Tuesday, 17 December 2013
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Child Care Costs
70. To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps she will now take in order to help ensure the affordability of childcare across the board in view of the details exposed in the recently published Indecon report commissioned by the Donegal County Childcare Committee; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [54030/13]
I seek from the Minister a reaction to the content of the Indecon report commissioned by the County Donegal Childcare Committee, with which the Minister is familiar, as she launched the report.
I launched the report and quite a number of Deputies attended the launch. I welcome the work being done by the County Donegal Childcare Committee. I asked Indecon to take a sample of the costs of child care for parents in Ireland and to make suggestions on how we could deal with that. The report focused on the difficulties being experienced by parents in meeting the costs of child care, particularly those in low paid employment. It emphasised the issue of affordable child care for working parents. It is a concern for all of us, given that the tendency in Ireland over the years has been to give direct cash payments to parents rather than building up an affordable and accessible child care system.
However, we have made some progress, as the Deputy knows, in this regard. In response to the report, I have stated that I will examine the recommendations. There are two recommendations in particular, one of which is a possible tweaking of family income supplement in order to support working parents. There would be many implications in that for the tax and welfare system and there is the issue of a poverty trap. I have indicated that I will examine both recommendations in the report. I have also announced that I will review the two schemes we have now - child education and training support and the community child care subvention - examine the criteria currently being used and see if there is a better way of organising the services.
Primarily, we are maintaining the free preschool year at a cost of €175 million, and I have stated repeatedly that it is my intention to move towards a second free year as soon as finances allow. The troika has departed and we have a new medium-term economic framework, and I see it as a priority area, as resources permit, to make the early intervention in supporting parents and providing child care. I will certainly make that case.
The Indecon report must be welcomed and I commend the initiative by the Donegal county child care committee. The report, entitled Supporting Working Families: Releasing a Brake on Economic Growth, confirmed what many of us recognise to be the reality, which is that high child care costs are putting a quarter of parents off returning to the workplace or looking for an opportunity to commence employment, with most low-income families finding the cost absolutely impossible to meet. The report indicates that a two-child family faces an annual bill of €16,500 for full-time child care, with the average full-time cost over a ten-month period at €9,150 for one child and €16,470 for two children. This places Ireland at the second highest point across all OECD member countries. Consideration of the recommendations is critical and this is a major issue. We must establish what steps are now being proposed by the Minister.
I have heard the Minister's reply, but what discussions have taken place in the Department or with other Departments and Ministers on the findings of the Indecon report? It should be recognised that the report recommends that targeted child care initiatives should focus on lower-income families with members who are either in employment or currently unemployed but anxious to secure employment. That should be done among several other initiatives. We are losing the services of a quarter of potential workers because of the prohibitive cost of child care.
I am reviewing the two schemes we have, and that will be done in 2014. Budgetary decisions were made on supporting the preschool quality agenda, and improving the quality of services in early years is very important. We discussed previously how training and mentoring are a crucial part of working towards the extension of child care, and we want any child care available to be of high quality and high standards.
There have been a large number of inquiries about and significant take-up of the training currently being made available by UCI, and that will no doubt grow next year. That will make a difference to quality and will ensure that parents can have more confidence in services, with children doing better as we train more staff and provide mentoring to those staff. This is building to what the Deputy speaks about, which is a service that is more available. Ultimately, if we are to subsidise child care it will cost money, and we must find the resources in order to develop the sector. There will be a review of the two schemes and the maintenance of the free preschool year. We will also build up training and work towards a second free preschool year, and that is the approach I have discussed with Cabinet colleagues. I will also examine the particular recommendations of the Indecon report and I will ask the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, to consider them as well.
I welcome the Minister's elaboration on her initial reply, as it is critical that other Departments are engaged.
Indecon believes that a child care amendment to the current family income supplement would be a good policy initiative to encourage unemployed parents back into employment and to assist lower-income parents to remain in employment. It makes the case that any labour market policy initiatives should consider the current employment status of the targeted groups. It also points out that employment-focused child care policy initiatives should be aimed at either encouraging parents to enter the labour market or increasing their working status from part time to full time. These are specific areas of recommendation and the report is most helpful in that regard.
Indecon also strongly recommends that beneficiaries of the incentive should be restricted to tax-compliant and HSE-registered child care providers. It also makes the point, on which I would strongly reflect, that whatever steps are now to be taken in this hugely important area, there must to be monitoring, evaluation and assessment of their impact. After a period of three years a detailed report should be prepared in order to give the full facts as to the success or otherwise of the initiatives involved.
There is a debate between what is in the Indecon report and the particular recommendations it makes and, for example, Start Strong. That emerged at the launch, at which many people favoured continuing with the universal approach and introducing a second year as a universal measure. It is worth noting the success of that first year, as the Growing Up in Ireland study, published last week, showed for the first time that young children who had been in the free preschool year had made an extremely good transition into primary school. We have very good evidence on the universal approach, but it might be possible to consider some initiatives such as those that have been recommended by Indecon. A second free preschool year would require considerable additional funding, but as the economic situation improves our children are our greatest resource. Early intervention must be a byword. We ought to look towards building up as many supports as we can, not least because it is an economic imperative that parents should be able to combine work and family life and should have the kind of child care services they need. I will continue to work towards that. The building block is training. As Deputy Ó Caoláin will acknowledge, that has been put into the budget this year and it will mean that by this time next year we will be in a considerably different place in terms of the number of people who are trained to FETAC levels 5 and 6. With the mentoring programme we should be able to move towards more of a career structure for those who are in child care, because that has been missing.