Tuesday, 12 June 2012
Child Care Services
Question 115: To ask the Minister for Social Protection the outcome of discussions between her Department and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs on the provision of childcare promised by her in the context of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2012. [28041/12]
The number of recipients of one-parent family payment, OFP, stood at 89,905 on 2 June 2012. This year, the cost of the OFP scheme is estimated at €1.06 billion, and child benefit payments to such families cost approximately a further €246 million. Between now and 2015, the consequences of the changes to the OFP scheme, as outlined in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012, will be examined on a cross-departmental basis in order to ensure that the required service levels are in place to support lone parents as their youngest children reach the relevant age thresholds. As part of this examination, discussions are taking place between officials from the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs - which is the lead Department on child care policy and provision - and the Department of Education and Skills with regard to the development of a policy framework for school-age child care. An interdepartmental group, chaired by my Department and comprising representatives from both the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Education and Skills, was recently established and is assessing the requirement for and provision of school-age child care, focusing initially on the needs of lone parents.
I do not know why the figure for child benefit was mentioned at all because the same amount is applied to both one-parent families and families of other configurations. A couple of months ago we dealt with the Government's Social Welfare and Pensions Bill, which provided for a reduction in the cut-off age of children for one-parent family payments to seven years. At the eleventh hour and under immense pressure, the Minister promised not to introduce the provision in the absence of a bankable commitment on child care. At the time, we asked what that bankable commitment was, and now, as the Bill has started to take effect, I ask this once again. Has the Minister prepared or is she drafting legislation to repeal those changes in the event that this commitment is not delivered? We talked earlier about CE schemes and the debate on whether existing child care facilities will be able to survive given recent changes. These are my key questions: what is the bankable commitment on child care, and what will happen at the end of the year?
Some €1 billion has been invested over the last decade in developing a child care infrastructure under the national child care investment programme and, prior to that, the equal opportunities child care programme, which was co-funded by the European Union. The early childhood care and education programme, ECCE, is open to all children aged between three years and three months and four years and six months in September of each year, with a fee paid to child care providers in respect of each child. There are some 61,000 places being provided under the ECCE programme, 17,000 by community providers and 44,000 by private providers. The community child care subvention programme funds some 1,000 community-based non-profit child care facilities nationwide to enable them to charge reduced child care fees to disadvantaged and low-income families that avail of their services. Parents in receipt of social welfare income support are subsidised. The child care education and training scheme is implemented by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs on behalf of FÁS and the VECs, and child care places under this programme are capped at 2,800. There is also an after-school care programme in which more than 15,000 places are available.
We already know what exists. The Minister and everybody in the House have accepted that what exists is not adequate. The question is this: what will be the increased provision at the end of this year, given that the Minister said in the House that there would be a bankable commitment because of these changes? What is the increased provision for this year, next year and the following year? If there is none, has she made preparations to repeal the legislation?
I have always been strongly committed to the provision of child care and, in this case, the provision not just of preschool care during school hours but after-school care as well. It is important that we have ambitious targets for Ireland. Models exist in other countries; during the passage of the legislation we had a discussion about how other countries dealt with lone parent issues. For example, in Northern Ireland, where the Deputy's party is in government, the cut-off age has been seven for a long time. In several years, we will establish the same cut-off age in the Republic. The Deputy does not seem to have a problem with the cut-off age of seven North of the Border.
-----even though payments made to families with children here are far higher than those to similar families in the North. When the Deputy is commenting on the Republic, he should perhaps acknowledge what his own party is involved in just 90 miles north of here.
We have set up an interdepartmental group, which has already started its work, to consider the additional provision required. The changes to which the Deputy refers come into effect from 2015.