Thursday, 20 October 2005
Child Care Services.
Question 7: To ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the committees and working groups in his Department, or on which his Department is represented, which deal with the issue of child care; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29646/05]
The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has lead responsibility for the equal opportunities childcare programme, EOCP, 2000 to 2006. The programme was established to deliver the Government's commitment, identified in the national development plan to develop quality child care services in Ireland through a major investment programme. This commitment was given in direct response to the recommendations of the expert working group on child care established under Partnership 2000, and chaired by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to develop a strategy for the development and delivery of child care.
The key objective of the programme was to increase the supply of centre-based child care places by 55%, or some 31,500 places, by its end. At the end of June 2005, some 26,000 new places had been created and 23,000 existing places were being supported. The programme is, therefore, ahead of its projected targets and is expected to result in some 39,000 new places through funding already committed. In addition, the EOCP has provided support and assistance to the many childminders who are providing child care services, the county child care committees and the like.
Since its inception in 2000, the funding committed to the programme has increased from €318 million to €499.3 million, or by 57%, the most recent increase being €50 million in the 2005 budget. In addition, the multi-annual capital envelopes announced on budget day included increases that will result in a further €50 million in capital in 2006 and a further €40 million in capital funding between 2007 and 2009.
The Deputy will appreciate this has been a substantial programme and is one of the successes of the last several years.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
It is against this background, that the following committees and working groups were established, and are dealing with child care issues relevant to my Department. The equal opportunities childcare programme appraisal committee, chaired by the child care directorate in my Department, considers grant applications and makes recommendations regarding capital and staffing grant assistance, and other issues for consideration by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
The national childcare co-ordinating committee, also chaired by my Department, oversees the development of an integrated child care infrastructure throughout the country. Membership comprises representatives of the statutory and non-statutory sectors including the social partners, the national voluntary childcare organisations and the city and county childcare committees which have been established. To assist it in its work, the NCCC has established a number of sub-groups. These include a certifying bodies sub-group, an advisory group to the NCCC, a working group on school age child care, and a child minding sub-group.
The working group on school age child care published its report, School Age Childcare in Ireland, in June 2005. This report made a number of recommendations for, as well as providing guidelines on, the development of appropriate school age child care services, including the use of school premises where appropriate.
The certifying bodies sub-group was established to address qualification, certification and accreditation issues in the area of child care from the perspective of the child care sector. In 2002, this group published a model framework for education, training and professional development in the early childhood care and education sector. The model framework addressed issues relating to accreditation from the perspective of the child care sector and developed a set of occupational profiles for early childhood care and education sector. The child minding sub-group was formed to compile a set of national guidelines for the voluntary notification of child minders who are not required to notify their services to the Health Servies Executive under the 1996 Child Care (Pre-School Services) Regulations. A draft set of guidelines has been presented to the HSE.
A total of 33 city and county child care committees were established in 2001 charged with preparing and delivering a five year child care development strategy plan to address the specific child care needs of each of the 33 local areas. To implement its strategy, each CCC is required to prepare an annual action plan, which receives funding under the quality measure of the EOCP. The chair of the CCC is a member of the local authority county development board.
The IBEC/ICTU sub-committee was established in the context of Sustaining Progress to examine the child care needs of employers and employees. The sub-committee is expected to report shortly with a view to setting out areas of commonality between the partners and identifying issues for discussion in partnership talks.
As this very successful investment programme draws to its final stage, the full range of child care issues and how we should best address them are being critically examined in a wide number of fora. The following is an extensive list of the committees and working groups considering child care issues, in which my Department is actively represented: the high level working group on early childhood care and education, chaired by the National Children's Office; the monitoring committees of the respective regional operational programmes of the national development plan, through which EU structural funding for the programme is channelled and in respect of which my Department gives a progress report on a biannual basis; the NESF project team on early childhood care and education; the national women's strategy; the senior officials group on social inclusion and children, which is chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach; the Department of Social and Family Affairs commission on the family; the national anti-poverty strategy; the FÁS competency development programme; the National Council for Curriculum Assessment consultative committee for early years; the Centre for Early Childhood Care and Education consultative forum; cross-departmental committees under Sustaining Progress; the review group on capital tax allowances; the review group on the Child Care (Pre-School Services) Regulations.
Policy for child care provision in Ireland is at an important watershed and it is crucial that a long-term outlook is adopted on a critical issue for parents and children, as well as an important strategic issue for the country as a whole. My Department has been at the forefront of these developments through the EOCP and through the range of working groups in which it participates, and I hope to continue this role and its valuable contribution to future Government policy on child care.
I did not get an answer to my question on the committees and review groups of child care on which the Department is represented. While I know how great the equal opportunities childcare programme is from other replies from the Department, it was not what I sought in this question. I acknowledge the great work it has done.
An official from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform stated to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights that responsibility for child care and early childhood education should reside in one Department instead of being divided between various ones. Does the Minister agree with this? Without detracting from the work done by people in the Department, child care seems to go between pillar to post. Does the Minister agree there should be a Minister for Children and all matters surrounding child care should come under one Department?
I agree with the Deputy that it is strange that child care policy is located in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The reasons were explained to the Deputy by my officials who attended the committee meeting. I agree with the Deputy that in a reorganisation of Government, it might well be appropriate to put it into a single social affairs or child-orientated Department. That is not to say the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform should not have a focus on young people as well, but Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, has special responsibility for children and this activity could be located in a different Department if the machinery of Government were reorganised. That is not to detract from the huge amount of work that has been done by the people in the Department, in somewhat unlikely circumstances, to bring about one of the great successes of recent years. I am not territorial about this and if there is a better place to locate this activity and thereby achieve synergy with other State agencies, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform will not be selfish but co-operate.
It seems incongruous for child care to be dealt with by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform but the assistant secretary in the Department ably outlined the background to it and the fact that the justice umbrella meant EU funding was available. I understand that will end in the next year or so.
I gather there is no great queue of applicants to take over the child care brief. The Minister might find it helpful if he recommended either the Department of Health and Children or the Department of Education and Science. Perhaps the first few years could be dealt under the health portfolio and pre-school years under education. It will have to be decided soon because the justice input to the portfolio will decrease.
As long as it is our responsibility to discharge it, we will continue to do so as well as we have done to date. The Deputy asked whether there was a queue of Departments which thought it would fit neatly into their own administrative structures or areas of responsibility. I do not think there is but I believe any prospective Minister would find it attractive to have the brief in his or her portfolio because when one is weighed down with the burden of crime, prisons, courts and policing it is wonderful to get involved in one of the more constructive areas of political activity and see the changes that can be made to the lives of people who need State intervention.