Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 23 June 2020
Special Committee on Covid-19 Response
Childcare: Impact of Covid-19 (Resumed)
I welcome our guests in committee room 1. They are: Ms Teresa Heeney, chief executive officer, and Ms Frances Byrne, director of policy and advocacy, from Early Childhood Ireland: Ms Marian Quinn, chairperson, and Ms Paula Donohoe, member of the national committee, from the Association of Childhood Professionals; and Ms Marie Daly, CEO, and Ms Rachel Grant, HR manager, Crann Support Group.
I wish to advise our guests that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a manner as to make him, her or it identifiable. We expect witnesses to answer questions asked by the committee clearly and with candour. However, witnesses can and should expect to be treated fairly and with respect and consideration at all times in accordance with the witness protocol.
I ask Ms Heeney to make her opening remarks and to confine them to five minutes because we are tight for time.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to present here today. I will not repeat the background information about our sector, which is included in our written submission. Suffice to say that Ireland is the joint lowest per capitainvestor in early years care and education in the European Union. Our sector was already facing a diverse set of challenges on 12 March when the Government announced the closure of all childcare settings. A number of key events have occurred since for which the timeline is outlined in table 5 of our submission.
As it stands, the primary focus of many settings is the re-opening that is scheduled to take place next Monday, 29 June. The past three months have been extremely challenging for the early years sector. From the sudden closure of settings in March, to the extension of the closure to the lack of clarity beyond August, the uncertainty is having a profoundly stressful impact on providers. We acknowledge the additional supports that were provided to early years settings by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs as part of both the bespoke wage subsidy scheme and in the reopening package. However, the need for special measures is in itself a tacit acceptance of the pre-existing precarious nature of the sector. The issues of insurance, staff recruitment and retention and the viability of settings have not gone away and have, if anything, been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis.
Early years care and education is an essential service that allows a society and economy to function. This will become even more apparent post-Covid as people adapt to non-traditional working arrangements. Aside from the rights of babies and children to avail of high-quality early years experiences, a well resourced and sustainable early years system will be essential for this new economy to function.
When settings reopen next week, parents should not be expected to pay higher fees for the same or less service in order to ensure sustainability. The answer to this is not direct payments to parents or tax-breaks to offset costs, rather it is ramping up investment in the national childcare scheme and implementation of the First 5 strategy. The progressive universalism as outlined in First 5 must remain central to investment.
Lack of clarity on the post-Covid funding model after August is causing anxiety to providers, who are planning for reopening on 29 June with no clarity on the financial model which will be in place after the summer. This is also true of settings that will reopen for the first time in September. Central government needs urgently to engage with the sector and develop a plan on how funding needs will be met. It must be acknowledged, however, that our sector is extremely diverse and problems cannot be resolved with a one size fits all solution.
While providers have largely been on board with the reopening guidelines, and this is as a result of proper stakeholder engagement, time will be needed to allow children and practitioners adjust to the new normal and work out the kinks. Additional capital grants funding will need to be made available swiftly to ensure that settings can meet their obligations under the new guidelines, and to meet capacity and distancing requirements which will impact on staff and parents.
Increased capacity must not be at the expense of staffing levels or sacrificing quality standards. The pre-existing issues with regard to recruiting and retaining staff will have been exacerbated by Covid as some workers elect not to return to work and travel restrictions inhibit the return or recruitment of workers from outside Ireland. The Government needs to give serious consideration to how staffing levels can be maintained in this context.
We welcome the highlighting of the role grandparents and other family members play in providing care and support but public funding needs to remain focused on consolidating the fragmented care and education sector. We include childminders in this cohort, whom 87% of the public wish to receive Garda vetting and basic training for their important roles.
The Covid-19 pandemic had an immediate and profound impact on the early years and school-age sector. The response from Government was salutary, in that the provision of a bespoke wage subsidy scheme, which covered 100% of staff wages, acknowledged the fragility of our member settings. On the other hand, this also demonstrated recognition of the importance of childcare to the rest of society and economy.
The Government and other policymakers now have an unprecedented opportunity to act to increase investment in the sector, as envisaged in the First 5 strategy. Early Childhood Ireland recommends that, along with a funding plan which brings Ireland from the bottom to the top of the EU investment plan, the actions envisaged in First 5 to develop a new funding model and a proper workforce plan are prioritised without delay.
Ms Paula Donohoe:
I thank the committee for this opportunity. My name is Paula Donohoe. I am a private provider. I am a member of the national committee of the Association of Childhood Professionals and I am joined here today by Ms Marian Quinn, its chairperson. I will provide the committee with a brief summary of our Covid experience.
On 12 March, the word came through from An Taoiseach that we were to close our services at the end of that working day. In my case, and in that of many of my colleagues, the first we heard of this closure order was from parents arriving at our doors. It gave us no time for planning. That evening, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs wrote to providers and assured us that the closure was covered by force majeureso we would continue to be paid under the various fee subsidies schemes for the duration of the announced closure. However, with the closure of services, most providers were concerned about loss of parental fees and the resulting unsustainability of their services that endangered their ability to pay overheads, including staff wages.
What ensued amounted to an information vacuum that was filled with speculation, misinformation, media interpretation and generally unhelpful commentary. This had the natural effect of raising already heightened stress levels and communicating with our families and staff became difficult.
The announcement of the temporary wages subsidy scheme, TWSS, and the temporary wage subsidy childcare scheme, TWSCS, on 25 March was welcomed by many providers because it allowed us to maintain contact with what we consider to be our most valuable asset, namely, our staff. An extra difficulty with this scheme was that sole traders were excluded from the TWSS, as were employees who were not on the payroll in January and February. A further challenge was that the TWSCS payment was sufficient for some providers, while others needed to take out micro-loans to cover non-deferrable overheads. Following the eventual issuing of the TWSCS funding agreement on 15 April, three weeks after the initial announcement, 85% of services signed up for the scheme. Time will tell how this support has helped us to remain viable.
Having overcome the funding and wage issues, the next milestone was phase 1 of the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business on 18 May and the provision of childcare for front-line healthcare staff. The issues with this failed scheme have been widely reported and it is accepted to have been a non-runner from the start. The issues relating to insurance and HR had been communicated in advance of the roll-out of the scheme. It has to be said that there was willingness on behalf of the providers and educators to provide such a service but not in the format it was being offered.
We then turned our focus to phase 3 and 29 June. Thankfully, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs heard the concerns of providers and agreed that it was more feasible to merge phases 3 and 4 and to open services to all families previously connected with our services. We are to prioritise families involved in essential work followed by those families with children with disabilities or from disadvantaged or vulnerable backgrounds. If we have further capacity, we can then roll it out to the remainder of families within our services.
The announcement of a capital grant and a reopening grant, to help offset the costs involved in reopening under the new play-pod model, is positive, as is the reinstatement of the funding schemes, coupled with the simplified version of the re-registration process. The announcement that the fee subsidy schemes were being reactivated offered a reassurance to our parent body and allayed many of its fears regarding the costs involved in childcare. However, the very late notification of the funding model – a mere 12 working days prior to reopening - caused the now familiar stress levels to rise, as again we worked in the dark, while trying to plan a reopening without knowing if it would be viable. The pod model of provision was first mooted on the floor of the Dáil Chamber on 20 May by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. We, the providers, educators and parents, had no clear idea how this was to work. This proved to be extremely confusing and still poses confusion among the professional and parent body alike. Thankfully, the Department has now provided useful supports for parents, providers and educators on the First 5 and Let's Get Ready websites.
In the childcare sector, we are used to working to stringent hygiene standards and are familiar with the risk analysis required to maintain a safe and hygienic environment. This is a regular part of our daily practice and is manageable with the proper supports in place. The additional Covid-19 health and safety requirements that must be implemented throughout our working day are a further responsibility for the staff team and will entail the need for supplementary staff over and above the regulatory requirements. Extra personnel will be required for: managing arrivals and departures; enhanced cleaning and; additional administration. The enhanced staff team may be possible for providers because of the TWSS being in place as between 70% and 85% of the wages will be covered under this scheme, leaving the smaller portion to be covered by the provider through fees and subsidies they receive.
The summer months are naturally a quieter period in most services and due to Covid-19 we would anticipate an even greater reduction in the demand for childcare. This should mean that we have staff available to cover this extra work. However, this assumes that we can afford to pay for these additional staff and that all our staff will be in a position to return to work. Some staff will experience difficulty returning due to family care needs and may have underlying health concerns of their own.
I am sorry to interrupt Ms Donohoe and I am sorry for the mix-up earlier. My notes referred Ms Quinn. There are only five minutes for opening statements and we have had the opportunity to read Ms Donohoe's submission beforehand so we might press on.
Ms Marie Daly:
I am CEO of the Crann Support Group and the chair of the national community childcare forum. Crann Support Group is a community voluntary organisation working to improve and enhance the governance and operations of community childcare organisations through the provision of shared business services. Crann Support Group is responsible for the administration of in excess of €7 million and maintains assets to the value of €5.6 million.
Crann works within the principles of community development. We believe that by working together we can achieve more.
There is no doubt but that the recent pandemic has been a challenging time for our society as a whole. I take this opportunity to commend the Government, in particular the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, for providing us with the infrastructure to be able to maintain the continuity of the employer-employee relationship. In doing so, we were able to continue to support our children and families through the use of our in-house communication tool, Child Paths.
It goes without saying that childcare has undergone many changes in the past ten to 15 years. In this time we have seen investment from the Government, starting from a very low base; the making compulsory of QQI qualifications - a minimum of level 5, level 6 for preschool, as we now strive to have 60% degree-led; and an increased number of inspections from Tusla, Pobal, DEIS and environmental officers to ensure compliance with regulations.
On 5 February, tens of thousands of early years childcare providers, educators demonstrating their support and parents took part in a protest in Dublin city calling on the Government to provide increased funding to reduce fees for parents, to introduce a recognised pay scale for early years professionals and to support the sustainability of the services. Current research demonstrates that 60% of early years childcare professionals earn less than the living wage. This factor has a great impact on the retention of staff. According to the Early Years Sector Profile Report 2018/2019, nationally, on average, there is a 23.4% annual turnover of staff within the sector, with 23% of services reporting vacancies and 53% reporting difficulty recruiting. While we acknowledge that these statistics are marginally down on previous years, the Government needs to focus on a robust governance structure that would provide for strong, effective leadership and Government investment in career and salary structures for the sector.
In May, the NCCF, in collaboration with the Association of Childhood Professionals, ACP, and the National Childhood Network, NCN, carried out a survey of both community and private providers to indicate the effects of Covid-19 and the difficulties in reopening. There were over 3,500 responses, and 2,500 providers completed the survey. The indicators were that 98% stated they would have some level of financial difficulty in reopening and 79% stated they had concerns about staff returning, with the greatest worry for staff being the health implications for themselves and their families. Reduction of staff hours or staff redundancy was an issue, as was the need for access to Covid-19 testing. Other issues included cross-contamination and the financial implications of operating on reduced ratios. As an air of confusion, insecurity and anxiety floated through the early years sector, it became very evident that Crann services were needed. The need for the services provided by Crann increased by 400% over the pandemic due to the lack of confidence within the community sector to identify the necessary actions to prepare for the reopening of services. The Crann support team had the necessary professional experience, knowledge and skills to amalgamate the guidelines from the relevant authorities. There was a statutory requirement for a Covid-19 document for the safe reopening of services.
Regarding the HSA and the back-to-work protocol, on 8 May Crann support teams started to work on the list of things needed for the Covid-19 response document. The committee can see my written statement for details. There are many benefits of a shared services model similar to that of Crann. These benefits have been documented following a recent external evaluation of the Crann model by Trinity College Dublin. The Trinity College research team has highlighted that the model allows member organisations to focus on core business activities; gives confidence and reliability in management and human resource services; gives access to significant expertise and knowledge working within the non-profit sector; gives confidence and reliability in the accuracy and efficiency of accountancy and payroll services; oversees compliance with statutory law; maximises training of qualified personnel; and is cost-effective, with substantial savings.
I welcome all the witnesses.
This morning unions representing healthcare workers confirmed to this committee that they were not consulted regarding the provision of emergency childcare for essential healthcare workers prior to the announcement of this service by An Taoiseach on 1 May. Further to that, I ask the witnesses if, as childcare providers, they were directly consulted or in what respect they were consulted regarding the provision of such a service prior to the announcement on 1 May. Ms Quinn might take that question.
Ms Marian Quinn:
I thank the Deputy for the question. We were not consulted in relation to the emergency childcare scheme for healthcare workers. Subsequently, for further phases, we have been consulted but at that stage we were not involved in it. The advisory group was not set up and, while we had contacted the Department to put forward suggestions on how any phased opening should happen, we had not been invited to do so at that time.
I take it from the witnesses' submissions, and somebody may want to disagree with me, that there was absolutely no consultation either with the service providers or with those who would be the service users in relation to this announcement on 1 May. That totally defies logic and it is no surprise that it failed.
I will move on to a specific question as I am conscious of my time. Regarding children with additional needs, how are they to be catered for, with the opening on Monday, perhaps later in September or whenever? Ms Heeney might like to address that question.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
I thank the Deputy for the question. We know that many parents have been very concerned about the fact that their children with additional needs have not had access to supports since the shutdown in March. We have made a suggestion to the Department through the advisory group that Ms Quinn has just referred to that an initiative could be developed over the summer for those children similar to the scheme in primary schools. It is a suggestion we think the Department should take up and should investigate whether or not early year settings can reopen or provide some support for children with additional needs who had been attending their services in March.
To continue on that topic, which is hugely important to a large number of parents, where does that stand now? Has the Department come back to the advisory group? Is there a negotiation in relation to that suggestion?
Ms Teresa Heeney:
We continue to raise it at the advisory group on reopening. Another meeting of that advisory group is convened for tomorrow. We have been meeting with the Department on a weekly basis. My colleagues here attend those meetings as well. These meetings involve planning for the reopening. The first phase of that is the reopening which is happening next Monday. We are very keen to begin conversations about what will happen in September and we will certainly be tabling again the issue of children with additional needs. Many members of ECI have expressed that they would very much welcome an opportunity to re-engage with those children because they have a very close relationship with them and their families and they know those children may need a little bit of extra support before going to school, for example, in September.
I would welcome that and the sooner there is clarity around it, the better it will be for all concerned.
What capacity is Ms Quinn anticipating will be available on Monday, 29 June in terms of providers and the uptake?
Ms Marian Quinn:
Unfortunately, it is pretty much impossible to tell. We have spoken to providers around the country and some have said they will not be able to open. Many providers, having held discussions with parents, will be opening at 60% to 70% capacity but it depends where they are and the cohort of parents they have.
We know that every summer the majority of services do not open. Many services in Ireland are preschool services, so they tend to be bound by term time. My understanding is that last year about 1,800 services opened. The slack is typically taken up by summer camps. It is one of the most stressful times for parents, where they are going from pillar to post for summer camps. That will be a reality but the reliance on grandparents and family members has not been available and that capacity will not become available either. We just do not know. There are so many unknowns until services open up in terms of what the demand will be. People will know the demand from the engagement with their current families but for other essential workers who have been reliant on families or summer camps, we will not know the demand from them until services are open.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations and for their ongoing work in this area. While I do not want to single anyone out, I regularly call on Ms Quinn and the ACP for advice and have found her and her colleagues extremely helpful. I will try to get in as much as possible during my ten minutes.
Do Ms Quinn, Ms Donohoe and Ms Daly feel that the level of consultation with the Department was adequate? We heard that this was a time when staff could do continuing professional development, CPD. Was that a realistic option for staff? Was support provided? Have facilities received clear guidelines on reopening, social distancing, pods sizes and other details relating to pods? Has the Department communicated that adequately and in a timely manner?
Ms Paula Donohoe:
I will take that. Information has been confusing and conflicting regarding pods. We first heard about it when it was mooted by the Minister. It remains confusing although we are getting clarity. Going back to the previous question about capacity, when I started phoning the parents of children at my facility, I found an uptake of about 40%. When I phoned each parent personally to reassure them and explained how the new normal would look, our uptake rose to between 60% and 70% of our normal participation over the summer.
Regarding CPD, coming from a rural background, I recognise the challenges with broadband. Some members of my team are of a generation who were not computer savvy, and this became an issue for them. We had also been asking for the release of the quality and regulatory framework, QRF. We thought the 14 weeks of furlough represented a very valuable time when all staff could be trained on QRF. That has yet not to be released to us. We were somewhat disappointed at this missed opportunity.
Ms Rachel Grant:
I am HR manager with the Crann Support Group. As Ms Daly explained, we provide services to 11 community childcare organisations. We very much welcomed the opportunity to maintain that relationship with the employer and employee. That was all down to the negotiations that took place with Revenue and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, which came up with a package allowing us to maintain the net wages for staff. In doing that, the CPD took place. We laid down the roadmap. However, it was important that we did not lay that roadmap too narrowly because, as Ms Donohoe just explained, broadband issues, etc., can make it difficult.
We need to identify that childcare has gone through a revolution in the past ten to 15 years. Childcare professionals who did not have qualifications had to progress to get qualifications and also do CPD in their own time. This was an opportunity. This negative turned into a positive for all of the 323 employees in the Crann group. They could do courses of interest to them to allow them to progress with their career. As I explained to all our staff, that will not only benefit them when they return on 29 June, it is lifelong learning. It has been of great benefit to all staff and I commend everybody who took part.
Do Ms Quinn and Ms Heeney have concerns about the sustainability of the sector in future? Is there a need for a sustainability fund to help facilities with particular Covid debts? As a possible solution, could the wage-subsidy scheme be extended to all staff at the full amount, not just 85%, given that some providers may have to decide which staff will return if they are not coming back at full capacity? That seems to be a very unfair position for staff and providers.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
As already stated, the level of investment and the introduction of the wage subsidy scheme showed a tacit acceptance on the part of the Government of the precarious nature of this sector.
One of the things I am very concerned about is that we will lose staff from the sector if we are not able to maintain the entire workforce. We need our staff to be available next Monday, 29 June. We equally need them all to be available in September and we want them all to be available in 2021.
As regards the entire amount of investment that has been made to date, we in Early Childhood Ireland hope that a new agency, which is mooted in the proposed programme for Government, will gather that funding together and repurpose it in a way that ensures sustainability and builds on increased investment. There is reason to be concerned about services. The confidence of parents, operators and staff is absolutely required. There is a lot of anxiety out there at the moment, so seeing how many people arrive back on 29 June, 5 July and every subsequent week will give more confidence. However, there will still be huge issues of sustainability over the next number of months.
Ms Marian Quinn:
Regarding sustainability, while we hear that €75 million was released specifically for early years care, the reality is that at least half of this was under the TWSS, which is generally available to businesses across Ireland. I am not taking from that and we are very grateful to be in receipt of it, but it limits the actual money that was specifically a bailout support for early years. When it is reported that €75 million was put into early years services, it puts huge expectation on service providers to open next week and be available for parents. The reality is that some services will still have sustainability issues. If their staff are not eligible under the wage subsidy scheme the providers will have to find the full level of funding to be able to pay the wages for those staff members. If staff were on reduced wages, were out sick or took leave in January or February, then their average wage would be lower by Revenue's calculation than what their employers are going to have to pay them. Effectively, their employers will have to pay the full wage. All those things are going to add to the providers' financial outlay while there will be limitations on their incomes because they will not come back with 100% capacity for children. We will only see over time how that capacity will increase across the summer. Without a doubt, there will be sustainability issues. We are thankful for the grants and so on that are available but it has to be acknowledged that there are going to be huge challenges.
I also want to touch on the children themselves and the impact all of this has had on them. Has Early Childhood Ireland thought about looking into this to see if there are any supports it can provide for them? I do not necessarily mean for it to give them directly but is there funding available or could we look for funding supports for children?
In case I do not have time, I also want to raise the rumoured possibility that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and its stand-alone Minister might be abolished. It is an issue about which I feel very passionate and I would like to hear what the witnesses think because it is imperative that we keep a stand-alone Minister and Department. Given the week that is in it, I am going to take every opportunity I can to raise the matter.
Ms Frances Byrne:
I thank Deputy Funchion. Early Childhood Ireland entirely agrees with her on this. We are active members of the Children's Rights Alliance and Deputies will be aware that this is of grave concern to organisations that are about and focused on children.
To go back to the Deputy's earlier point, children have been invisible and voiceless although hugely impacted by Covid-19. For example, we have seen shops stopping single adults coming in with children and so on. Other colleagues have noted this but our position is that the resources the Department has made available to the sector, parents and staff in the last few weeks in order to prepare are very welcome. Much more is to come and all the organisations here today are involved in helping with those resources. They are absolutely invaluable and are an important dimension of the consultation that has gone on.
In the context of all of this, the idea that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs would not stand alone, would not be untouched and would not have a full Minister is unthinkable. It sends out a very bad signal and it should not happen. We entirely agree with Deputy Funchion on that.
On the last issue, it is my strong view that the Department and Minister should be retained. It is abundantly clear from the structural issues in services highlighted today that that is where we need to go. In the programme for Government, I understand there is a new care provision to ensure proper and adequate care. In my mind the real crisis of Covid-19 is that the oldest and youngest in our society have been affected the most.
One thing that is coming out of this crisis is recognition that greater attention and investment must be put into the care of our children and older people. I acknowledge in full all of the contributions and submissions made by the witnesses. Given the fact that the economic certainty is that we do not know how our economy will grow in the next few years, no matter what promises I or anybody else makes here, will the witnesses articulate their views on the five things we need to do? Will they prioritise the actions that are necessary? I realise that all of the issues are important, but what are the most important issues the committee could consider and articulate to the Government?
Ms Marie Daly:
The most important thing for me would be an examination of salaries for our professionals. As I stated, 60% of them earn less than a living wage, which is not good enough. We are putting more demands on them in terms of training and education. If we do not address this issue, apart from all of the other crises that are going on within the sector, the sector will lose very good people and we will not be able to staff childcare services.
If the Department and Minister are taken away, we will go back 20 years in childcare and it will be an insult to the childcare sector which is struggling to do the best it can. That will show a Government where exactly we stand in terms of its priorities. It would be a massive mistake. Sustainability for services is huge, and we are such a complex sector that one shoe does not fit all. There are differently sized pots and we have to come up with a solution that takes into consideration all of the complexities of the sector we are dealing with.
Ms Marian Quinn:
There are many different models of provision. There are preschools and crèches. There are local needs in regional and rural areas. Centre-based care for children in their own area is what people want. That is a reality that needs to be looked after. We know there are issues in urban areas. In rural areas one sees rural decay, where Garda stations, shops and schools are being lost, and they are in danger of losing their preschools because they might not be a financially economical model, despite being fundamental to what is happening in local communities. Sustainability is huge and the funding model needs to be addressed in terms of how best to meet the needs of parents in respect of affordability and accessibility, how best to meet the needs of children in terms of quality, locally based provision, and how best to meet the needs of providers in terms of sustainability and for them to be able to attract and retain the staff they need to be able to deliver high-quality services. Those matters are a significant focus for us.
Ms Frances Byrne:
In response to Deputy O’Dowd, from the point of view of Early Childhood Ireland, we agree completely with our colleagues on the funding model and workforce development, and we would link both of them. The Department was embarking on very welcome nationwide consultations about that with the sector when Covid struck, and it needs to be the first priority of the new Government. We need increased investment. It is very welcome to see it in the programme for Government but we need to see the detail. We need to get to that Scandinavian level, which probably means spending about four times more than we are now.
Last but not least, that single agency which is mentioned in the programme for Government needs to get off the ground. At the moment, our members report to seven different agencies and Departments, which is not good. It is more fragmentation and it is appalling value for money for the Irish public.
As one of the people involved in the establishment of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in 2011, it is heartening to hear so much support for it at this stage. I call Deputy Costello.
I want to pick up on a point raised by Ms Heeney at the beginning, when she talked about how far behind other countries we are in terms of our investment in childcare. One of the clear examples is that while we are sitting here debating a failed attempt to set up a childcare scheme for essential workers long after the peak of the crisis, many other countries had it from the very beginning. That is a reflection of where we are, the lack of investment in the sector and the consequences of that.
One of the things I have been asking and have never got a straight answer on from the Department is in regard to the providers who did not take up the temporary wage subsidy childcare scheme, TWSCS, option. There are two questions. First, why did they not take them up, what are the issues and is there any learning from that going forward? Second, what is the likely outcome? There was concern that many of the providers who were not taking this up were planning to close or might have been forced to close. This speaks to the issue of sustainability, the availability of placements and the cost of placements. If the providers represented here can provide any insight into those issues, it would be useful.
Looking forward, there is the committee on reopening yet what I am hearing from the providers is that they are operating in the dark, there are still a lot of things to be worked out and there is a lack of information. Is this committee working? Are the consultation structures in place good enough and are they working, or should we be looking to change them? Any insight into that from the witnesses would be very helpful.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
I will start with Deputy Costello's second question. The committee that is now in place - the advisory group on reopening - works well. It is an example which shows that when people sit around a table and collaborate and consult, and are then allowed to go back to their base, their members, their colleagues or their staff, they can work together and design something that is workable. The members of Early Childhood Ireland to whom I have been speaking were mostly relieved with the package, which gave them some certainty for the next eight weeks. I would welcome the opportunity for us to sit down again and table issues for discussion at the ongoing meetings of the advisory group on reopening, which, as I said, has met weekly.
On the Deputy’s first question on the 15% of services that did not sign up to the scheme, we do not know the answer to that. I understand the Department will use some of its structures, such as the county and city childcare committees, to establish why those 15% of services did not participate in the scheme, which I agree is a big issue, but at this stage we do not understand it. There is probably a myriad of reasons and perhaps some of my colleagues can shed some light on it.
Ms Marian Quinn:
On the Deputy’s second question, it is not so much that providers do not know or that there is not enough detail now in terms of being able to open.
The issue is that there was so much confusion for so long about what would be the reality of being able to open. Providers are now trying to work through that reality in terms of what they are able to do, what is expected of them and what information is untrue. One will hear media reports about the pod system being inhumane. We have seen international images where children were in chalked out boxes and they were not allowed to engage with other people. One also hears about social distancing. However, the reality of social distancing and the pod model is different in an early years service. It will be adults who will be social distancing from each other whereas the children's needs will be met. If they need hugs, reassurance or the supports of the adults, they will get them. They will be able to engage with the children who are in the pod. What that means is that it is just a structure of a group of children together and they are not going to be interacting with other children or other adults from it. However, sometimes when one hears reports of it one says, "Hang on, I thought I had it straight in my head but now I have heard something else - maybe I read it in some media or somebody has commented on it". That is probably where the confusion happens.
The documents available on the First 5 and Let's Get Ready websites are very detailed and break it down for providers. There is a great deal there to go through because much has to be done on opening, but the information is there and people can engage with it.
I join others in thanking the witnesses for their contributions today and for the clarity of thought they bring to these proceedings. The messages they are imparting to us are well rehearsed, perhaps, in that they have spoken on these challenges previously. My first question relates to the temporary wage subsidy scheme. If it is the case that public funding accounts for approximately 58% of wages in the sector, is it now time to consider continuing with the temporary wage subsidy scheme for the providers who will reopen in September and to use that as a launch pad to build out the employment rights and proper wages akin to people's qualifications, so we can get the wages element of this resolved once and for all? There was an opportunity, which was articulated very well to me by Darragh O'Connor of SIPTU recently, whereby this could have been a launch pad for resolving the wages element of this. We see the high rates of attrition and the fact that some people will now cease to avail of the temporary wage subsidy scheme as it relates to the childcare sector. This has created a massive amount of uncertainty, which the witnesses have just articulated. Perhaps it is time for the State to fund paying wages in a way that is done in primary and post-primary schools.
Ms Frances Byrne:
Certainly, from Early Childhood Ireland's point of view and not to be remotely disrespectful to Deputy Sherlock, the short and long answer is "Yes, of course it should". We have said this since the evening the Minister called the meeting with the sector to say that she had brought this to the Cabinet and it was happening. It was very regrettable that it took another three weeks to sort it all out and it certainly caused great anxiety. Absolutely, we and others have been asking for this for the last few years and we have been told repeatedly that it could not happen, that it was intervening in a private sector and so forth. Now it has happened through Covid-19. As we say strongly in our submission, it absolutely must be at the basis of the funding as we go forward. It is so important. The most important people who go into settings every day are the 206,000 babies and children, but-----
I take it that is a "Yes" from all the contributors here. We need a launch pad for a proper wage commensurate with people's qualifications across the sector. Public funding accounts for 58% of childcare providers' income. This is what we will be told later on by officials from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. We therefore, as a society, need to grasp that nettle.
I will move to my second and final question. There are many disparate groups representing childcare interests. I have to be honest; they are all excellent people but there are many different voices and I believe that now is the time for the sector to unite as one voice because it is sometimes difficult for us, as politicians, to distinguish which group represents what interest. I put it to the witnesses, as advocates on behalf of children and parents and as providers, that now is the time for some sort of citizens' assembly to look at the future of childcare provision and the early years sector in Ireland. Perhaps it is time to consider having one coherent voice in that regard because, quite frankly, if I was not spokesperson for children, I would be largely ignorant of the childcare model. I am telling the truth in that. I am a father of two young smallies as well, so I have a particular interest in this area, but sometimes speaking with one voice is more coherent and can strengthen one's message in interacting with Government.
I thank the different groups that have come in to talk to us. It is important that we have this level of engagement with them because it is patently obvious that there has not been sufficient engagement with the sector in recent months. We are really reaping the non-rewards of that at the moment.
I will refer to a comment Ms Byrne made earlier and with which I could not agree more. She said that children have largely been invisible during the pandemic except when they are being blamed and called superspreaders and vectors. The discussion around children has largely been negative. That has been very problematic. Children as a group were not hit from a health perspective but mental health issues will impact on them much more than on other cohorts and groups in our society. I have been very vocal about the need to incorporate advice from psychology experts into development of policies relating to children and their transition back into normal childcare and educational settings. It is being recognised that the mental health curve is the next curve we will have to flatten. We have not had the necessary focus on that issue recently.
My question relates to those psychological supports. Do the representatives think their organisations' members are sufficiently resourced and have the capacity to identify and respond to the emotional, social and psychological challenges children may face when transitioning from a family setting and lockdown scenario back to the crèche environment? As a mother of four, I know that a lot goes on in their heads that they may not be able to verbalise. Childcare settings can provide somewhat of a family setting. When one has the right childcare provider, they become a member of one's family. There is an opportunity that children will open up when they go back to those settings. Are providers ready for that? Have they received the proper guidance and supports from the Department?
Ms Paula Donohoe:
I thank the Deputy very much for her question. As a provider, I will say first and foremost that is part and parcel of what we do every day. It is part of our year. We are used to transitions. We regularly take children into the first place they might meet outside the family home. We work with children and support them, and also their parents, emotionally. Our role is quite large. We are professionally trained to deal with that on an ongoing basis. That training is there.
Resources have been made available to help during this closed period. I can speak for myself and some of my colleagues in saying that throughout this whole period, we have engaged very heavily with the children we care for through our Facebook engagements. We have been reading stories and connecting with them in other ways and they have not lost their connection with us. In fact, in my case, we did a virtual farm tour. We have tried to give them as close an experience as possible, virtually, to their schooling life. That has very much been part of our effort. We are best placed to support the children - as I have already been doing with my families - as we begin the process and journey of reopening next Monday. We will be there to support them in the way that we have been professionally trained to do, with the help of the additional resources that have been made available to us.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
Ms Donohoe has articulated the situation well. Our operators and staff are professionally trained to support children's emotional development. I know from talking to our members that they are very concerned about and alert to the potential anxieties of both parents and children. We are very well placed to deal with that. I agree that there have been some good resources produced by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs concerning the transition. Those resources have been well received by members of Early Childhood Ireland.
Ms Rachel Grant:
From a strategic point of view, it was disappointing that the insurance providers would not allow children and their families to visit services this week, prior to their opening next Monday, in order to break that anxiety about coming back. Staggered visits would have been helpful but they could not be facilitated by the insurance companies.
Ms Rachel Grant:
It was not in compliance with the HSE guidelines.
I thank the witnesses for their submissions and apologise if I am repeat any of the points I missed on my way to the Chamber. The first question I want to ask is sort of a follow-up to the last session, during which we heard from representatives of the nursing unions about the problems essential healthcare workers have faced. The Department, in its submission to the committee, states that the scheme of childcare for essential healthcare workers had to be cancelled because it was not possible to meet all the requirements that would have made it attractive to providers. Ms Grant referred to the insurance element. Can she elaborate - briefly, because we are stuck for time - on any other elements that were an obstacle to the scheme's introduction? Were they just insurance-related or were they also to do with premises costs such as the payment of rents and rate? Was a lack of sick pay a factor? I ask one of the witnesses to elaborate briefly on the barriers that stopped the scheme working.
Ms Marie Daly:
I will take that question on behalf of the Crann Support Group. First of all, the difficulty was not in any way connected, from our point of view, to its not being worthwhile for us to reopen. We would have very much welcomed reopening our services using family pods if we were allowed to do so. However, insurance-wise, that was not possible for some reason. When it comes to going into somebody's home, one is looking at employer law and services having to take responsibility for supervising the people who would be going in there. That would have left our staff open to allegations that might be made against them. There were numerous reasons that the scheme did not work but I can say for my part that it had nothing to do with its not being worthwhile for the providers. It was more the difficulties-----
That has answered the question for me. I did not believe for one minute that the witnesses did not consider it valuable or worthwhile to participate in the scheme. There were obviously very complex obstacles for the sector. However, several of the witnesses have mentioned the fractured nature of the services and how there are so many different organisations overseeing different aspects of it. Believe me, I am not the witnesses' enemy. I think they are all wonderful and I know lots of childcare providers and workers in my own community. However, it strikes me - this is a point the witnesses may not like me making - that one of the problems we have is that this country has the highest level of private childcare provision in the whole of the OECD. The levels are huge compared with other countries, with the data showing that 99% of children attending pre-primary education are enrolled in private facilities, compared with an OECD average of 34%. Other Deputies talked about the need for a conversation and probably citizens' assembly to look at the issue of childcare provision.
We really have to cop on in this country and look at the public provision of childcare in the same way as we look at the public provision of education and health. That should not exclude the witnesses or the very dedicated and highly trained workers who work with them. Instead, I believe it should encompass them. We need to start to look at such a public model because the data show the benefits of it. The Nordic countries are always the best. I have seen that at first hand as my two nephews grew up in Sweden. In Sweden, they spend 1% of GDP on childcare and we spend approximately 0.4%. There are higher returns for children with high levels of public investment. That high level of public investment also leads to better security and better returns for the parents and a higher level of maternal workplace engagement. It would probably have gone a long way towards helping to solve the problems we had with front-line workers. The fees are lower for parents and in general the outcomes are much better.
I emphasise that I am not opposed to those in the private childcare sector; I am on their side. In the brief time we have left I ask the witnesses to comment on the need to move to the public provision of childcare and to a higher spend of GDP on childcare.
Ms Marian Quinn:
We are not disputing that we need to look at a different model or that we need to consider the situation going forward, but the reality is that childcare in Ireland has grown up in the way it has because of the lack of Government interest or investment, or it has not been seen as a priority. In the absence of that, it was something women in the local community set up for each other to support each other. That was gradually extended to families and then to being based in a centre. That has been the reality for between 40 and 50 years. We are looking for a new model now that will incorporate the brilliant work that has been done by providers for many years in the absence of that level of investment.
The big fees in Ireland are due to the lack of Government investment; it is not that the provision in Ireland is hugely more expensive than in other countries, it is because the fees for parents are not subsidised. When looking at a funding model that is more based on public provision, that is something everybody would welcome in the discussions to see exactly how that would work best for families, children and society.
I thank all the childcare providers for appearing before the committee today. I will return to an issue that was raised on the floor earlier, that is, sustainability. I caught a bit of a radio debate coming up this morning. If my understanding is correct, the ratio of children to childcare staff in the pods is 8:1. The person speaking also highlighted the fact that a second person would be needed to provide cover for somebody going to the loo and when parents come to drop off or collect a child. It seems to me that one could have 16 children and three adults. Have the witnesses looked at whether that will impact on their model?
My other question relates to the sustainability of the childcare system in terms of insurance. What is the current position with insurance? I am aware that capital supports are being provided for childcare providers to reopen, but is there any inkling of what the situation will be in terms of personal liability insurance or to cover Covid illness?
Ms Marie Daly:
I do not know who came up with the word "pod" but it is causing huge confusion. The ratio in the 1-2 room is 1:5. If previously one had eight to ten children in the room the situation will return to normal and it will be the very same as prior to Covid-19. That is a pod. The difference is that the children in the 1-2 room will not socialise with the children in the 2-3 room. Each room will have staff looking after the children and there will be relief staff. We will not put a third staff member in as we could not afford to do that but another staff member will provide relief and lunch breaks. The staff member may not go around the whole building but may operate between two rooms. As Ms Frances Byrne stated earlier, the reference to the pod system caused total confusion. There was mention of all kinds of restrictions and that we would have to put dividers into rooms, among other measures. That has all been cleared up and we have been told it does not apply any more.
This is a live situation and changing by the day. A pod is as it was prior to Covid-19.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
On the insurance question, we have only one underwriter. That obviously does not lead to competition in the insurance marketplace. Early Childhood Ireland has aligned itself with the Alliance for Insurance Reform in order to work with the next Government on addressing that issue. With the new single agency mooted in the programme for Government, we would certainly think that the issue of insurance should be one of the first items on its agenda.
Deputy Sherlock made a point earlier about the potential for many of these groupings to speak with one voice and lobby on that basis in order that Deputies can understand the whole panoply of issues involved. An issue which came up this morning and is coming up here again is that of funding and whether the groups have provided some sort of funding horizon of what they believe their requirements will be. This is going to come into sharp relief in the coming weeks. We have one group which is the taxpayer which has to pay for all of these increased costs. Children are vital to the future economic well-being of our country. We want to make sure they are given the best possible opportunity. Have the groups any funding platforms that they have put to the Government in terms of some of the proposals they are making?
Ms Frances Byrne:
I am happy to answer for Early Childhood Ireland and I am conscious of time.
It would be moving towards a Scandinavian model. The last Government left that in place through the national childcare scheme. We estimate that to get the levels of funding that Deputy Bríd Smith described is probably four times more. Two party manifestos mentioned getting to €1 billion in the next five years. That would be very welcome from our point of view. It is certainly critical that in the next phase of the programme for Government, priority would be given in the first 100 days to telling us the amount of money involved. The parties have mentioned investment. We do need to get to those Scandinavian levels for all the reasons Deputy Bríd Smith outlined. The countries she referred to have the lowest levels of child poverty.
The early years sector - I hate to use this phrase about such an important sector - addresses a lot of things and has been described facetiously as a magic bullet. All of us are in agreement that the investment is key. We look forward to that day and possibly having a myriad of debates about how that money will be spent. The important point is to get the Government commitment to continue the journey towards Scandinavian levels of investment. We are probably looking at €2 billion to start out with.
I thank the witnesses for being here before us today.
My first set of questions is for Ms Teresa Heeney. Is she a childcare provider? Many providers are on the Covid social payment. What are her thoughts on that? Was she surprised when the Department of Children and Youth Affairs pulled funding from the childcare schemes? How many providers does Early Childhood Ireland represent as a percentage of the sector? It provides an insurance scheme for providers at a discount. Is there any other reasonable insurance scheme of which providers can avail? Early Childhood Ireland represents providers and staff. Does Ms Heeney think it is possible to represent both providers and staff?
Does the Association of Childhood Professionals support grant-aiding private childcare providers to cover their operational costs for what has happened in the past four months? Regarding childcare for front-line staff, is it true to say better consultation with providers on the ground would have achieved better results?
Early Childhood Ireland has been in existence for many years along with the Association of Childhood Professionals. However, providers believe their interests are not being represented. New organisations are springing up all the time. The Federation of Early Childhood Providers sees issues for full day care providers. Is this not a sad indictment of representation in the sector?
The Department of Children and Youth Affairs said it has increased funding in the sector but providers have got nothing. Many are using Covid payments to pay bills for their services while relying on loans and family for subsistence living. Do the witnesses think this is right?
Perhaps Ms Heeney would address that.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
No, I am not a childcare provider. Early Childhood Ireland has many providers who are members, obviously. Currently some 75% of operators are members of Early Childhood Ireland. I hope that answers the Deputy's question.
I have already addressed the question on insurance. It is very problematic that we have almost only one provider. There is another broker, Arachas Insurance, and Ronan Smith is also a broker. We are certainly hopeful on behalf of our members that the scheme will be able to identify another underwriter for its renewal, which is due this summer.
Ms Marian Quinn:
Absolutely. I believe that, at all times, the better the consultation, the better it is. One can have a group think to identify issues and what are the possible solutions. Then we can work together in choosing the best solution. This should definitely happen at all stages, no matter what we are doing, be it Covid-19 related or at any stage of investment. There are multiple representative organisations. The Association of Childhood Professionals is a voluntary organisation, which means we are literally all working in our own different areas in trying to provide for and represent all the professionals in our sector. I would liken it to what happens in Government with elected Deputies where there are Independents and the different parties. Everybody has a slightly different agenda or a need to represent their members in the best possible way they can. It will never suit all people because people will have different ideas and they are able to bring them forward. Sometimes it is unfortunate when ideas are at polar opposites because it can create for a very confusing state for anyone who is listening who does not live it daily.
On the matter of funding the services, without a doubt we need a reasonable amount of funding to be able to support providers in reopening and in staying open, and in looking forward to what funding model will be available in September for term-time providers who will be reopening then. It is not that we are looking for providers being able to turn over a margin. It is about being sustainable. The cost of reopening cannot be on the individual providers. They are not providing this service without needing to take an income and have a wage themselves, as anybody else would when they work. I hope this answers the Deputy's question.
Deputy McNamara is next but he is not here. I will reserve his time if he comes in later. Now it is the Fianna Fáil slot. Deputy Butler is down but perhaps I will go to the next Fianna Fáil speaker, Deputy McGuinness.
Yes, my slot will be there if it is wanted later. In the various submissions that have been made, surely over the years and in discussion with Government officials, Department officials and Ministers, they would have been aware of the demands the representative organisations are making of Government for funding for a better model of delivery for the sector. What has been the response? Are the representatives in regular contact with the officials and the Minister?
Ms Marian Quinn:
Yes, we are in regular contact. This, however, is not just specific to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. It is Government specific. As Ms Byrne said earlier, it will require a substantial amount of investment. We are talking billions of euro. It is not something that can be done by a single Department. There has been a massive increase in the level of investment - I believe it is a 141% increase - while the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has been in existence. When one is increasing from a very low base, however, any multiple of increase will still be very low, relatively speaking. We are communicating. There have been repeated budget submissions and engagements. The Department is well aware of the level of funding, and it would also be able to identify the level of funding that might be needed by the Department to get where it wants to go.
It is about convincing the Department of Finance and all the other Departments that are around the table of the level of investment that is needed. One Department cannot do this by itself.
I understand that, but the point is that as a result of the engagement it has carried out, the sector has built up a body of information that would inform the Department as to the amount of money that is required. Even before Covid-19, the Department or the Minister would have known that substantial financial intervention was required.
Ms Daly referred to the survey that was carried out. The results of the survey indicate that it is all about money and the Government providing money. I am not saying there is anything wrong with that, I am simply saying that most of the issues relate to financial matters. It could not be unexpected that the sector will need further moneys to comply with the regulations and restrictions that are being put in place, apart altogether from addressing some of the hardy annual issues that arise that have not been dealt with to date. Drawing on the results of the survey, Crann Support Group has outlined the various issues that are a priority. What else has it done with the results of the survey? Has it presented or costed them? What are the next steps in that regard?
Ms Marie Daly:
We have not costed them because the community forum is run on a voluntary basis. We have day jobs in which we look after various services. We do not have the capacity or the resources to cost them. The Deputy is correct that it is all about money. The fees for parents are among the highest in Europe, but we are charging the minimum amount we need to get by. I am referring to the community service and not the other services that are out there. Community services are paying money coming in and money going out. The Deputy is correct that investment through the years has been very low. It is probable that there was initially a negative level of investment and it has only increased gradually since then. We sent the results of our survey to the Department. We have had meetings with it through the years, under various Governments, to request more funding. We get dribs and drabs. The point is that, as Ms Quinn and Ms Byrne stated, this requires a leap which will cost millions of euro.
In the few seconds I have left, I wish to state the community sector and the private sector are facing the same problems, as described by the witnesses and outlined in the submission of Seas Suas. It comes down to finance and supporting a new model. There was reference to a cost of €2 billion in the context of the Scandinavian model. We must strive towards some sort of goal and having excellence in this area. It comes down to the same things: overhead costs, deferred costs, the cost of regulation and red tape and so on. If all these problems exist even though there is a dedicated Minister and Department, I can only imagine what it would be like without them. The witnesses and those they represent need to make their voices heard much more loudly around these Houses. I acknowledge that they have been lobbying, but the issues remain. Although all members are here to help them address those issues, the specifics regarding money and funding, particularly grants, must be made clear to everyone.
I thank the witnesses for attending. Some of my questions may seem repetitive or to be a matter of common sense, but I wish to get them clearly on the record of the committee. Any of the speakers may answer any of the questions, but I ask them to do so as quickly as possible because I have several important points to make.
Are our guests satisfied that the information they have received from the Department and its engagement with them to date have been sufficient?
Can the witnesses outline particular gaps or deficiencies in the information and engagement process to date?
Ms Paula Donohoe:
I thank the Deputy for his question. As a provider, the information has come slowly in dribs in drabs on a backdrop of misinformation in the media so it has proved extremely problematic. Are we getting clarity? We are, very slowly. We would have liked to see the information come through a lot faster. We would like to have had supports in the form of helplines, which were closed down through this entire phase and are still closed. We would have liked, as providers, to have had access to helplines operated by Pobal and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, none of which was made available to us during this time of Covid.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
There is potential for about 1,800 operators to open next Monday but we will not know exact numbers until then. That means there are another 2,700 operators due to open at the end of August or in September. Certainly we look forward to a discussion with the Department about when news about the funding model for all of those services is going to be made available because it will need to be considered so that people can make decisions and plan. Certainly, from the point of view of Early Childhood Ireland, we have said that we need to stop talking about the September model but talk about an August model because much of this work will have to begin in July and August. We are looking forward to that new discussion with the Department.
I want to contextualise this for myself. There is the infamous mind-at-home scheme or the programme that was announced to address the issues pertaining to front-line workers and the proposition that childcare professionals would simply arrive at somebody's home to mind their children regardless of the implications the measure would have for public health, insurance cover or whatever. The deficiencies of the scheme became very evident almost immediately after it was announced. Was any of the organisations consulted in advance of the announcement?
Ms Marie Daly:
No, we were not consulted. There were a variety of reasons we could not do it. We were willing to open our services and operate family pods within our services. However, going into somebody's home to look after their children presented itself as very problematic for reasons of HR, insurance and loads more. We were not consulted at the time and we would have given our opinion if we were.
To be quite frank, any ordinary person with an ounce of common sense, and they would not need to be an expert in the field as the witnesses are, would know that it was a crazy idea. The reason I have raised the issue in this context is to question the understanding of the realities of people's lives, and the situation in which the childcare profession operates, and why this would come as a formal proposal.
Are the organisations satisfied that the guidance and direction on public health advice will be sufficient for the childcare operators that will open on Monday? Are the information and supports sufficient? Is there scope for improvement? If so, what improvements must be made?
Ms Marie Daly:
There is always room for improvement in everything. The information that we have now is sufficient for us to open. For the next two months the information we have is fine. To reiterate what all of my colleagues have said, we need to start talking about September. Now we know what we are doing. We know the money that is going to come in to us so the decision to open now lies with us and I hope most people will open. Talking about August, everybody must be let know before the end of July because if they are not we will repeat the mistakes that we made with the slow information that came down the line for 29 June.
If we do not tell our providers that are opening in September, what they have to do in July and what funding packages are there for them, we will have learned nothing through this.
I ask whoever feels it most relevant to do so to answer my next question. With regard to the children of front-line workers - and I mean this in the broadest sense as being those who were deemed essential throughout the Covid emergency and who, in many cases, have, as we heard this morning, been in very difficult situations - are the witnesses satisfied their member organisations will be in a position to cater for the children of those workers who will require places next Monday?
Ms Marian Quinn:
I will take that question. Not necessarily because, unfortunately, as I alluded to earlier, there is significant reliance on family, including grandparents. If 50% traditionally had such care, there will not be enough services able to open next week to take up that capacity. There are also childminders coming into this. We know that a lot of people in healthcare work 12 hour shifts and, typically, services cannot offer this model of delivery. Childminders will be hugely important. There is also the reality that there are service providers that typically do not open in July and August but that could be open this July and August because they have not been open since mid-March. They have been engaging with parents on whether parents want them to open for July and August when typically they would not. In some instances, quite a number of parents - or a majority of them - have said they could really do with that service but, unfortunately, the providers are unable to be involved in the scheme for opening because it is predominantly for those services that typically open. This is an untypical time and sometimes we need to look at resources that might not have been used previously if those providers feel they can offer such a service.
I ask each of our guests to inform the committee on particular issues relating to front-line workers finding it difficult to access childcare facilities for whatever reason. There is no need to go into specifics. It is important for the committee's work.
I have been involved on the committee of a community crèche and I know one of the challenges is always how to cater for very young babies because of the staff ratio and the amount of space. Generally speaking, it can raise complications but nevertheless it is an essential part of the work done by the sector. There have been calls, particularly from women who were on maternity leave during this period, for a 12-week extension to that leave cover in order to make up for the traumatic experience they have been through. Would such a move assist the sector with managing over the coming months?
Ms Teresa Heeney:
Many of the suggestions we are hearing today are all described and set out very well in the Department's First 5 strategy. As my colleague, Ms Byrne, alluded to earlier, part of the strategy is a workforce development plan and the development of a funding model that the Department had begun before Covid. We certainly hope it will begin the process again quickly. Another commitment in the strategy is the extension of maternity leave up to one year to cover the first full year of the child's life. International evidence is that this is in the best interests of children and it certainly should be a key part of the new single agency that we see in the programme for Government.
I apologise for not being here earlier. I was dealing with a constituency matter. Turning to constituency issues, many childcare providers in advance of the general election, and certainly in advance of the shutdown, were already speaking about the huge difficulties in staying open because of insurance costs and the administrative burden being shifted onto them, primarily by the Department and its policies.
I want to ask two questions about that. The insurance companies pretended to reimburse private car owners in a deal they appeared to hatch with the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform but they are reneging on their claims with pubs. All of the premises of childcare providers were shut for a number of months so did they get reimbursed insurance costs such that insurance is no longer a worry for them this year? Do childcare providers have an additional administrative burden now in reporting on safety and with the precautions taken in light of Covid-19?
Ms Paula Donohoe:
As a provider, my insurer has extended my insurance period for a further three months into next year. On the question of an additional administrative burden, I used to work in the classroom, which was my joy. My favourite part of the day was the three hours I spent in the room with my three to five-year olds. Unfortunately, as the workload has increased to a point that I found myself working on administration at home from 9 a.m. until midnight after I had put my child to bed, I have had to take the decision to step back and become a full-time administrator in my service. That is due to the increased burden of paperwork that pre-existed Covid-19. In light of Covid-19, we will have to put in the checks and balances that will attest to the fact that we are doing all the risk assessments, cleaning, hygiene and tracing of pods, etc. We will have an additional workload as a result of that.
Have childcare providers been offered any additional support to pay for that additional administrative workload? Ms Donohoe's story of staying up all night filling in paperwork is typical of what I have heard from childcare providers whom I met in Clare in January and February.
Ms Marian Quinn:
The reopening grant does not apply to all businesses. It is specific to early years childcare providers. The temporary wage subsidy scheme applies to everybody. We are awaiting the full details on what exactly the reopening grant can be spent on but our information to date has been that if there is increased administrative or cleaning work specific to Covid-19 expenses for personnel, then that money can be used. That will be challenging for providers because where the temporary wage subsidy scheme does not cover the wage of the employee, the employer will be stuck trying to find the funding to do that because it cannot raise parent fees and nor would it want to. Therefore, it will need to come out of the small income it has, given it is at reduced capacity.
I thank the witnesses for coming here today, for making their presentations, for all of the work they do and for the commitment that they and their staff have.
It is very much appreciated.
A number of people touched on the issue of insurance. Could we have some idea of the annual premium for the average facility at the moment? What is the level of claims against facilities? Can it be averaged out as, say, one claim per ten, 20 or 30 facilities per annum? Do the witnesses have any figures for the total number of claims against childcare facilities per annum? I know insurance is quite expensive, but could we have any guideline as to what is happening to justify the cost of insurance being imposed on the witnesses' sector?
Ms Marie Daly:
Insurance costs depend on the number of children catered for, but in our services one would be looking at between €6,000 and €9,000 a year. Do we have many claims? I do not know what the national figure is, but we might have one a year or even one every two years. The number is not extremely high, but the cost is anything from €6,000 to €9,000, depending on the number of children catered for.
Has there been any discussion with any of the Government Departments on this issue of insurance? We have had to do a deal in this regard with the healthcare sector, whereby the State has had to take over insurance in the healthcare sector. In particular given there is, I think it was said, only one main insurer for the sector, the question is whether or not this would be part of a package of the State taking over insurance cover for childcare facilities. Has that been discussed at any stage?
Ms Marie Daly:
I will hand that over to Ms Heeney in a few moments but I just want to mention another issue with insurance. Insurers now are beginning to dictate what our programmes with children can look like. In some cases it could be said that they are stunting the development of children. We run outdoor preschools and are now being told they cannot use this and cannot use that. The insurers are not covering us for a load of stuff, even though the insurance premiums constantly go up. That is just something I wanted to add. I will hand it over to Ms Heeney, who knows more about insurance.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
I do not know if I have an awful lot more to add, other than to reiterate the point I made earlier, that in the new programme for Government we see a commitment to establish a single agency. We certainly think the issue of insurance, given the situation we have at the moment, has to be considered by that agency because a risk assessment on the sector would show that that issue is critical. All the 4,500 operators that operate settings in Ireland need insurance, and we all need to be concerned about the fact that there is very limited choice. We have addressed this on a number of occasions with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
As I understand it, there is one organisation dealing with insurance for the primary schools. Would it not be possible to incorporate the cover for childcare facilities under a similar arrangement as what is at present in place in primary schools?
I will move on to the area of staff recruitment. I think a presentation earlier referred to 23.4% annual turnover of staff. When staff move on, have we any idea where they go? Is it the case that they move on to other facilities? Do they move on to a total change of work style? I think there was a 40% turnover of workers in full-day care facilities. Have we any idea where people move to when they leave the childcare workforce?
Ms Frances Byrne:
We know there is a lot of what I think researchers call churn within the sector. People are moving within the sector, but undoubtedly people are also leaving it.
In ECI every September and January our employer service, which is an information and advice phone line, is inundated with really concerned members because people have signalled that they are not coming back or have not come back. Last September we had members all across the country telling us that people were leaving. A particular retailer was mentioned. I will not give it free advertising here. It was not that the entry-level wage was that much higher. Members were being told by departing staff that in moving into retail, they were guaranteed increases over the forthcoming years. The employer was able provide them with a pay scale. My colleague, Ms Heeney, often jokes, though not in a facetious way, that among the 4,500 providers, there are 4,500 pay scales. There are providers that try really hard to provide a pay scale. The problem is that Ireland is the joint lowest investor in the EU. The money is not coming in, so we have very high staff turnover, low pay and, unfortunately, the highest proportion of fees from take-home pay across the EU.
It is a mixed picture. For the sake of babies and children, it is a very bad indicator. I think everybody would agree with that. One of the reasons groups like ours highlight it is because that link with quality of relationship and consistency with babies and children is so important. It is vital, as we said earlier, that this is a focus of the next Government. Workforce development and the funding model are intertwined and that needs to be a priority.
Ms Marie Daly:
Research shows that 60% of those in the childcare sector are paid less than the living wage. A bigger thing that has hit the sector in the last number of years is the introduction of special needs assistants in schools, which we have no objection to, but all of these people are leaving the childcare sector because they are starting at something like €33,000 per year, which is way above what childcare workers get. They have all the summer off, finish work at 4 o'clock and do not have the burden of responsibility or the paperwork to carry out that childcare professionals have.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
Rent is a big overhead as well. The issue of rent very much speaks to the complexity of the sector. Some services may have very large leases or mortgages depending on where they are. Other services may have built a building beside their family home. The issue of overheads and rent is very contextualised as well but it is a very significant cost for a lot of operators.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
Yes, and it may also speak to how long the service has been in operation. That is often an issue.
One of the key things I am concerned about in relation to Covid is that if members of ECI had any savings at all, that has now probably been spent. One of the concerns I would have about that is that if they had any plans to extend their capacity or conduct quality improvement measures, it is unlikely that those things can now happen.
Ms Marian Quinn:
I would like to add to that. The reality was that sole traders - and quite a number of providers are sole traders - were not able to take a wage under the temporary wage subsidy scheme over the period of time. One woman who contacted us is 67 years of age, so she was not even able to apply for the pandemic unemployment payment. That created a huge sustainability issue for her. She may have been getting €300 towards covering her overheads and then she was depending on the pension.
Her overheads were not covered by that. She still had to put in the time to support staff, engage with CPD and administer their wages. It was very unfortunate that she was really hard done by in that case. There are many more like that.
I thank all the witnesses for appearing before the committee and for their submissions. The general secretary of the INMO, Phil Ní Sheaghdha, participated in this morning's session. She cited social stigma towards healthcare workers as a major problem with childcare providers being reluctant in accepting children in their care. She quoted one respondent of an internal survey as stating that childcare providers are less willing to take nurses' children because of their perception of a higher risk of transmission from healthcare workers and the initial stance of the Government to portray children as super spreaders. Has this issue been raised with any of the witnesses? I was quite surprised to hear it this morning.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
I heard that as I was driving in today. I have never encountered anything like that. As Ms Donohoe said earlier, this is a professional and highly regulated sector. We have training in diversity and equality. We have the leadership for inclusion programme. Our staff are all professionally trained people. I have never come across the suggestion in question from any of the people I have spoken to. My colleagues may have had a different experience. I was shocked when I heard that on the news coming here today.
Ms Marie Daly:
I would like to add to that. I look after 11 community childcare services in Meath and two in Dublin. We have not been approached by one front-line worker looking for childcare in any of those areas. The people we already had in the service are coming back. We have never had one inquiry for a new person to come on board.
The INMO submission called for a public awareness campaign confirming the post-shift safety measures undertaken by nurses and midwives, and the low risk of contracting Covid-19 if caring for nurses' or midwives’ children. Nurses and midwives are calling for a public awareness campaign to assure childcare providers that their children would not be susceptible to Covid-19. Is that necessary?
Ms Frances Byrne:
Certainly, I picked up from the INMO general secretary that it was more about that. One does not want to rely on anecdotal evidence too much, but in the fast-moving environment post-12 March, when the front-line scheme failed some members were telling us in Early Childhood Ireland that they were not clear about the precautions that front-line staff were taking. That may have been a factor in the broader concerns that people had. There may be something in that about the broader public - not just early years providers but others - having sight of or understanding the measures that nurses, doctors etc. take before they go to work every day and when they come home. There probably is something in that.
I read with interest Ms Daly's submission about the survey that was undertaken. Will the uncertainty of staff availability for reopening be an issue? Are staff nervous that they might contract the disease themselves? Is it because they have childcare issues themselves or they may have issues with being susceptible to the disease themselves? Is that the issue with uncertainty about staff availability for reopening?
Ms Marie Daly:
There are a number of issues and I think the Deputy has named them all. There are concerns about their own health and bringing any infection home to the people they might be living with such as their parents. They may not have childcare and may have relied on their parents to look after their children while they went to work.
A number of them would have underlying conditions which would prevent them from returning to work. There is a mixed bag as to why staff are not returning to work. Within my organisation, which has 323 staff, we have five people who are unable to return to work, but that is due to underlying conditions.
Childcare providers will be opening up on Monday next. Is there apprehension among the different providers as to what they are facing? Exactly what they are facing is very uncertain, with the new way of childcare and these suggested pods. Many different supports will have to be put in place to make sure staff and children are kept as safe as possible as we live through Covid.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
Uncertainty causes anxiety and there is uncertainty for parents, children and staff. However, there is also determination. It is important to put on the record that this sector is already highly regulated. It is professional and regulated so a lot of the practices that are required due to Covid-19 are run-of-the-mill for many of our services. They already have lots of hand washing, cleaning and so on. Parents coming back to services next Monday are aware of that, and it is to be hoped it will give parents and staff a lot of comfort as we move back into recreating the national early years infrastructure which is going to be really important for children and families as well as for the economy.
I thank the witnesses for their comprehensive presentation earlier on. As I am the last speaker of this session, most questions have been asked already so I am going to expand a little bit. One of my questions relates to fees. Ireland has some of the highest childcare fees in Europe, averaging around €185 per week for a single day care place. Is it fair for providers to return to charging fees or should the fees be capped at the lower rates, given that the wage subsidy scheme is staying in place? Ms Heeney might answer that question for me.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
The issue of certainty arises again here. The funding package that was made available to the sector to reopen included the reinstatement of the schemes, the reopening grant, a capital grant and the wage scheme. One of the things that has been critical to reopening is the fact that operators, including members of Early Childhood Ireland, can re-engage with parents on the same basis they engaged with them back in March. The package of supports is due to the fact that services are going to reopen with fewer children and therefore less income and with the range of debts that have been incurred during closure. It is reasonable that fees are charged at the same level because we need to get through the next eight weeks and see our way through to the end of the year.
If I could just expand on that, what about the parents who might not need the service until next September? Would it be reasonable to have a conversation about them not having to pay the holding fee that would have been part of their pre-Covid contract while the service is getting up and running? I am talking about parents who would not need the service until September. Has that conversation been had with the expert advisory group?
Ms Marie Daly:
I will answer that question. Our policy normally would be that if people were not using the service for the summer, they would pay a 50% retention fee but they could use the service two days a week. We have had parents come forward who are not back to work and, of course, if they are not back at work, we would not expect them to pay. We more or less look at everything individually. Where children would normally leave the service from the end of June to the beginning of September, such as the children of teachers who would not need the service, they would pay 50%.
They would also be able to use the service twice a week. However, we would not look to charge any parent who is not back at work and does not need our services.
My question concerns the expert advisory group that has been meeting once a week for the past number of weeks. Has a joint decision been made on how to support the parents who will not return to work until September? Is there a blanket recommendation for non-intake of fees for parents who will not need the service? I would like a "Yes" or "No" answer.
Ms Marian Quinn:
No, there has not been a blanket agreement. The temporary wage subsidy scheme might cover 40% of some people's costs. There might be 40% capacity and 20% of an overhead cost left for providers. They cannot afford to take that given that they are going back into business with a significant amount of debt. If they were to take some sort of retainer from parents who will not use a service because of a personal choice or because they cannot afford it, they will be left with 20% of the cost of the service and they might be in danger of needing to shut down if they were to incur more costs.
I thank Ms Quinn. It is important that people listening to this debate understand the complexities that the providers operate under. Earlier today, like many other Deputies driving to Leinster House, I listened to the radio. The Federation of Early Childhood Providers was quoted as saying in a newspaper that the Department does not even understand its own package of supports which fall short, will force children with additional needs to stay at home and will leave a massive black hole in the finances of early years providers. This is a bleak assessment and will leave many providers and parents worried. I am following on from my colleague, Deputy Norma Foley, who talked about the AIM model and children of varying abilities who might not be included in phase 1 of childcare reopening as part of phase 3. In regard to the expert advisory group, I want to tease out with the witnesses whether there has been a conversation about July or August provision for children who will need to reintegrate and will need such services more than others.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
We have raised that issue at the meetings of the advisory group because the July provision would be welcome for many families. I have spoken to many members of Early Childhood Ireland who would welcome an opportunity to bring some of the children and families back in order to help those children prepare for going back to school in September.
That is why I asked about July and August. There could be a three-week period for opening up and perhaps we could then examine the issue. The others feel exactly the same way. Do I have time for one last question?
I thank the Acting Chairman. My final question is about staff wages. Childcare staff, many of whom marched outside this building last February to highlight the poor rates of pay, have had the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Revenue cover their wages during the pandemic, ensuring a minimum payment of €350. I would like a "Yes" or "No" answer to my question. Do the witnesses think this model should be considered as a permanent solution to solve the sector's wage issue?
I have a couple of observations and questions in the two or three minutes we have left. We all have a very strong interest in this issues from our own family perspectives and the well-being of children generally. On the well-being of children generally, in advance of this debate I spoke with a number of clinical psychotherapists specialising in children and early years. Their view was that for children who do not have other social vulnerabilities beyond the Covid-19 period, those aged under seven, and in particular under five, are taking most of their social cues from parents and siblings and unless they have additional vulnerabilities, while acknowledging that there may be some emotional or developmental regression, the transition back will be part of their development and something should we expect to be generally okay. I would like to get the perspective of the witnesses on that.
Ms Paula Donohoe:
I go back to what I originally said. We generally expect children to have separation anxiety, especially having lived a really cosseted time with parents and family. We anticipate such issues.
Again, I do not think there is any profession better placed to support these children, and their parents, through the transition back into these settings.
Ms Marie Daly:
I agree with Ms Donohoe that some children are very excited about returning. During Covid-19, the majority of providers would have kept links with the children via Facebook and other means and some children are very excited. This does not mean that they will not cry on the second day, but that is the nature of childcare.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
We always tell the story in early years education about children who go in on day one and then, on day two, cannot believe they have to go back. Certainly, the conversations I have been having suggest that there are a lot of children, staff and operators who are very excited and, as I said, hopeful and determined about next Monday. People are also looking forward to redesigning the national early years infrastructure.
I thank Ms Heeney. That will be an exciting opportunity for us all. I want to ask it Early Childhood Ireland about its submission, particularly as the issues with which it deals are so concentrated. In the context of people's anxiety about what will happen beyond August, which, of course, I completely understand, I have been speaking with a number of providers in my area that may have to close because of their size and inability to apply the pod scheme, or because it changes their model so substantially. Do we accept that this uncertainty relates to that which obtains regarding the public health advice for the next two to three months?
Ms Teresa Heeney:
What we are going to see next Monday is an opportunity to see what the public health advice looks like in practice. It is going to be very important that the Department and ourselves, as support organisations, monitor and keep in touch with our members about the kinks, what it looks like and whether the grants are sufficient or whether further funding is needed, so we can better prepare for the next wave of services opening in mid-August. There is a lot to be learned in that period.
I have one question for Ms Byrne on the front-line scheme. I am asking her because she and I were on the same radio show to discuss this scheme at the time. Ms Byrne acknowledged in her submission that the sector had a sort of bespoke wage subsidy scheme, which, I suppose, could be said to be additional to the supports provided to other sectors. I recall Ms Byrne stating that the sector had engaged in good faith with the development of that scheme and was disappointed that ultimately it did not work out. Will she elaborate on what had happened up to that point? Is what I am saying correct?
Ms Frances Byrne:
No, what I was referring to was the wage subsidy scheme. We had welcomed it on the evening the Minister announced it and then, unfortunately, there were weeks of waiting. Based on what was said that evening and what was in the media, people who had been laid off returned to their settings, and providers re-employed people or made different arrangements, and then there was this lag. It was not in respect of the front-line scheme but, rather, to the wage subsidy scheme and just because there were those delays. The Department has somewhat made up for that in listening to the sector on this occasion regarding the advisory group. The continuation of that advisory group through the August-September opening and, indeed, into 2021, when we all hope Ireland will move out of the Covid phase completely, will be critical. That is what I meant on that day we were discussing these issues on the radio.
I thank the witnesses for their attendance. We will suspend until 4.30 p.m., when we meet representatives from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. I am sure we will have plenty of questions for them.