Dáil debates

Thursday, 6 April 2006

Adjournment Debate.

Child Care Services.

3:00 am

Photo of Dan NevilleDan Neville (Limerick West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing me to bring this issue before the House and I thank, in anticipation, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform with responsibility for children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, for taking the matter.

I raise an issue pertaining to community child care groups which have been allocated large-scale capital funding under the equal opportunities child care programme. The groups to which I refer are located in west Limerick and are based in Kilcolman, Newcastle West, Broadford and Rathkeale. These groups must be in a position to sign contracts with Pobal within a 12 month period and the timeframe ranges from June to November 2006. However, each group must meet specific pre-contract requirements to be in a position to draw down funding, including a revised capital work plan that demonstrates how the project can be achieved with the approved funding. The principal obstacle for these groups is that they received approvals for significantly smaller budgets than those for which they applied.

Between December 2004 and December 2005, the four community groups, all based in west Limerick, have been allocated funding. As I have stated, each project received approval for significantly less than was required. Thus, St. Colman's Childcare Service, Kilcolman, received approval for €1.1 million, whereas the required total comes to almost €1.4 million. The Desmond Complex Ability Resource Centre, Newcastle West, received approval for €1 million, while its original budget was for €1.8 million. Broadford Voluntary Housing Committee, Broadford, received approval for €1 million, while its original budget was €2.13 million, and Rathkeale Childcare Limited, Rathkeale, was allocated €1.4 million, whereas its original budget was almost €2.9 million.

Pobal, which was previously known as ADM, has advised each group that it should be able to implement its project at a cost of €20,000 per child care place without reducing the number of child care places originally targeted. Pobal argues that other community groups have been able to develop child care services for a cost of €20,000 per child care place. However, examples given by Pobal are not comparable to the projects in question as they all received some additional support, such as, having a site purchased and developed by the county council, already owning a site or receiving other funding. However, this is not the case for the groups in question.

In recent months, the groups have worked on their architectural plans and their costings in order to meet the funding requirements. Only one group, namely, the Desmond Complex Ability Resource Centre crèche, is in a position to proceed with its project at present. This is mainly due to the fact that the child care project is part of a larger project and costs have been reduced. For instance, its site purchase and development costs are significantly lower than for a stand-alone child care project.

The groups have met County Limerick Childcare Committee and its partner agencies and have agreed to explore how costs may be cut. However, they have also made the case to Pobal and to the Office of the Minister for Children for additional funding to make up the shortfall. I also make that case today.

All four applications, including architectural plans, were submitted between December 2002 and December 2003. No consideration has been given to the subsequent rise in site and building costs. The groups waited for almost three years for their applications to be processed by Pobal and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

County Limerick Childcare Committee can find no example of a group that has developed a child care project for €20,000 per child care place. When groups applied for funding, the €20,000 benchmark was not being used by Pobal or the DJELR. All four groups have already invested significantly in the development of architect plans required as part of their application. The new child care investment programme announced in December 2005 does not require architect plans for an application. An in depth needs analysis was carried out by all four groups prior to submitting applications to Pobal. One of the groups, Broadford Voluntary Housing Committee, has significant experience developing infrastructural projects, including a social housing and day-care centre, and has always delivered within budget. The EU component of the equal opportunities child care programme funding must be spent and reported by June 2007. A number of community capital projects approved but not implemented are under review by Pobal and may have their funding decommitted. This funding could be used to make these projects viable. If groups cannot proceed with projects, €4.5 million in infrastructural investment will be lost to west Limerick. The time and effort the groups have invested on a voluntary basis will be lost to a need which has been carefully researched and identified. The implementation of the four projects would have enormous benefit for the areas outlined and the west Limerick region in general.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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As Deputies are aware, I have responsibility for child care under the newly established Office of the Minister for Children. I thank Deputy Neville for raising this matter.

Deputy Neville referred to particular groups in County Limerick who were approved capital grant assistance under the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme 2000-2006. The programme has both an equal opportunities and social inclusion perspective. It aims to increase the supply of centre-based child care places by 55%, or 31,300 additional places, by the end of the programme. Current forecasts of impact suggest that it will ultimately create at least 40,000 new child care places, of which more than 26,000 are already in place. The allocation for the equal opportunities child care programme is now almost €500 million. As the Deputy is aware, the four child care projects to which he referred in his motion have been approved a total of €4.5 million in capital grant assistance.

Many child care services throughout Limerick city and county have benefited from grant assistance under the programme. To the end of December 2005, funding of more than €28 million was allocated for child care in Limerick city and county. This funding is leading to the creation of more than 1,700 new child care places and supporting almost 1,500 existing places throughout the city and county.

In the case of the community-based not-for-profit capital projects approved under the programme, the value for money criterion referred to by the Deputy which is being applied is that the maximum cost per place created should not normally exceed €20,000. Given the enormous sums being invested in child care facilities by the Government, and the ongoing and welcome development of new projects throughout the country, I am sure the Deputy will agree that there is an onus on us to ensure that value for money remains a key criterion to be used when assessing project proposals.

The four projects in question have been approved indicative amounts of funding, subject to further development of the proposals and external appraisal by a building specialist. All four groups have been in contact with and are receiving support from Limerick County Childcare Committee. They have met other groups in the area that have been approved indicative funding. I understand they are working together to reduce the costs of their projects. I further understand that Limerick County Childcare Committee has been supplied with a list of large-scale capital projects that have progressed within the €20,000 per child care place limit. There have been in excess of 200 large scale capital projects approved under the programme to date, all of which were subject to the value for money criterion. Applicants were able to provide child care places within the criterion, and in some cases for significantly less than the €20,000 maximum.

I also note that the amounts approved to the four projects in question are at the higher end of the scale in terms of large-scale capital grants approved, varying from €1 million to €1.4 million. Only 24 groups nationally have been approved a capital grant in the region of €1.4 million or more. Deputies will appreciate that if the benefits of the programme are to be felt throughout the country, it is important that funding is not concentrated on a small number of projects and that a national and regional spread of approvals is achieved to meet local needs.

I understand that one of the groups in question is in a position to proceed soon. I hope the current contacts with Pobal will allow the groups to agree revised plans in the not too distant future. It is open to any group to formally appeal the level of funding approved. However, I am not aware that any of the groups in question has done so to date. I hope contact will be maintained with Pobal to ensure these projects become sustainable.

It is only fair to emphasise that the child care programme has been central to the development of child care in Ireland. I expect the new national child care investment programme, which will run from 2006 to 2010, and which was announced in this House by the Minister, Deputy Cowen, in his Budget Statement last December, will be equally effective.

The Government is taking a serious and long-term approach to child care by developing sound policies and substantial programmes of investment which will ensure the future welfare of our children and assist their parents in their daily lives. The Government has fully demonstrated its commitment in this regard and it is my intention to demonstrate my personal commitment to these issues during my term as Minister with responsibility for children.

The two Senators from the west Limerick area raised the matter in the Seanad this afternoon. Deputy Cregan has also raised the matter with me. I will examine it to see how progress can be made.