Ireland. In the interests of transparency and accountability, and indeed to facilitate the tracking of said recommendations, will the Minister consider adopting a formal response to the recommendations similar to Ireland’s response to the Working Group Report on the Universal Periodic Review, whereby indication is given to each recommendation as follows: examined and supported; to be examined and responded to in due time; not supported? And, will the Minister ensure that implementation mechanisms and timelines are developed and published as part of the formal response to each Report’s recommendations?

There have been a number of important reports concerning children published over the last number of years, among them are the reports of the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection and, significantly, the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (referred to as the Ryan Report) published in May 2009. Currently the monitoring mechanisms vary between no formal mechanism, once off responses or annual monitoring.

The Special Rapporteur on Child Protection is appointed by the Government and his recommendations are relevant to a number of Government Departments and Agencies. The reports of the Child Protection Rapporteur are circulated to all relevant Departments and it is a matter for individual Departments to take the appropriate action on any recommendation relevant to its work. Where recommendations are proper to the DCYA they form part of the process of policy development and, if appropriate, are incorporated within the Department’s business planning process.

The most formal response to a report is that of the Implementation Plan in response to the Ryan Commission Report, which was published in July 2009. The Plan sets out a series of 99 actions to address the recommendations in the Ryan Report, and includes additional proposals considered essential to further improve services to children in care, in detention and at risk. The Government committed to implementation of the Plan. The 99 actions identified in the Implementation Plan are the responsibility of a number of Government Departments and Agencies.  I, as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, have had the responsibility for overseeing the implementation of the actions set out in the plan.  I chair a high level monitoring group with representation from the Department of Education and Skills, the Irish Youth Justice Service, the HSE, the Gardaí, the Children’s Rights Alliance and my Department. Three Progress Reports have been published so far and the final Progress Report is due at the end of this year.

My Department is currently preparing a monitoring framework for higher level oversight of recommendations from all significant child care reports, which is intended to be put in place following the completion of the formal monitoring process for the Ryan Commission Implementation Plan. In this regard the intention is to review current monitoring and reporting mechanisms, with a view to capturing all relevant recommendations and streamlining progress reporting, to provide effective and sustained implementation of recommendations.

My Department has also commissioned independent research on the extent to which previous reports have influenced policy and practice.  This research also identifies learning as to how to improve the influence and usefulness of recommendations made in such reports.  It is my intention to publish this research as I believe it will be of general interest and particularly useful to anyone engaged in conducting reviews or investigations in the future.

Question 11 Youth work budget.

 To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to share with the Committee the discussions her Department had with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform concerning the budget for youth work in the next round of the Comprehensive Review of Expenditure from 2015-2017. Did the Minster emphasise the disproportionate cuts to youth work in the overall budget adjustments for her Department in the last round from 2012-2014, and also will the Minister give details of when youth work organisations will receive details of funding for 2014 following the budget on October 15th?

 Officials of my Department have met with representatives of all the national organisations that are funded under the Youth Service Grant Scheme to share information and to hear from the organisations about the impact of the reductions in funding on the services that they provide. I have met with and continue to meet with, many youth projects and groups to try and see how we can work together to minimise the impact of these necessary savings in order to ensure that the provision of quality youth services to young people is sustained in these challenging times.

 Funding requirements and how resources should be prioritised and allocated across each area of Government spending are generally considered as part of the annual estimates cycle and budgetary process.  I am sure the Senator will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this time on any decisions that may be taken by Government in the context of Budget 2014.  The Committee can be assured that the benefits of youth work have been fully considered as part of my Department’s input to Budget 2014.  As soon as Budgetary figures are available my Department will assess the implications for youth funding and engage with the sector in planning the approach to 2014.  It would be my hope that the earlier timing of the Budget will allow for the notification of allocations to be brought forward so that they can take place prior to the commencement of the year.

Junior Cycle Reform: Motion

Wednesday, 18th September 2013

I also wish to support my colleagues, Senators O’Donnell and Mac Conghail in the tabling of this motion, which I fully support. I do not wish to get tied up in knots about terms like “core” or “compulsory” because I welcome the junior certificate reform. My own background is in youth work and much of what we practice in non-formal education is being brought into the classroom and the formal education sector, all of which is to be welcomed. My colleague, Senator Mac Conghail, spoke about the balance between theory and practice and in both my current role and my previous job, I have visited the transition year students of many schools. In this context, there is a great difference from school to school on how transition year is implemented. I refer to that capacity and the capability within a school and within individual teachers as to whether they harness the potential of a transition year student year. There is a similar fluidity to the new junior certificate reform and perhaps that is where part of my hesitancy lies about history not having as central a role as I would wish. While my colleagues have referred to the statements of learning, I can understand the reason, at the joint committee meeting of 12 June last to which my colleague, Senator O’Donnell, made reference, many eminent people expressed fears about history and whether the students would be ready and prepared. It can be taught as a subject or a short course and if the latter, comprising 100 hours of learning. Will that prepare someone to take it at leaving certificate level? Will it prepare them for university to go further in those subjects? How could a short course even get one in? Anyone who loves history will understand the depths and knowledge it has. Senator Moran mentioned students making choices and I have met many students, some very close to home, who have based their choices both for the junior certificate and as they enter into the leaving certificate cycle, on the points. It is purely about points and I understand this drive whereby this is what one needs to do to get the college course one seeks.

This point brings me to the amendment to the motion, which refers to the compulsory subjects, the importance of literacy and numeracy skills and of the development thereof, with which everyone agrees.

All the work I have done on literacy and numeracy, however, tells me one does this in many different ways, not just through particular core subjects such as English. Literacy can mean a parent in a supermarket telling a child to pick up a can of peas, spelling out the word.

I am a little concerned about us jumping to the next thing when we pick literacy. People may have forgotten that in 2008, the Department of Education and Skills and the Council of Europe produced an excellent report on language education policy profile concerning modern languages and their importance, but it was dropped because we are doing literacy and numeracy. I do not say one approach is more important than the other but many of the people being recruited – we are told it is all about growth and jobs – are coming from outside Ireland because we do not have the required modern language skills. Part of my concern in respect of history is the same as that which applies to the placing of modern languages and issues such as how we prepare students for life. Yesterday, I attended a very impressive seminar which looked at the work-readiness of students. Young people are approaching work very differently now. A person from Accenture told us that after a person begins to work, he or she will want to take a sabbatical to go back to further education or to travel and will afterwards return to work. The idea of being in a job for life is changing and we must prepare our young people for this changing environment.

I have a difficulty. In this discussion we may all be on the same side, but when I drill down, I find I do not have confidence that under the junior certificate reforms we will have consistent delivery of the junior cycle in each school, which would be detrimental to students. There might be a teacher who is visionary and able to encompass this new way of learning but there may be difficulties with some who are traditional and not ready for the change. The current sixth class will be the first to be tested in this regard. Will we have consistency throughout the country and will we prepare for it? I believe we need a little more structure. In my view, there are certain essential subjects. History and modern languages are the ones I would like to throw into that pot. That is where my hesitancy lies and if I try to understand it, I find I do not have the confidence I would like to have. I do not want children to be guinea pigs.

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 November 2012

I too have been deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life in Galway. I urge caution. I have listened to several speakers, in particular Senator Colm Burke. We need to be careful about our role. We need to ensure there is due process. This is a very sensitive time for many people. I ask the Government to publish the export group report as a matter of urgency. My understanding is that Ireland needs to report by the end of the month. The sooner the report is put into the public domain the better for us all. Rather than having a discussion based on speculation let us have an informed and calm debate. The difficulty with the issues is that as soon as one speaks on it people want to place one on a spot in the spectrum. I urge Members to have an informed debate and express impassioned views after they have seen the expert group report.

My colleagues and I from the Independent Group have tabled a motion on the Order Paper on the value of youth work. I seek Government time for a debate on this motion. I ask my other colleagues in the Seanad to add their names to the motion, which I will circulate to them. This report will be launched later today but it demonstrates the economic value of youth work. If anybody had the pleasure, like I had yesterday of attending a very impressive showcase of youth arts in the Mansion House that was hosted by the National Youth Council of Ireland, they would have seen young people from film, youth theatre and orchestras. It was an inspirational lunchtime for me. The value of youth work in our communities is often understated. I hope we can have a good debate about the important value that youth work plays.