Dáil debates

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Adjournment Debate

Child Care Services.

11:00 am

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Longford-Roscommon, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Acting Chairman and I want to thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for providing me with the opportunity to raise this important matter.

The Kilronan parent and toddler group is currently in dire financial difficulty due to the uncertainty regarding the payment of a staffing grant under the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme 2000-06. The group which has been in existence since March 2000, is largely run by volunteers. Members of the current committee all have children attending playschool and they receive no monetary reward for the hours they spend running the school. The current committee took over the running of the facility in July 2005 following an 18-month closure, and must not be judged on anything that happened prior to that date. It has run the facility since then without any funding on the generosity of the small, local, mainly rural, community.

The group has been in a school premises on which it has paid no rent as the income from fees goes towards the paying of staff. This in turn has a knock-on effect on the running of the adjoining primary school. The income is reduced as the group is not paying the agreed rent throughout the year.

After a long and protracted period the group received re-approval under the EOCP for €25,000 to provide a playground at the playschool, and I want to acknowledge and thank the Minister and the Department officials for sanctioning this funding. However, while it was successful in securing funding for the playground, the group has been refused a staffing grant which is now critical to the survival of the playschool.

What makes the current crisis so illogical, is that without staff, the playground will be redundant, and State funds will have been provided without children to utilise the new facility. The group now finds itself in the position that if it cannot secure a decision on the staffing grant, it will be forced to permanently close the playschool at Easter. It cannot keep up the fundraising efforts if it does not know whether there is a future for the playschool, and without a staffing grant, there is no future. The decision affects the 12 children at present using the playschool and a further pupil scheduled to start after Easter, as well as the two staff currently employed there.

It will also have an effect on a further 13 children to whom it was hoped to offer a second session in September, not to mention the parents of those who use the facility to avail of training and employment, and the children of St. Patrick's, the adjoining primary school. Since this particular committee took over the running of the playschool it has had only one late quarterly financial return for July-September 2006. The July-September return was a few weeks late as members of the committee had no previous experience with such returns. They had to make an appointment to see an accountant who explained what was required so that they could complete the returns.

This committee has given a commitment that it is willing to stay with the playschool voluntarily for the next three to five years. With almost two years experience running the school, paying PRSI, dealing with fire safety, insurance, HSE officials and knowledge of quarterly returns, it can ensure that all requirements set down by the Department are met. The programme appraisal committee and the Department are forcing the facility to close and I earnestly request that this vital service is maintained in this disadvantaged community, where it means so much.

Tim O'Malley (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Limerick East, Progressive Democrats)
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I am taking the Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney.

To respond to Deputy Naughten, it is first necessary to give a brief explanation of the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme 2000-2006 and the National Childcare Investment Programme 2006-2010 for which the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, is responsible.

An Agreed Programme for Government, the progress of the EOCP and the NCIP are confirmation of the Government's commitment to developing child care services to support the child care needs of parents, with a particular emphasis on those who may be in employment, or education or training to prepare for employment. The EOCP has both an equal opportunities and a social inclusion perspective and aims to increase the supply of centre-based child care places by 55%, or 31,300 places, by programme end. This target has been exceeded, with some 34,000 additional places already created by the programme.

In order to build on the success of the EOCP, the Government introduced the NCIP to cover the period 2006-10. This programme will build on the success of the EOCP and incorporates a number of key objectives. It will increase the supply and quality of early childhood care and education services across the board. It will support families in breaking the cycle of disadvantage and provide a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of child care that is centred on the needs of the child.

The decision of the Government to create a major new investment programme immediately, rather than wait until the previous programme had expired, is evidence of its commitment to drive progress in the area of child care. The NCIP 2006-10 has a funding allocation of €575 million and aims to create an additional 50,000 new child care places. It is expected that approximately 22,000 of these places will be in the private sector and 28,000 in the community not-for-profit sector. Some 20% of the overall places will be for children in the three to four age group and will provide an early childhood care and education focus.

When taken with the other child care related measures introduced by this Government, such as increases in paid and unpaid maternity leave, the introduction of the early childhood supplement worth €1,000 per year per child under six, and tax relief for childminders, no one can doubt that it is giving this issue the priority it deserves.

I turn now to the group in question. Deputy Naughten may be aware that the Kilronan parent, toddler and playschool group was approved €25,554 in capital grant assistance under the EOCP in March 2002 as a contribution towards the capital costs of the project.

From November 2000 to date, the group has been approved staffing grants under EOCP totalling some €85,000. Recently the group requested additional funding towards the staffing costs of the service. However, the Secretary General agreed with the recommendation of the programme appraisal committee that the application should be declined on this occasion as the group had not met the reporting requirements of previous funding which had been approved and, therefore, had not sufficiently demonstrated its capacity to implement the requirements attaching to further funding.

The Kilronan parent, toddler and playschool group appealed this decision to the child care directorate of my office on 7 February 2007, and all details were forwarded to Pobal which oversees the day-to-day management of the programmes, for an assessment which will be considered by the programme appraisal committee in due course. That committee will make its recommendation to the Secretary General who in turn will make the final decision — and the group will be informed of the decision.

Many child care services throughout Roscommon have benefited from grant assistance under the EOCP and the NCIP. To date, funding of over €9 million has been approved for child care in Roscommon, which is supporting the creation of over 748 new child care places and over 714 existing places throughout the county. It is only fair to emphasise that the EOCP has been central to the recent development of child care services in Ireland and with its successor, the NCIP, will continue to flourish under the careful stewardship of this Government.