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Crèche Inspections (Continued)

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 805 No. 2

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  4 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Alan Farrell: Information on Alan Farrell Zoom on Alan Farrell] If they cannot have that confidence, something is wrong with the system we oversee. All of this must be related in some way to the ongoing funding of such facilities. If we are funding them as a State, even though they are clearly in breach of the guidelines issued by the HSE, the funding must be stopped to ensure they adhere to those standards.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin The RTE investigation into child care facilities, "A Breach of Trust", is clearly the talk of Ireland today. Parents with children in child care are extremely worried and they are looking to the Dáil for assurance that the practices seen on our screens last night cannot be tolerated. Will the Minister give such an assurance today? Strapping toddlers to chairs for hours on end, shouting in their faces, tossing them about like rag dolls, forcing them down on mattresses with blankets over their heads and locking them alone in rooms are appalling practices.

A review and reform of regulations with legislative change is clearly necessary. State funding for child care should be more closely tied to strict adherence to regulations. I want to lay emphasis on that. It is absolutely essential. There must be a fundamental review of the policy of dependence on the private for-profit sector. The training and pay of child care staff must also be addressed.

I have questioned the Minister on these issues during the current Dáil and she has spoken of new strategies, programmes and plans. They are all very well but without funding commitments, they will be meaningless. We are prepared to work on a cross-party basis to advance these issues, as we have demonstrated time after time. The new child and family support agency will take a lead role but it must be properly funded and equipped to do so. What can the Minister guarantee in the interim pending the establishment of the new agency?

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall Zoom on Róisín Shortall We have always known the first five years are the most important in a person's life. It is the time when the future emotional, social and educational well-being is laid down. It is, however, the area that receives the least support and investment and for which there is the least political responsibility. That has been the case with successive Governments and, unfortunately, it appears it is still the case.

During the boom, the expansion of child care services was largely determined by the needs of the labour market. It became a numbers game and the welfare and best interests of children were secondary. The State can no longer afford to abdicate its responsibility in this area. While I do not question the personal commitment of the Minister to this area, it is simply not good enough to say the new agency will take responsibility for all of this. When will we ever see this new agency?

Action is needed now and we cannot afford to delay this any further. Four things must happen immediately: registration and not just notification should be mandatory, an inspection service must be provided in every county, all inspection reports must be put up online and State support must be conditional on meeting minimum standards in respect of ratios and qualifications. Where they are not met, State funding must be withdrawn and the facilities closed. We cannot afford to allow our children to be abused in the manner we saw last night any longer. Action must be taken.

Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: Information on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin Zoom on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin I do not want this controversy to distract the Minister from her intention of providing a second year of free child care in the next budget. We must examine the entire model, however, because effectively we are funding private companies to deliver a public service. Does the Minister not think it is time for the Department of Education and Skills to have a central role in this to roll out the Aistear and the Síolta programmes?

What we saw last night just would not happen in a primary school, as I know from being a primary school teacher and principal, because of the management structures that are in place. The parents who send their children to these centres want to know what will happen to the centres their children have been in where the incidents took place. Do they have a future and will they continue to receive State funding? Most people in the House would question whether the State should be funding such companies.

I do not want to wait for another RTE investigative programme to have a hidden camera in a direct provision centre in Ireland. If we are outraged about this situation in child care provision, as we should be, there are direct provision centres in this country that are also abusing children. We must not just look at the issues raised thanks to the RTE programme last night, but at the provision of State care for children across the State.

Deputy John Lyons: Information on John Lyons Zoom on John Lyons I will preface my remarks by saying there are many crèches today that are carrying out exemplary professional work with children. I worked as a secondary school teacher and if someone reported that a teacher had tied up a student or put a student into a room with a blanket over him or her, we would be gobsmacked. We put up with this for long enough in our nursing homes but it is not acceptable and tolerated any longer. It was never tolerated in our secondary and primary schools and it should never be tolerated in our preschools. Can the Minister give an assurance there will be an increase in inspections, that unannounced inspections will be introduced and that any staff shortcomings will be addressed? Will the Minister withdraw public funding from child care providers if they are found to be in breach of HSE regulations? Public money should be withdrawn from crèches that fail the children in their care. Regulations and standards must be enforced if they are to be taken seriously and the public have the right to be able to have faith in the system.

The Minister said on "Morning Ireland" today that inspection reports would be available online. Will that be new inspection reports or will that include inspection reports form the past?

This has been a watershed moment in our thinking on child care and early years education in Ireland. We must focus less on the profits of companies and more on the educational and developmental needs of our children.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald I thank colleagues from all sides of the House who raised this important topic, the care of our children under five years of age and the services they attend. It is the first time we have had such a focused debate on this age group and that speaks for itself.

Obviously, I regret what has precipitated this debate. I agree with what my colleagues had to say about the scenes we all saw last night. The images were harrowing, distressing, shocking and absolutely unacceptable. We saw poor practice and the dereliction of duty and care resulting in the mistreatment of young children that bordered on abuse. It was extremely distressing to watch. I concur with the comments made. It is striking that when our children begin in primary school at five years of age, the inspection regime, the curriculum, focus, teacher and mentor support are all in place to a much greater degree than is the case in this sector. It has happened in other countries but it has not happened here and that is the task that faces us. Those are the issues we must address.

I will try to respond to as many comments as possible. The Child Care (Pre-School Services) Regulations 2006 are the basis on which the HSE carries out preschool inspections. Clearly, the incidents shown last night would appear to constitute serious breaches of those very regulations. We need stronger and more robust inspections which take account of quality to a far greater degree than the current regime and we need stronger sanctions. I certainly concur with the points made on that. If we take the current regulations, such as regulation 5 on the care and development of young children, and regulation 9 on managing the behaviour of young children in these centres, we can see they were not adhered to as intended.

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