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Crèche Inspections (Continued)

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 805 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Frances Fitzgerald: Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald] That goes without saying.

As Members probably will be aware, the practices witnessed and the centres that were the subject of the programme are also the subject of a thorough and comprehensive investigation under way by both the Garda and the HSE. All such instances of mistreatment of children in child care settings should be reported to authorities. It does not need statutory reporting. That is essential and necessary under the current guidelines but, obviously, obligatory reporting strengthens that provision. Clearly, under the current guidelines, any instances of abuse of children or instances bordering on abuse of children where there are concerns should be reported.

It should be noted that the children in last night's report appeared to be younger than the preschool cohort and in that programme there is no evidence of poor practice in relation to that cohort. Last night's report would obviously make us extremely sensitive to examining and investigating continuously what precisely happens during the course of the early childhood care and education, ECCE scheme.

I alert Deputies to the fact that Pobal investigates the ECCE scheme on a yearly basis and we have an annual report since we began that only last year. We now have a cohort of information about compliance across the sector. There are some statistics I will share with Deputies. The issue of qualifications has been raised a good deal. For the first time ever, as I stated, last year we collected information on this cohort. For example, the number of staff qualified at FETAC level has risen, from 70% in 2010 to 86.5% in 2012, and 86.5% of staff are now qualified up to level 5 in these settings. That is important information. We have demanded higher standards in training for the leaders in the ECCE programmes, and 98% of those have level 5 or above. There is continuous improvement but there is no room for complacency.

Some Deputies raised the issue of mandatory qualifications. For the new contracts and new regulations in September, I am examining increasing the level of qualification which ought to be in place for staff who are employed within the sector.

The matters addressed in last night's programme deserve and demand a comprehensive response. We should discuss them at greater length on another occasion in order that we can comprehensively discuss the range of issues that have been raised on this occasion under the Topical Issues debate format.

Parents need to be reassured that their young children, whether in child care services, crèches or wherever, are protected and cared for. As a number of Deputies stated, there are many examples of high quality practice in this country. We do not want to create panic in every parent in the country about the standard of services which are being provided for their children, but we need to be vigilant. Parents themselves are vigilant. Parents are not powerless in this situation. As some Deputies suggested, we want to encourage parents. What parents should do is go to their providers and ask questions if they are concerned. They should ask to see inspection reports, which are available. New inspection reports will be available online in a number of weeks. On the inspection reports already done, there was a substantial piece of work in providing those as well. Something we need to do which has not been done to date is to analyse all the reports. We need to see the messages from the inspection reports from around the country.

The HSE has informed me that there will be a website available shortly outlining what prosecutions have taken place so that parents will have access to that information. Today, I spoke to Mr. Gordon Jeyes about bringing the findings together and analysing them by sector - private sector, not-for-profit sector, community sector - to see what we can learn from the inspection reports that have been done. Deputies will be surprised to hear that, like many issues in relation to children in this country, we did not have these national data. We do not have a national approach to inspections. I have asked Mr. Jeyes to ensure we adopt that national approach. That will ensure inspection staff can be redeployed in a flexible manner to deal with some of the gaps, and a number of inspectors are being recruited.

There were quite a number of other issues raised which I will not have the opportunity to respond to right now, but perhaps I will have an opportunity when I respond after the Deputies have spoken.

Deputy Peter Mathews: Information on Peter Mathews Zoom on Peter Mathews On the child care preschool services regulations, which are the foundation on which everything is done, there should be national statistics and national inspection reports. That should be a priority. The Minister should get that moving fast. As Deputy Shortall stated, we want action, not words. We also want immediate emergency teams to get into the crèches that failed on inspections and were in any way deficient. The Minister should get qualified paediatric nurses in there to see that the standards of care are correct. The Minister stated, for instance, that it bordered on abuse. It did not border on abuse; it was abuse. It was bullying. One should call it what it is.

Deputy Simon Harris: Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris If ever the limitations of this House were to be seen, this is it where one has 30 seconds to speak about a major issue.

Deputy Ciara Conway: Information on Ciara Conway Zoom on Ciara Conway Hear, hear.

Deputy John Lyons: Information on John Lyons Zoom on John Lyons Absolutely.

Deputy Simon Harris: Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris It is pathetic. It is not the Minister's fault. I am pleased that there is a thorough Garda investigation. I would ask the Minister to give consideration to the use of the Health Information and Quality Authority. HIQA is carrying out inspections of nursing homes. It will start carrying out inspections in residential homes for persons with disabilities. It is the independent regulator. It merits consideration.

We also need to look at the issues of childminding in the home. This is the next issue that could come down the tracks if we do not. It has been addressed in the North and in Scotland. It merits consideration in this jurisdiction.

It is about empowering parents. The Minister is quite correct. I very much welcome the fact these inspection reports will go online shortly.

Deputy Derek Keating: Information on Derek Keating Zoom on Derek Keating I thank the Minister. I would like to have more time to spend discussing some of the finer points of the Minister's report, but in the time available I will confine myself to three points only. One, I raised the issue of abuse and the Minister responded by stating that it bordered on abuse. When children and babies are treated in the way they were treated as shown in the programme last night, I respectfully say that is not bordering on abuse. There is clear evidence of abuse of children. Two, in response to my question on mandatory reporting, the Minister stated that issues like this should be reported. I have stated previously in this House, and I ask the Minister to take this to the Government, that it is my firm and honest opinion, especially after last night's programme, that we must have mandatory reporting on abuse. Three, can the Minister tell us the number of service providers which receive State funding that have never been inspected?

Deputy Robert Troy: Information on Robert Troy Zoom on Robert Troy Can the Minister ensure at the earliest possible opportunity that the Government will make adequate time available for a proper debate on this? Can she confirm whether the HSE has established a helpline to deal with this and whether she will look at the possibility, with parental support, of installing CCTV in child care settings? Can she give us a definitive timeframe for when the children first Bill and child and family support agency Bill will be before the House, and that the children first Bill will deal with childminders?

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald I agree with the Minister that the last thing one would want to cause is widespread panic because my children, like those of many others, have had very positive experiences in crèches.

I am gobsmacked at the fact that crèches which clearly have broken the current HSE guidelines and into which there is a Garda and a HSE investigation under way would still be open today. If the Minister wants to give confidence to parents and to stem any panic, she must prove categorically that where abuses and breaches of regulations occur, even before she introduces the reforms of which she speaks, firm action will be taken. Can she explain to us how, in light of all of this evidence, these crèches are still functioning?

The issue of child care in the home was raised. That is a significant point. Why did the Minister cut the childminding advisory posts? There were only a limited number of them across the State. They offered a network, support and training for individuals who care for children in their own homes. It was a bad decision and it might be one that comes back to haunt us.

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